Categorizing John Zorn is next to impossible, as many of his friends know. Celebrated cellist Fred Sherry dubs him "a big subject: friend, composer, wild man, confidante, connoisseur, dreamer, idealist. One cannot categorize Zorn, as he can be an angel or a devil, a refined conversationalist or a provocateur, but always ready to understand the situation in which he finds himself." A celebrated improviser, experimenter, and genre-jumping producer, Zorn has become an icon of the New York downtown jazz and new music scenes, both for his own music and for the culture he's helped foster through his label Tzadik, his venue, the Stone, and his Arcana series of music books. But as a mentor and friend, he's welcomed new voices into his musical and spiritual communities, both in the US and overseas. In celebration of the 60th anniversary of Zorn's birth--and in advance of the Walker Art Center's April 6 birthday music marathon with Zorn--we asked 60 writers, poets, musicians, and thinkers to weigh in on Zorn--his innovations, impact, and legacy. Among those contributing reflections and birthday wishes are vocalist/composer Meredith Monk, visual artist Yoko Ono, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, composer Terry Riley, and many others. Here are a few excerpts from part one and part two of our series.
John is such a magnificent person, musician, composer, impresario, and friend. Plus a skilled texter, improvisor, collaborator, networker, and gourmet. Also arranger, visual artist, and film expert. Plus matchmaker. (He introduced me to my husband.) He knows a lot of people and loves them for who they are. John is one of the shining human beings. Plus I love him dearly. Also John taught me to improvise. I couldn't imagine venturing out onto a stage with no clue about what the first sound might be. He taught me confidence and the skill of building a big live musical structure and then how to move it around, rotate it, dissolve it. John is fearless. Dismissive of pompous authority. Able to suffer and share suffering. (Such a rare skill!) Ready to celebrate, party. Happy birthday, dear John.
Laurie Anderson is a musician, composer, and performance artist.
I first heard John Zorn in the late '70s when he came to my hometown of Los Angeles as part of a duo tour he was doing with guitarist Eugene Chadbourne. They played two nights at the Century City Playhouse. Zorn was instantly memorable with long hair pulled randomly into an almost-ponytail, glasses barely on his nose, football jersey, and cutoffs; his alto and curved soprano saxophones strapped on simultaneously around his neck and his clarinet held mostly between his scrawny legs. Impressively, I heard that they were touring on Greyhound buses with no change of clothes. I mention this because as the years progressed and I kept track of John as he started his gamesmanship pieces, put on concerts all over lower Manhattan, worked at SoHo Music Gallery, mounted tributes to some of his favorite jazz and film composers, etc., etc., he has, in my mind, always been as gonzo as that Greyhound tour. He is amazingly disciplined, thorough, iconoclastic, prolific, uncompromising--an artist through and through. He is also a generous, community-minded fellow, though that side of him seems to be kept more on the QT. His introductions to the Arcana series of essays by "musicians on music" that he edits say much about this side of him--and about not just his musical concerns, but also his humanistic and spiritual ones. I guess I could have made this more succinct by just saying that John Zorn is a damn genius.
Nels Cline is a guitarist and composer (Wilco, Quartet Music, Nels Cline Trio, Geraldine Fibbers).
Wow. So much history. I don't know where to begin. MUSIC. One thing leads to another. Early '80's. New York. Paul Motian introduced me to Tim Berne. Tim introduced me to Zorn at the SoHo Music Gallery (the great record shop, long gone, where they both worked). I'd heard of him... saxophone player... but had not heard his music. I didn't know what I was in for.
Came into the store looking for African music. He recommended Ebenezer Obey. I thought he was some extreme scholar nerd specializing in this one area of African music. Soon realized he knew every record in the place.
Then I heard HIS music. Whoa! It changed the way I think. A door opened--one I never knew was there. John welcomed me in. Another world. Extraordinary. Incredible stuff in there. New people. New friends. New ways of thinking-doing... learning. It was fun and intense and wonderful. Loud, soft, big, and small. Track and Field, Cobra, Wayne and Robin [Horvitz and Holcomb], duck calls, The Big Gundown, BAM, Nonesuch, Spillane, Godard, Stephanie and Irving Stone, "Hard Plains Drifter" or, as the noose grows tight, the incredible events of the past three decades flash before my eyes: The Saint, Roulette, Arto Lindsay, Ikue, Hu Die, Fred Frith, Chandelier, Naked City, 8BC, Mike Patton, Radio City Music Hall recording studio, Walter Sear's recording studio and his films on "film" not video, John Patton, Walker Art Center, Europe, Thomas Stöwsand, Japan, Eye, naked stage divers (literally) in Lake Geneva, George Lewis, Brazil, Claudia Engelhart, Town Hall, Marquis de Sade in Paris (THAT was somethin'!), Quine, The Theater of Musical Optics, Steve Beresford walking on the piano, middle of the night walking from one end of Paris to the other, Charles Bukowski, Eiffel Tower, Bill Laswell, Milford Graves, Masada Guitars, Silent Comedy, Gnostic Preludes, hard-ass music, walking, talking, good food, lost in Tokyo subway, REALLY good food, good times. We've been all over the place. It's still going on. Thank you, John. Happy birthday.
Bill Frisell is a guitarist, composer, and arranger.
I always enjoy working with John Zorn. We seem to click in the sweetest way. Now I found that he is a connoisseur of Unica Zürn--and he loves French fries! A lovely combination of things that makes him John.
Yoko Ono is a visual artist, musician, composer, and peace activist.
My irreplaceable Sufi brother in the current of sound, you are the mighty tide that lifts all boats. You are the kick-ass dude that keeps things right. I want to say straight, but your path is an endless curve, that describes the world from Boogie to Nada Brahman. You show the possibilities of our Meat-Wheel endeavors, blast gravity to bits, rocket us out there to your kaleidoscopic landscapes. I know it is hard work keeping your head above water while the Universe thrusts the endless stream of masterpieces through your being, but you make it look easy. Thank you for your million inspirations. Thank you for your band of crazy angels that complete the vision. Thank you for your awesome support that props up the young ducks and old Ustads. Thank you for the incredible blueprint of how to navigate 60 meaningful years. Thank you for the tears that come to my eyes when I hear Erik Friedlander play "Harhazial."
Terry Riley is a composer and pioneer of the minimalist music movement.
By a miracle of disasters, many of the tenement buildings on the Lower East Side were abandoned in the '80s and many buildings were sold to people for a nominal fee. This enabled many people, who otherwise would not have been in a position to consider owning apartments, to acquire them and have the stability of a community; which meant that it turned out that many of what would be considered the radical musicians of my generation have been able to live in proximity to one another in the East Village for the past 30 years. So it is quite often that when I leave my house and walk down the street I see John Zorn going about his life and I am reminded of his rich contribution to the neighborhood, his support of other musicians through the Stone and other avenues, and his generosity to younger musicians. Happy birthday, John.
Kiki Smith is a contemporary visual artist.