Veteran jazz improvisor Bill Cole will be joined by Taylor Ho Bynum, director of Dartmouth’s Coast Jazz Orchestra and Ras Moshe, saxophonist, educator and organizer, in a series of informal front porch concerts at the Cole residence on Tucker Hill Road. (Dates to be announced.) The series started in 2020 and was Bill’s brainchild, an offering of respite from the pandemic in the form of outdoor, socially distanced entertainment.
Those who are unfamiliar with Bill’s music may experience a stretching of their concept of “music.” As Bill explains, his free-form playing is about “sound” and not musical notes laid out on a page. While he does compose musical lines, it is only to provide a departure point for improvisation. And it is not all plain sailing for performer or listener. Successful improvisation in a trio combines a deep and unwavering attention to the other players with on-the-fly invention and execution. For the listener, once they are immersed, the experience is one of watching three artists painting together with sound. Each instrument inhabits a different part of the spectrum; the notes, like brushstrokes, take various shapes and textures, from broad and smooth to jagged and sharp, bright or pastel. As each artist gives and takes from the others, notes come together cohesively, tumble into chaos, then return to fluidity. Every performed piece is unique.
Bill’s path in the music world was also unique. As a small boy in 1940s Pittsburgh, he sang along with his mother as she went about her housecleaning, a chore that never ended thanks to the nearby steel mill that spewed soot and dust across the neighborhood. She sang melody, and he spontaneously harmonized. He took piano and later cello, although economic circumstances forced him to abandon music study and sell his instrument. After years of being a community organizer, he found his way into a graduate program in music at Wesleyan. His adviser, Clifford Thornton, played trumpet and valve trombone and a wind instrument from India called a shenai, a double-reeded temple instrument resembling an oboe. Thornton gave Bill two eastern instruments, a double-reeded Chinese suona and a Korean hojok, with the charge that he learn how to play them. But he gave no instruction. Bill would watch Thornton practice on the shenai for hours, which constituted his only schooling.
Double-reed instruments are notoriously temperamental and difficult to play. However Bill was enthralled by their unconventional sound that was shrill, penetrating and dissonant to the western ear. Although he practiced on them intensively, he never attempted to duplicate the associated musical traditions. He felt it would be presumptuous and disrespectful to the cultures of origin, where some of the instruments had centuries-old uses, either in classical music or in temples. Traditional players in those cultures absorbed their musical heritage from birth onward. Bill’s musical heritage as an African-American was completely different. He used the suona, shenai, nagaswaram and others in the same way that African Americans picked up saxophones, tubas and trumpets and invented their own spin on how to play them.
In 1972 he spent time as a visiting professor at Whitman College, a small liberal arts school in Washington state. There he put together a small ensemble of four students and a community resident to play music that was strictly improvisational. It was, as Bill put it, “a laboratory to see if the idea would even work.” And it did.
In 1974 Bill came to Dartmouth and repeated the experiment, at first with lackluster results. The next year, however, he brought together a trio incorporating percussionist Warren Smith, saxophonist, and pianist Sam Rivers, with himself on reeded wind instruments. The result was the album “First Cycle” that had its initial pressing in 1975 and was formally released in 1980.
The only non-reeded instrument Bill improvises on is the didgeridoo. The key to the continuously sustained drone of the didgeridoo is the technique of circular breathing where a reservoir of air in the mouth is used to blow into the instrument while the player inhales through the nose. Bill had encountered jazz players who used circular breathing, but he was mystified by it. A small didgeridoo made of bamboo came his way following a performance in Albuquerque in the early 1980s. It took him until 2000 and a class on circular breathing and didgeridoo at the Open Center in NYC to really learn how to play it. Now he has a collection of didgeridoos and has taught didgeridoo and circular breathing lessons.
Even after a distinguished career as a performer and as a music professor at Dartmouth, including a stint as Chair of the Music Department from 1974-1990, Bill is modest about his abilities. He still believes there is room for improvement. To be good, or maybe excellent, at music or any professional process in the arts or sciences, one has to “stick with it for life.”
Contact Bill Cole at email@example.com if you want to stay up-to-date on Free-Form Jazz on Tucker Hill.