One thing I look forward to every year in mid-June is the Vision Fest, a weeklong celebration of improvised music they’re referring to as “AvantJazz”, poetry, and visual art.

This year’s Vision Festival (number 19) kicked off on June 11th at Roulette in Brooklyn with the spotlight on multi-instrumentalist Charles Gayle, one of this year’s recipient of the lifetime achievement award organizer Arts for Art presents to selected artists at the Fest.

If you didn’t catch the June 8th Suga’ in My Bowl show with Joyce Jones’s interview with Gayle and Patricia Nicholson Parker, it’s worth checking out. Parker runs down some important history of Vision and its evolution over the years, including its struggle to survive as an independent institution free from corporate sponsorship. Gayle, who’s a man of few words and extreme humility, talks about his work and approach to music. (you can hear a short preview of the show below.)

Last night, Gayle took the stage with drummer Michael T.A. Thompson for the first set dressed as his alter-ego “Streets”, and playing upright bass. The set gradually grew in intensity with Gayle and Thompson playing off each other.

William Parker (b) and Charles Gayle (sax) at Vision Fest 19.| Joyce Jones Photo.

William Parker (b) and Charles Gayle (sax) at Vision Fest 19.| Joyce Jones Photo.

Gayle played the most of the night as “Streets”, his Chaplin-esque alter ego in clown makeup. Gayle explains in a Village Voice interview that he took on that stage persona to free himself from some of the constraints he saw and allow him more space as an artist, feeling that he could be more expressive in costume. Don’t be confused, though: Gayle’s playing is no joke and he takes the music so seriously that he is probably harder on himself than the average critic would be. He walked away from a teaching position at SUNY Buffalo, for example, because too many of the students he dealt with couldn’t put in the voluminous amount of time practicing that he did and he didn’t feel that he could bring out their best without that high level of commitment. Thus Gayle eased himself away from what’s become an important income source for many working artists these days.

Charles_Gayle_Piano_Vis19Gayle then switched to piano for the rest of the set, playing in an angular, percussive style reminiscent of Cecil Taylor. For the final part of the opening set, dancers Patricia Nicholson Parker and Miriam Parker joined Gayle onstage along with Daniel Carter on trumpet and saxophone.

WKCR Radio’s Ben Young emceed the evening and was on hand to reflect on Gayle’s legacy. Young compared Gayle to the main character in the Bernard Malamud story “The Natural”: someone who is in the game for the purity of it. As journalists, Young pointed out, “we always wanted to put a brand identity on” Gayle’s work and “make a marketing plan”, but Gayle has resisted such efforts, partly as a result of his own humility; partly in an effort to resist outside pressure on his musical creativity.

Young also reflected on past shows at disappeared venues such as the Knitting Factory and other disappeared NYC venues where Gayle honed his craft.

Gayle’s second set was a quartet with bassist William Parker, drummer Michael Wimberly, and pianist Dave Burrell with Gayle on tenor saxophone.

Quincy Troupe reads on opening night of Vision Fest 19 | Joyce Jones photo.

Quincy Troupe reads on opening night of Vision Fest 19 | Joyce Jones photo.

Poet and writer Quincy Troupe (also known for collaborating with Miles Davis on his autobiography) had a short set all to himself. Some of his readings were dedicated to the late Amiri Baraka, whose been a fixture at Vision, reading poetry either by himself or with wife (and fellow poet Amina) and their Blue Ark jazz ensemble or participating in discussions around the culture and politics. Troupe recalled meeting Baraka in the late 1960s in Los Angeles and being surprised that Baraka knew his work. “A lot of people didn’t like [Amiri] because he told the truth [and] people don’t like truth tellers. But that’s what poets are supposed to do”, Troupe reflected. Troupe read Baraka’s poem “Wise 1 as a salute.

From his own work, Troupe read an excerpt from the intro to his book Miles and Me on the poetry of Miles’s music. Troupe finished his set with a poem on Duke Ellington and one dedicated to the late vocalist Leon Thomas.

Final set on Vision 19's opening night. | Joyce Jones photo.

Final set on Vision 19’s opening night. | Joyce Jones photo.

The night’s closing set featured Gayle returning on piano and conduction and a number of musicians joined him in the type of freewheeling jam Vision is known for: Andrew Cyrille (percussion), Shayna Dulberger (upright bass), Ted Daniels (trumpet), former Vision lifetime honoree Kidd Jordan (tenor sax), Steve Swell (trombone), Mazz Swift (violin), Nioka Workman on cello, Jason Kao Hwang (violin), and Ingrid Laubrock (tenor sax).

Thursday evening’s line-up includes another Vision regular, poet Steve Dalachinsky, who’ll also be paying tribute to Baraka; a film tribute to visual artist musicWitness® Jeff Schlanger, who’s being awarded a lifetime achievement award by Vision and whose work provides the backdrop for the sounds each year; guitarists Mary Halvorson and Susan Alcorn; and a closing set by saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, drummer Hamid Drake and bassist William Parker.

The final set is one to look forward to and looks to be one of the highlights of the week. Brötzmann’s frenetic, rapid-fire sax playing is serious and he doesn’t get to the US very often. In combination with Parker and Drake, it’s likely to be a set to remember.

Are you there this week? Share your thoughts in the comments.

All photos courtesy of Joyce Jones and used with permission. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.

Joyce Jones is producer and host for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and a graphic artist.