Saxophonist John Tchicai’s life might be viewed as an example of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. Jazz was born in the United States when the descendants of African natives were confronted by the instruments and harmonies of European music. By brushing that music against the grain they found the blue notes between the well-tempered notes, the rhythmic swing that hovered uncertainly, mysteriously, doubtfully around the strict metrical structures. The Middle Passage was both disruptive and quickening so that “nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.”
Tchicai’s is that story in microcosm. His father left his native Congo for Europe, where he met and married a Danish woman, John’s mother. John was born in 1936 in Copenhagen and grew up in Denmark’s second city, Argus. He studied violin at the age of 10, switching to clarinet and alto sax at 16. Ten years later, he met American free jazz tenor saxophonist Archie Shep while appearing at festivals in Helsinki. He soon moved to New York and began working with Shep and trumpeter Don Cherry in a group they co-founded in 1963, the New York Contemporary Five. The following year he co-founded the New York Art Quartet, another key avant-garde ensemble, with trombonist Roswell Rudd and drummer Milford Graves. In the same year, he was a founding member of the Jazz Composers Guild along with such luminaries as Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Carla Belie and Shep.
These were heady times for jazz with new voices and new ideas erupting constantly, a media frenzy around the concept of free jazz and a torrent of fresh albums. Besides his records with Shepp, Cherry and Rudd, he also recorded with Carla Bley and Albert Ayler. All of this hectic activity led to his biggest break when John Coltrane invited him to participate in the recording of Ascension in 1965, a benchmark album featuring eleven players of the new music playing both free solos as well as free, energy-drenched ensembles. Tchicai, in company with such giants and future giants as Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, Shepp, Marion Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Pharaoh Sanders, acquitted himself brilliantly on this seminal album.
The following year he returned to Denmark, and most jazz fans lost sight of him. Tchicai, though, is a survivor. He continued to work with and inspire other European musicians; taught in elementary schools, gave private lessons and master classes; performed around the world and recorded with such musicians as the South African bassist Johnny Dyani and Pierre Dørge’s Ellington-inspired New Jungle Orchestra. He also began to meditate, studying hatha yoga and pranayama. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he began playing bamboo flutes, percussion, bass clarinet and especially soprano saxophone. By the early Eighties, the tenor sax became his main axe.
Luckily for us Californians, he began to spend part of the year in the Davis area around 1991 teaching in schools and prisons, composing, recording and founding new ensembles. He was a California Artist-in-Residence in 1996-97 and in 1997 was awarded an NEA fellowship for composition. If you listen to his albums or catch him in live performance now, you may be surprised if you are expecting something like Ascension. Of course, his music is grounded in the concepts of freedom that came out of the early ‘60s, but there is always an informing mind that shapes and structures the music; a sense of variety in tempo, texture and mood; an ability to build dramatically; and a lyrical, even poetic tone that reflects his interest in other artistic disciplines. Like the great American creators of jazz, Tchicai has found that interior space in which to be free both within himself and within the music.