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Destination: Free Jazz 

Local aficionado Jeff Jackson is rewriting the avant-garde canon

Imagine a history of rock which ignores indie and hip-hop, or an art museum that deliberately omits the works of Pollock and Rauschenberg. Would you trust a film compendium that merely footnotes Anger and Buñuel? Understand these crimes of artistic omission and you'll understand why Charlotte's Jeff Jackson and New York-based fellow free jazz fan Jeff Golick began their website Destination: OUT, one of the best for outsider jazz and avant-garde music.

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Since its inception seven years ago this June, Destination: OUT has brought to light many of the lost or neglected masterpieces of free jazz, recordings Jackson characterizes as "rarer than hen's teeth."

When it began, Destination: OUT was the only Internet site where this mostly out-of-print music existed in MP3 form; much of it had never even made the digital leap from vinyl to compact disc. Back then, Jackson estimates that 80 percent of the LPs, even those on legendary jazz labels like Impulse, had the dreaded "OOP" ("out of print") designation and no official Web presence.

To Jackson and Golick, the lack of digital access was a needless shame. So, Destination: OUT, which began life as a book proposal in 2004, morphed into a website that began amassing 40,000 monthly hits from around the globe. Articles and high marks followed from across the spectrum: Wired, The New York Times and Playboy among them.

What the writers and most visitors appreciate is the site's comprehensive and open-minded approach. There's also the free music — "tastes," Jackson calls them — on offer, typically one or two tracks from LPs that are up on the site for just a few weeks. How do the labels feel about that? Destination: OUT has become the exclusive online source for digital recordings from FMP, the big Euro label which Cecil Taylor, Sam Rivers, Steve Lacy and other American titans have recorded for.

"We take a big tent approach, covering anything that falls under quality, adventurous jazz," says Jackson, 41, a published playwright and novelist who's also Charlotte Viewpoint's arts & culture editor. "Shimmering ambient soundscapes to mind-melting noise blow-outs. We love the psychedelic, electro textures of the best fusion and the funky grooves of South African jazz — plus, we're also not afraid of some straight-up beauty."

Even a cursory visit reveals a rabbit warren of post-trad jazz. In addition to a twice-monthly radio broadcast on New Jersey's seminal WFMU, you can hear music and read posts about — or from — giants like Henry Threadgill, George Lewis and Wadada Leo Smith, as well as young(er) bloods like Dave Douglas, Matthew Shipp, Mary Halvorson or Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus.

Since its niche-filling inception, Destination: OUT has been a hit with fellow-traveler musicians, collectors and long-time fans of the music. Chicago-based drummer Tim Daisy, who's played in such forward-thinking outfits as The Vandermark 5 and the Rempis Percussion and Aram Shelton quartets, says the site's rare music and in-depth interviews with many of the greats working in improvised music has been a "great source of inspiration for my own work."

But just as important to Jackson, the website has been a doorway into the music for many newcomers, too. For a genre that's often dismissed as too brainy and too esoteric, too noisy and too unstructured, emphasizing its accessibility was key to Destination: OUT's creators.

"So much of this music in the past has been sort of a secret handshake among them who know," says Jackson. "We wanted to talk about this music in a way that was fun and accessible, the way that friends would talk to each other about this music."

And that's how it began. Destination: OUT evolved in the Petri dish of New York City jazz, when Jackson and Golick worked at a publishing house and went out almost nightly to see live music. Early on, they even booked monthly shows as part of the website's purview and earned glowing write-ups in all the right New York publications. But Jackson's passion had been ignited before that, when he was a student at Duke in the late '80s and caught a Roscoe Mitchell show.

"It was so extreme that you either had to give yourself over to it and the ecstatic state it put you in, or you had to flee the room — there was no in-between," he says, comparing it to Sonic Youth's early concerts.

Yet it's Jackson's contention that much of the music at Destination: OUT is quite accessible to modern ears raised on Radiohead, Animal Collective, Sonic Youth and the Wu-Tang Clan. It's actually easier to digest, he argues, than the Kind of Blue-approved jazz canon which traditionalists insist on. Jackson's adamant about that, and though he's one of the more genial people you'll meet, the mere mention of Wynton Marsalis — and the power he wields as the self-appointed Arbiter of What Jazz Is — sets Jackson's teeth on edge.

Marsalis was the "expert" consultant on the documentary Jazz, Ken Burns' epic 19-hour history of the genre. He was the one primarily responsible for leading the naïve filmmaker to the series' demeaning and truncated treatment of any jazz made after the mid-'60s. All the late-'60s experimentation fueled by the black consciousness movement; John Coltrane's late-era spiritual investigations; Miles Davis' electric fusions; decades of fecund European experimentalists — it was all ignored or dismissed by a documentary purporting to be the final word on jazz. And it still ticks Jackson off.

"One of our things is to try and redraw the jazz canon, to say that the '70s in many ways were actually the best years for jazz," Jackson says. "Our idea of what is sonically adventurous has radically changed. People who are tastemakers for jazz have not caught up with that reality."

That's not just the view of Jackson and Golick, either. Local collector and discographer George Scala, who from 1996-2005 ran the free jazz discography site Free Jazz Research (www.mindspring.com/~scala/), concurs. In 2010, after the shock of learning Jackson was also in Charlotte, the two met and Scala's collection of super-rarities became a key cog in Destination: OUT's MP3 catalog, primarily through the "Lost Tones" tab.

"It's not like free jazz went away and people are still saying, like they did 50 years ago, 'Oh, what's that noise?'" Scala says. "A lot more people are open to it, and Jeff's done a good job of presenting it like a Free Jazz 101."

Jackson's been in Charlotte for six years now, through most of Destination: OUT's lifespan. And while you can't compare the New York jazz scene with anything except perhaps Chicago's, Jackson finds Charlotte's free jazz potential largely untapped. He's befriended local reedsman Brent Bagwell of Great Architect and Ghost Trees, and calls the saxophonist's booking and promotion of touring big names like Vandemark and Aram Shelton the equal of any New Yorker's. Scala's been a great friend to the site, too.

But Jackson's convinced Charlotte bookers should take a chance on some of the big names out there — he cited Wayne Shorter, who recently sold out in the Triangle — because the city would support "three or four big shows a year." For now, though, he's relying on Destination: OUT to build the groundswell.

"They've made that site a 'go-to' site," Scala says. "That's something, anyway."

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