"I made this joke the other night," Brent Bagwell begins. The Charlotte saxophonist is sitting at a table on the patio of Common Market's Monroe Road location, wearing a purple T-shirt with the one-word question "WHAT?" scrawled across the front in big, bold white letters. "If jazz guys are Democrats," he continues, "then free-jazz guys are Marxists."
He laughs, then points to the other end of the patio: "Like, 'Sorry everybody, we're waaaay over there.'"
Bagwell, who performs with percussionist Seth Nanaa in the free-improv jazz duo Ghost Trees, is here to talk about his upcoming jazz-and-poetry mini-series the Antidote, which runs the first three Fridays of October at Petra's in Plaza Midwood.
For the inaugural installment, on Oct. 6, Ghost Trees will open for the terrific free-jazz ensemble Ballister, featuring noted Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love, saxophonist Dave Rempis and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. In between Ghost Trees and Ballister will be a reading by local poet Justin Evans, then a solo performance from Mexico City trumpeter Jacob Wick, and then another reading by the Durham poet and National Book Awards winner Nathaniel Mackey.
"Each Friday will have the same structure," Bagwell says. "Ghost Trees will open with a brief set, and then a local poet will read, and then there's a solo performer, followed by a visiting poet and then a visiting band to close out each night."
The idea for the series came when Bagwell and his poet wife Amy decided it was high time to release jazz and poetry from their ivory towers and plop them back down into seedy bars, where both art forms got their start.
"People on the streets today are like, 'Poetry? Jazz? That's not for me.' But it's not true," Bagwell says. "These are living, breathing folk traditions that arose naturally and belong to the people. It's just that now, they've been marginalized and taken over by an academic mindset."
Amy Bagwell is equally passionate about academics not hoarding jazz and poetry. "Both forms came from the people and have been stolen from the people," she says. "And both could save your life, or at least root you to the earth when you might otherwise feel unmoored and unconnected."
The Bagwells would like for Charlotteans to understand that real, gritty jazz and poetry are not only accessible, but they remain very much alive and bleeding. "People should be able to come into a club and really feel the power of great poetry and jazz, instead of having some professor tell them that it's great art," Brent Bagwell says.
It has become almost a cliché to talk about how bad jazz in Charlotte is. The festivals here usually feature either museum-style nods to bop, or the contemporary, so-called smooth jazz played by artists in the Quiet Storm vein — that mellow, easy-listening blend of pop and R&B with mellifluous horn lines that vaguely resemble the more melodic side of Miles Davis and John Coltrane on classic albums like Kind of Blue, but without the wild improvisation that is the lifeblood of both artists' music.
My journalist and arts-activist partner Kia Moore and I have come up with an analogy: jazz in America is like peanut butter — there's the smooth, blanched-out variety, and then there's the "crunchy" stuff.
But it's not really fair to say that all Charlotte jazz is blanched-out and nutrient-free. Bagwell has been on the warpath for more than a decade, blowing the roof off local venues with Ghost Trees, Pyramid and other ensembles that mix sweet or haunting melodies with wild improvisation. And other players, from veteran pianist Bill Hanna to young saxophonist Adrian Crutchfield, have been doing similar work, though not often enough, or free enough, in local clubs.
"A lot of jazz musicians in Charlotte, in order to survive, have to do cover material that's familiar — it has to veer into being neosoul or pop," Bagwell says. "And I can appreciate that kind of stuff. I just feel like, in general, when I go places to see jazz, it's just really toothless."
Bagwell understands why some folks have a problem with the more adventurous strains of jazz. It's because people may not have been exposed to the music in a proper context.
"There are a lot of bands that I've enjoyed seeing in a live context that play really out jazz," Bagwell says, speaking of the more extreme abstract free-improvised jazz pioneered by artists like Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and brought into more contemporary muscial forms by the blurting, noisy music of artists such as saxophonist John Zorn's Naked City.
"I may not listen to recordings of the more abstract stuff every day," Bagwell continues, "but the live shows are really transformative — like 35 minutes of pure improvisation to just bask in. That makes me a better person, even if what I listen to in the car on a road trip will more likely be [the Rolling Stones'] Exile on Main St. or something like that."
Born in Greenwood, South Carolina, Bagwell, 41, grew up in a family that listened to a wide range of music. His father, who worked in the textile industry, liked Roy Orbison, and his mother, whose brothers played bluegrass with Bill Monroe, preferred the southern soul of Stax/Volt artists like Percy Sledge and Otis Redding. When he was in high school in the early '90s, Bagwell's friends gravitated to the typical rock of the times, and he even played guitar in a few cover bands. But Bagwell fell for jazz early on.
"I was in a record store and bought a Coltrane CD," he remembers. "It was a two-disc sampler that Rhino Records had put out, and when I took it home and listened to it, I was like, 'Oh, wow.'"
He would return to the record store often to peruse the jazz section for more such gems. "I would just flip through the records and go, 'OK, Dizzy Gillespie — I've heard of him,' and then I'd buy one based on the cover art or the year it came out.'"
Bagwell eventually bought himself a copy of the jazz lover's bible, The Penguin Guide to Jazz, and became more discriminating.
"When I found [Charles] Mingus' The Black Saint and Sinner Lady album [of 1963], I was like, 'OK, all other music is stupid.'" He laughs. "I remember listening to that and then gathering up all the records and CDs that I had that were not jazz and taking them to the record store and selling them. Of course, later on, I ended up re-buying a lot of them. I was like, 'Actually, I think I do want a copy of [David Bowie's] Ziggy Stardust, after all."
Shortly after graduating from high school, Bagwell took off for the University of Georgia in Athens, where he majored in English, met Amy, and delved more deeply into jazz. In 1997, the couple moved to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, which at the time was not yet overrun with wannabe hipsters and still fairly cheap — "only about $750 for 1,000 square feet and junkies in the hallway," he remembers.
Both Bagwells got jobs in publishing, Brent working at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Amy working for the Pocket Books division of Simon & Schuster publishing, as well as for various literary agents.
In New York, Bagwell studied jazz with some legendary musicians, including saxophonist Bob Feldman, a fixture at the Birdland in the '50s and '60s who had actually played with jazz greats such as Mingus and Sonny Simmons, as well as with poet Allen Ginsberg well into the 1980s. Bagwell soon met Nanaa, a former skate punk from Florida whose jazz tastes were even farther out than his own. The two formed the trio Eastern Seaboard along with bassist Jordon Schranz.
The Eastern Seaboard cut two albums — Nonfiction, in 2004, and The Sound Power, released in 2010 — for the avant-garde label Black Saint Records, which also released music by such legends of free jazz as David Murray, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, William Parker and Charles Gayle. Respected British music magazine The Wire described The Eastern Seaboard as "raised on Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation and wooed by John Coltrane's A Love Supreme." Bagwell once said of the group, "We took all the things we liked about jazz and all the things we liked about rock and sort of just folded them together and made up stuff of our own."
In the late '90s and early aughts, The Eastern Seaboard performed often at NYC venues like the BQE Lounge, a club at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, and also toured nationally. Bagwell soon realized that while New York City was a great place to be from as a jazz musician, it wasn't such a great place to live as a jazz musician.
"That's a paradox, I know," he says with a laugh. "But the shows there really aren't that great. Even if, on any given night, there may be 10 things happening just in jazz, if you go to a show to see someone like John Zorn, there will only be about 25 people there. But when we would go on the road to some place like Champagne, Illinois, there would be 150 people there. So it's good to be able to say that you're a New York jazz group — as long as you're not actually playing in New York."
Two years after 9/11 changed New York City forever, Brent and Amy Bagwell decided to move back to the South, to the Charlotte area, where he knew a group of experimental musicians — Joseph Stephens, Ben Best, Chris Walldorf, Tyler Baum, Ryan Blaine, Ben Kennedy and Kris Baucom — who had formed the indie band Pyramid. The Bagwells rented a farmhouse in Anson County — "about as opposite from Brooklyn as you can get" — and settled down. Both entrenched themselves into the Charlotte music and arts scenes, Brent playing in bands and Amy doing both visual art and poetry, which she also teaches at Central Piedmont Community College.
To Amy Bagwell, the Antidote series at Petra's is exactly what the name suggests — an antidote to the over-intellectualizing of both jazz and poetry. "For me, poetry is blood and guts and real," she says. "It's a people's expression that's been somehow criminally made exclusive for the elite and the academic. It's taught badly and matters to almost no one now. But I think that's an issue of access and not of interest, so I aim to evangelize."
She points to a quote by New York poet Yusef Komonyakaa: "Poetry is an action."
Amy Bagwell is as much a fixture on the local visual and literary arts scenes as Brent is on the music scene. And she is thrilled to finally be able to share a music-and-poetry event with her husband.
"There have been many people who have worked collaboratively on poetry and jazz, but Brent and I never have, despite being together 20-plus years," she says.
When people hear poetry and jazz together, she says, they may think of older events like the Cellar jazz club readings poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti did in San Francisco in the late 1950s. But the Antidote won't be in that tradition, Amy Bagwell insists. "We aren't performing them in tandem, doing any 'jazzing' in accompaniment to verse," she says. "We want to present them in a set, alternating — brief and hot and live."
The poets scheduled to perform at the Oct. 6 edition of the Antidote, she says, are both stellar performers. "Justin Evans happens to be a magnificent reader who lives here and does this great sound-collage podcast with his partner Annabelle Prince called Mystery Meat," Bagwell says. And Mackey, she adds, is "famous and should be" for his award-winning book Splay Anthem, not to mention that he's the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University with degrees from both Stanford and Princeton universities.
"As a poet, [Mackey] is a fiery statesman who writes musically and is profoundly interested and influenced by jazz," Bagwell says. "He and Brent share heroes, especially in Coltrane. One of the things Mackey says that the Poetry Foundation quotes him on is, 'I try to cultivate the music of language, which is not just sounds. It's also meaning and implication. It's also nuance. It's also a kind of angular suggestion.'"
Subsequent weeks of the Antidote will feature more such fiery sets of poetry and jazz. On October 13, local poet Kate Claesson and visiting poet Morri Creech will read, Kent O'Doherty will do a solo saxophone performance, and the visiting Norwegian quartet Cortex (tenor saxist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, trumpet player Thomas Johansson, bassist Ola Høyer, and drummer Gard Nilssen) will close the night.
Then, on October 20, Amy Bagwell will read her material, as will visiting poet Jon Pineda; solo pianist Burton Greene (a legendary '60s musician who recorded for the out-jazz label ESP Records) will perform, and visiting Chicago trio Hearts and Minds (keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo, bass clarinet player Jason Stein, and drummer Chad Taylor) will close.
Brent Bagwell gets increasingly passionate as he talks about the series. "When I first moved to Charlotte," he says, "I really wanted to get across the idea that if you like seeing jazz bands play Bird and standards and stuff like that, there's no reason you wouldn't also want to come out and see these fiery new musicians. But I've never been able to make that happen." Bagwell leans back in his seat, takes a sip from his Synergy kombucha, and smiles, realizing he's now proselytizing. "I'm just really hoping we'll be able to do it with the Antidote."
Listen to Ghost Trees: