Europe's Answer To Woodstock: The First Actuel Paris Music Festival
By Jane Welch
Down Beat, January 22, 1970
A FESTIVAL RECENTLY took place in Europe quite unlike any the continent – or any other place, for that matter – had ever seen before. Where Woodstock was a social revelation, the first Actuel Paris Music Festival was a musical revolution. This revolution was accomplished in the programming, which included all the kinds of music in which the new musicians and composers of today are involved.
The festival was a daring project from the start, conceived with optimism (and not without the happy naiveté that allows such an idea to be born on so large a scale in the first place), and successfully executed despite considerable difficulties for sponsors, festival participants, technical staff and – due to the nasty late October weather in the cold, damp Kluisberg woods of Belgium – the audience.
The fact that it was a success (over 75,000 attended during a 5-day period) proves that audiences are ready to hear this type of music and, like the Woodstock masses, are willing to make sacrifices to take part in a musical milieu truly representative of their taste. The music was NOW, the audience was NOW and, despite all business or political opposition which attempted to abort the festival, the time was right and the baby was born.
For jazz lovers, it was a welcome occasion, because the coexistence of jazz and rock proved viable. The audience had come mostly to hear the heavy rock groups, but embraced the jazz groups with equal, and even increasing enthusiasm.
The Actuel Music Festival of Jazz, Rock and New Music was originally planned to take place at Paris' Les Halles. It was produced by the dynamic Jean Georgakarakos (called "Karakos" for short) and youthful Jean Luc Young of BYG Records, a progressive new French record company. It would have been the first festival of its kind in Paris, and all advance advertising and performing contracts had been drawn up with Paris as the festival location.
Then the boom fell. The Paris police vetoed the City of Light as the festival site. The police were certainly not discouraged from taking this strong measure by the various established local promoters, record companies and TV corporations who were not especially eager to see any competitive "happenings" nor wished for new blood to enter the rather closed show-business setup traditional to Paris.
The business motivations for the protest are understandable. The sad and incomprehensible thing is that La Belle France today is a country which both fears and ignores its own youth. The authorities fear hippies, and hypocritically deny permission for events which might attract large groups of young people in the name of vague possibilities of violence and drug abuse. All the producers wanted was to get young people together to hear music – period. Somehow, in France, the music, which was the main objective of the festival, got lost in the confused politics of contemporary French society, and the first Actuel Paris Music Festival had to take place in exile, in a tent near the Belgian country town of Amougies.
This usually tranquil Franco-Belgian border town won a permanent place in the annals of the European press and in the minds of youths who came from all over the continent to attend the five-day music marathon. Due to circumstances beyound its control, the festival evolved into a sort of continental Woodstock, with some very important modifications.
People began to shoot in from England, Holland, all corners of Belgium, and from other assorted countries to witness this French enterprise taking place on Belgian soil, where even the French themselves were foreigners.
Try to imagine cars, buses, and vehicles of all descriptions carrying rock groups and their mounds of equipment bumping all over the countryside; drivers asking, in many languages, for the way to Tournai, Belgium, and then discovering, once they got there, that the festival was located even further away, in Amougies.
At the festival itself, everyone met on common ground – as strangers. The bulk of the audience, however, was French. Parisians who originally would have gone to Les Halles decided to load up cars and make the three-hour drive to Belgium. Many were exuberant students (as usual, the Paris upper level schools were having a debate about something or other – this year it included the opening date of school, and October passed without any decision) still on the loose before the grim academic grind was to resume. The Belgians attending were far more conservative and cautious – and very curious. And the peaceful townspeople themselves, accustomed only to Sunday summer strollers through the Flemish woods, were astounded by this massive outpouring which transformed their town, for a short while, into a continental hippie haven.
From the start, the festival was a huge endeavor, almost impossible to produce even under ideal conditions. Over 50 groups were scheduled to appear, with light shows, over the five-day period, with a gate charge of roughly 10 francs (less than $2) per show for all. A near-cancellation of the festival occurred only five days before the opening, making necessary the last-minute transfer of everything to the site in Belgium. That it came off at all, despite all the efforts to destroy it, is due to producer Karakos, a man of unusual determination and vision. Karakos is neither weak nor afraid. One of the brave risks he took was to include both the new music and free jazz. He could have played it safe, taken the easy way out, and had just another rock festival, but he chose not to. Chiefly due to his progressive spirit, and the knowledgeable assistance of his jazz a&r man at BYG, drummer Claude Delcloo, the first Actuel Paris Festival succeeded in bringing jazz and rock together where Newport '69 had failed. As soon as Burton Greene's group, the first jazz group to appear at the Festival, had finished its set, the positive audience reaction affirmed that this neophyte Festival was about to establish itself as the most revolutionary and significant showcase of contemporary music on the continent.
If any single individual could be said to represent the spirit of those attending the Festival, it was its co-host, the music-loving Mother of Us All, Frank Zappa. Exuding intelligence, wit and wry humor, Zappa darted around like a 2001 Fred Astaire, charming everyone in sight and becoming a friend to all. He was in the car taking saxophonist Roland Alexander and myself into Brussels upon our arrival in Europe. He assured us, on the way into town, that the many old buildings and interesting monuments we passed on the way were really run-down Holiday Inns getting ready to close for the push to the suburbs.
Zappa listened to the avant garde jazz with the same rapt interest as to the rock, and even with childlike innocence sat in with Archie Shepp's group. He was seriously interested in anyone who approached him with questions. "Nobody understands rhythm", Zappa complained in a rap with Burton Greene on the band bus. "Most people don't know what they're listening to, and some musicians don't know what they're playing." Burton agreed, and then added, "When I play, I'm the one who messes up my own arrangements." Frank befriended many jazz musicians. "You guys gonna play tonight?" he questioned Dave Burrell and Clifford Thornton, shivering in the unheated music tent one early morning. "Yes . . . sometime," they answered. Zappa returned a wise, sympathetic look. "Yeah", he said softly, and walked away.
The majority of the people who had taken all the trouble to get to this festival came for one purpose – the music. And there was plenty of music – there was even too much music (about 12 hours per night) – a great deal of it, fortunately, very good. Many of the hippies slept for free in the barns near the country roads surrounding the festival camp grounds, guests of the permissive Flemish farmers. They were drawn to the festival by the staggering collection of rock groups to be presented. The Pretty Things, Soft Machine, Ten Years After, Captain Beefheart, Yes, and Sam Apple Pie all scored very heavily with the crowd. Blossom Toes was a good acid-rock group which both the audience and the jazz musicians casually lounging around waiting to play dug. Zappa sat in with them (and with several of the other rock groups). I especially dug the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, with some very greasy soul blues vocals by Victor Brox. Also East of Eden – a surprising group which weaves together free form saxophone sounds, old Bird tunes, a legato Wayne Kingish Charmaine phrase or two, Edgar Varèse sounds, and a swinging violin bit of pure Irish jigs and reels. The most popular rock groups were probably Pink Floyd and definitely Colosseum, who completely tore it up, especially with John Hiseman's strong backing and soloing on drums. They proved they're one of the strongest groups around, and their scheduled U. S. debut early this year is something to look forward to.
The Festival also presented a few groups representing so-called new music, a kind of experimental chamber music, sometimes incorporating jazz elements. On first hearing, it would be unfair to pass judgment – but I'm not exactly looking forward to the next exposure. A revolutionary aspect of the festival (about 25 per cent of which was devoted to "free jazz) was the unabashed acceptance of all the jazz by the people who had ostensibly come to hear rock. It seems that what is wanted is the most contemporary of musics – and free jazz and rock both fit the bill. I asked some of the kids if they liked free jazz. One girl answered, "Oh yea! You walk . . . you dream . . . you feel just fine." (Rock doesn't turn them on in this way.) Who made them feel like that? "Don Cherry, very much . . and Archie Shepp . It was interesting to observe that this generation's initial run-in with jazz happened to be with some of its most violent, dissonant and complex forms. Veteran jazz aficionados (including hoppers) can't easily get into this music, and even after they dig what's happening, they don't feel it.
It's a jazz expressive of an angry (but healthy), involved generation growing up in the violent world of today. This festival was their festival – never looking back, everything straight ahead. This does not mean that Dizzy or Elvin should pawn their axes, or that Dexter Gordon won't continue to destroy nerve centers in the 1970s (and pick up new ears along the way – these kids get sophisticated very fast), or that Don Byas won't go on being the youngest saxophone player around. But the boys had better move their chairs over a bit and make room for a few new men in the band, because they're ready . . . and here come de judge!
Truly representative of the new jazz spirit, the Noah Howard/Frank Wright Ensemble tore into the crowd at Amougies with a saxophone duet resembling the street sounds of riots and sirens and horns. Pianist Bobby Few, whose steady, agile stream of notes and ideas seemed endless, generated electrifying excitement. And a very strong Muhammed Ali tied the whole thing together on drums, carrying a tempo verging on lunacy.
Watch these young men, responsible for some of the festival's jazz surprises, very carefully in the future: Jamaican multi-reedman Kenneth Terroade, who overflows with ideas; Leroy Jenkins, playing mad violin (try also to catch Alan Silva on electric violin sometime); the phenomenal, indefatigable Beb Guerin – a French mother of a bassist who seems to think up-tempos were invented to be doubled and who would rather commit suicide than lay out; alto man Arthur Jones, with his expressive tone and style; the brilliant pianist Dave Burrell – rapid and very sure runs, building high towers housing phrases of wit, fragments of romance (a snatch of West Side Story), and wiggy chords, and in solo never forgetting stride or Second Baptist; the unquestionable taste of Parisian drummer Claude Delcloo – always there, never in the way, and very carefully playing all around the angry percussiveness of the horns; Clifford Thornton's concise, direct statements on cornet, and his innovativeness in introducing to jazz that ancient instrument, the shenai; the professionalism of Jean-Francois Jenny Clark, a powerful bassist of great flexibility who could probably play in any jazz bag he had a mind to; trumpeter Teddy Daniel, underplaying and giving just the proper balance and shading to round out an ensemble, never seeming aware of his own importance; Joseph Jarman on soprano sax, furiously filling the air with his personal insistence; Norris Jones on bass – a powerhouse . . . deep sounds and sure changes . . . dynamite.
And never forget the lament and the hope. Africa. Rhythm, old instruments, chants – roots. Grachan Moncur III's regal opening trombone dirge, calling the meeting to order. Philly Joe Jones and Louis Moholo beating the drums for the strong, long march. And Archie Shepp's group, on its own terms, making its own rules with concessions to no one, slicing through the damp early morning air like a clean blade in a very dirty world.
Regretfully, it is impossible to mention all the hundreds of other musicians who appeared in these five days. Even more regretfully, it was impossible to listen properly to all the groups. I attempted various yoga positions in vain attempts to see the performers and finally settled for poking my head through the floor of the stage, somewhat like an opera prompter without a box. (A cold prompter at that.) In the chilly tent, I couldn't make sitting on the ground 12 hours a night. The scheduling of the groups was strictly impromptu, too. One night you had three jazz groups in a row, and the following night you could wait from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. for the first jazz group to appear. This lack of formal structuring was annoying to musicians and audience alike. The haphazard manner in which such groups as Dave Burrell's and Archie Shepp's were thrown on, well after 5 a.m., to a benumbed audience was highly unprofessional. No matter what reasons are offered for these follies (and the French can be very ingenious in their reasoning) the lack of attention to these most rudimentary of details cannot be excused under any circumstances.
Not considering the artists' basic physical needs for giving his best performance is not only anti-art, it is anti-human. And it is contemptuous. Serious artists deserve better. British saxophonist John Surman told me that when he was finally advised he would be going on it was neatly 8 in the morning (he had arrived to play some 10 hours earlier). By then, he and his group were so cold and tired, he said, that he couldn't tell me what he had played if his life depended on it. I hadn't the stamina to stay on after Dave Burrell's group had played its set (it was then nearly 6 a.m.) and regretfully missed Surman. When, on the next night I dragged myself back to the tent despite a fever, I was casually informed that "there might not be any jazz tonight." It seems there were too many rock groups that had not yet been presented, and, this being the last night of the Festival, it was of some importance to get them on. I waited two hours to see if any definite program schedule would emerge but it was the old "wait and see" routine again, and I had to split shortly after midnight. The next day, I was told that the jazz groups of Chris MacGregor, Robin Kenyatta and Steve Lacy did go on after all, starting around 4 a.m. To them, to John Surman, and to the rock groups I missed, apologies, but it was inevitable under the circumstances.
The fact that there was no violence, no incidents, and no observable general use of drugs certainly should ease the minds of the concerned French authorities. The spectacle of thousands of kids trudging through the fields of Belgium in the late October dawn, happily fatigued after listening all night to their music, couldn't elicit fear from anyone.
Despite the non-ideal conditions under which it was held (to be completely fair, many of them not the Festival's fault) the positive fact remains that the Festival happened, that it reached a huge audience in spite of everything, and that it provided an opportunity for everyone to get together, socially and musically, to exchange thoughts, to listen to new music, and to learn. It was a strong beginning. It was musically fertile. It was the first festival to successfully combine several types of the most contemporary music under one banner. It should happen again, and next time on French soil.
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