The German version of this essay has been published in the Jazzfest Berlin 2016 supplement [PDF, 1,7 MB].

Matana Roberts © Frank Schindelbeck

When a respected personality is called by their first name only, it is often from a combination of presumption and worship. Or a person’s work has such radiating force that their first name becomes emblematic for their unique oeuvre – as in Wim Wenders’ film about choreographer Pina Bausch, which was simply titled “Pina”. In the field of dance theatre, this might appear straightforward enough, but with regard to the reception and commercial exploitation of Afro-American forms of music, a connection with colonial practices of possession and disenfranchisement by white male stakeholders needs to be taken into account. The introduction of phonograph records and the racist marketing employed by Race Records in the United States from the 1920s to the 1940s enticed solvent white consumers to buy into the colonial fantasy of domesticating Afro-American artists and displaying them in their record collections. The long-standing practice of denying Afro-American artists the copyrights to their music by not mentioning their names in connection with composition and recording speaks its very own language of the music industry’s (neo-)colonial practices. In the light of these circumstances, the saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts positions herself between recognition of her musical ancestors and her own decision to step out of the at times constrictive world of jazz.

“I can hook my toe back into jazz music, because that is where my sound comes from. I feel like I’m an American hybrid of a lot of different American music traditions,” Matana Roberts explains in conversation. “The core of my work is improvisation, which exists in many different traditional American musical genres. I’ve been brothered and fathered and uncled to this music but if I step myself in the center of the jazz industry I’d lose too much of myself.” Roberts insists on calling musical pioneers by their full names. “I hate when people use the first name of elder musicians,” she says emphatically. Accordingly, Matana Roberts respectfully refers to George Lewis, trombonist, composer and chronicler of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, as Mr Lewis. He coined the term ‘sound experimentalist’ to describe bold musicians working across genre boundaries. Roberts was happy to identify with this, but these days, she prefers to outline her music like this:

“I like placing things and sculpting sound, I love improvisation and structure. Sound relates to feelings for me, it relates to emotion, to colors, to how I place things. My solo performances are one woman sound collages. I see myself as a sound adventurer.”

Matana Roberts plays the alto saxophone; she sings and recites her own texts and those of others, she uses effect devices and samplers, distorts and loops her sounds and creates video projections to interact with in her live performances. For a year, she has been touring a solo performance of the third chapter of “Coin Coin”, a project named after a freed slave, business woman and landowner, whose life at the turn from the 18th to the 19th century is historically authenticated. Roberts began this project more than ten years ago. It is laid out to have twelve chapters and she has performed half of them with musicians from New York, Montreal and in her home town of Chicago. No record label was ready to commit to this long-term narration about the US-American trauma of slavery, in which Roberts interweaves stories from her own family with events from American history, collective historic experiences of Afro-Americans with unique and unrepeatable improvisations. The Canadian independent label Constellation Records in Montreal has a consistent catalogue of experimental, boundary pushing music and has thus been the perfect framework for the “Coin Coin” albums since 2010. The label is still by Roberts’ side, without pressing for regular new releases. She designs her own artwork, using collages of photos, paintings and drawings that also appear in her video projections. In June and July of this year, Matana Roberts presented her first solo exhibition, entitled “I Call America”, at the New York Fridman Gallery. There she continued her interventions featuring large-scale visual scores, videos and concerts which she had begun to work on in 2015, during an artistic residence at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building. Her work as well as the work of others shows quite plainly that it is high time for us to appreciate artists that have their roots in jazz as multimedia artists, too.


It is safe to say that the work of visual artists like Archibald Motley (1891–1981), Romare Bearden (1911–1988), Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) or Rose Piper (1917–2005) would be unthinkable without the inspiration from jazz, blues and folk music. But today, an awareness of similar aesthetic objectives has opened up more scope for a variety of collaborations. In 2004, the experimental artist Joan Jonas (born in 1936) commissioned pianist and composer Jason Moran with a composition for “The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things”, her performance about the art historian Aby Warburg. Ever since, Moran has been creating joint projects with visual artists: He drew inspiration for the multimedia performance “Milestone” from the works of artist and philosopher Adrian Piper and he wrote music for videos by Kara Walker, who in turn appeared in Jason and Alicia Hall Moran’s series “Bleed” at the Whitney Museum in 2012. At the 2015 Biennale di Venezia, Moran presented “Staged”, an installation that faithfully reproduced a few square feet of the famous Savoy Ballroom and the Three Deuces jazz club in New York and in which Jason Moran also played music. This year, these installations and additional object and paper works by Moran were presented in his first solo show at the New York Luhring Augustine Gallery. Together with the gallery, he is currently publishing the first issue of “LOOP”, a magazine featuring articles by musicians Steve Coleman, Kendrick Scott, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Cassandra Wilson and Matana Roberts.

Roberts’ upcoming presentation at Jazzfest Berlin, where she and four musicians from Berlin will perform inside a reconstruction of the Wuppertal “Lichtburg” as part of the exhibition “Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater” will illustrate the special ability of improvisation to at once recall past events and give musicians an opportunity to stand out as themselves in an environment beyond the world of music.

In the early stages of her career, Pina Bausch had several encounters with jazz. As a scholarship student at the Juilliard School of Music and as a dancer in New York, it is more likely that she discovered the genre between 1958 and 1962 by going to concerts rather than as part of her daily practice. In those days, the world of modern dance was largely segregated, although the Afro-American choreographer Alvin Ailey caused a sensation with the premiere of his piece “Revelations” in January 1960. During her first two seasons as head of the Wuppertal dance company (which was renamed Tanztheater Wuppertal at that point) from 1973, Pina Bausch organised workshop evenings entitled “Dance and Jazz” together with dancers from the company, drummer Detlef Schönenberg and trombonist Günter Christmann. Together with these two musicians, she set out to explore improvisation in a series of events. Among the first of this series were events at the Wuppertal Von der Heydt-Museum, at Berlin’s Academy of the Arts in 1974 and at the Wuppertal city theatre in the following year. It stands to reason that Christmann and Schönenberg represented a different concept of improvisation than Pina Bausch did, since free music in Germany was in the process of emancipating itself from the formal and historical foundations of jazz, whereas Bausch had become acquainted with improvisation via the jazz standards. And yet, her choreographic process shows central features of jazz. According to Dominique Mercy, member of the Tanztheater from its earliest days, in 1976, Pina Bausch began to pose questions for the dancers, which she asked them to answer by improvising. This situation is comparable to the form of interaction observed in conversations, which Daniel Martin Feige considers to be essential for this music in his “Philosophie des Jazz (A Philosophy of Jazz)”. Responding to each other gives the partners an opportunity to discover new potential in their own playing. Bausch asked questions about memories, hopes, dreams, experiences and preferences, and in the process of answering, the dancers found their own themes and forms of expression. As Feige explains, the musical personality of a musician has always been publicly articulated in jazz. In a similar way, countless scenes in Pina Bausch’s pieces are inseparably connected to the dancers that created them and sometimes performed them over decades. Bausch broke through the linear attachment of a choreography to a piece of music: In “Beim Anhören einer Tonbandaufnahme von Béla Bartóks Oper ‘Herzog Blaubarts Burg’ (Bluebeard – Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók’s Opera ‘Duke Bluebeard’s Castle’)” (1977), interrupting and repeating a tape recording in itself became a device for shaping actions. Following this, Pina Bausch began to work with sound collages of songs and popular music from various cultures, old hit songs, film scores and classical music. She repeatedly used jazz music, such as recordings by Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington or from New Orleans, but also by artists like Albert Mangelsdorff, Sidsel Endresen or Bugge Wesseltoft. Jun Miyake and Sebastian Gramss were among the musicians who wrote scores for her choreographies.

In the process of collage, of placing, layering and blending music, voices, bodies as well as material mediums of creative work like sound tape and screens, connections between Matana Roberts and Pina Bausch become apparent – they will, however, remain hidden to those who only pay attention to one or the other of the art forms involved.