Music Is A Memory Machine, By David Toop

Reflecting on artists and collaborators who have passed away since the start of the Coronavirus crisis, David Toop explores how the transmission of music between disparate cultures can be a tool against populism and prejudice

Music is a memory machine. I feel the conviction of this from within pandemic conditions: at the time of writing these words, fifty-four days since I last played music to an audience in the same room, fifty-three days since I was part of an audience in the same room as performing musicians. I feel the conviction of this as deaths accumulate over the past weeks: musicians I have known, past collaborators, a music documentary filmmaker with whom I once worked. Some of these deaths were from Covid-19, some from other causes like stroke or cancer, but the sense of a generation of elders falling away, as if tumbling together over a precipice, is acute. Films and records remain as recall devices, of course, but the works of a performer, an improviser, emerge into air, rooms, society and states of memory that confront us as fully alive, alert and listening beings, recalling what happened and has gone, what is happening right now as a passing moment, what is coming into itself as if as listeners we are living permanently in the future. The dead ¬– and I am thinking of Carole Finer, Henry Grimes, Richard Teitelbaum, Lee Konitz, Jeremy Marre – are denied access to this experience. 

I think of Henry Grimes, dead from complications arising from the coronavirus at the age of 84. For Henry, a multi-instrumentalist best known for his bass playing, music was a memory machine whose effect on his life was complex, transformative and traumatic. After studying at The Juilliard School he played with many musicians – Sonny Rollins, Anita O’Day, Walt Dickerson, Charles Mingus, Mose Allison, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler – then disappeared for decades, living alone in a Los Angeles hostel, writing poetry and surviving precariously through low-paid jobs. In effect, he became an anonymous and solitary archive. Soon after he was discovered in isolation in 2002, detached from the music world, the efforts of those who respect ancestry drew him back into performing. 

I played with him once, in Ghent, 2011, in a trio with vocalist Elaine Mitchener. During the day he seemed unreachable, locked away in a profound and gentle silence. His wife Margaret looked after the practicalities, often spoke for him. No conversation was forthcoming and most questions went unanswered, particularly if they were about musicians, sessions or records. All seemed forgotten. Then suddenly something would spark. I asked him about his time studying at Juilliard and he came to life, speaking about all the instruments he played during his studies – the English horn, tuba, percussion, and so on. There was the sense that he was a repository of knowledge and rich experience, all enclosed as if locked away in a forbidden library, yet when he played a fervency broke through. After we played, his eyes shone with some luminous spirit that was otherwise sleeping within him. He was energised by the way we had played, perhaps because it lay outside the jazz tradition, a different approach to improvisation. I can only speculate but my suspicion is that Henry, in different circumstances more supportive of his vulnerable personality, would have made a far more expansive musical life for himself. The troubles of his mind made it hard to build that situation for himself and hard to surmount the obstacles of a wayward musician’s life.