Writer and musician John Pietaro on the “post-modern experimentalist embedded in the jazz tradition” who co-founded Ornette's Prime Time
Bern Nix, the guitarist and founding member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, died in his Manhattan home on 31 May. His unexpected passing fell just three months short of his 70th birthday.
Nix was widely known as an original, a unique find even among the most avant of the avant garde. News of his loss spread like a firestorm among New York’s jazz community, and the grieved responses of friends and fans are legion. This veteran of Coleman’s legendary sphere contributed his singular instrumental voice to the music continuum, standing as a postmodern experimentalist embedded in the jazz tradition. Nix’s speaking voice was just as intriguing, gently urbane in defiance of an almost sphynx-like repose. His welcoming tone softly beckoned one into his line of logic: Bern enjoyed discussing the nuances not only of music, but philosophy, art, history and radically left politics. A sparkle overtook his eyes as he listened to those in his purview, then raising a finger to signal his entry into the discussion, he quietly came to own the room. As was the case with his guitar playing, when he spoke softly, the focus stayed on him. Bern’s stage whisper was most effective.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, arguably on 21 September 1947 (some bios list his birth year as 1950), Bern Nix was introduced to music in childhood and began playing the guitar at age 11. Driven toward the jazz guitarists of the time, he listened intently to Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Rainey and Barney Kessel, but while encompassing the full canon, he came upon the early electric lead guitarist Charlie Christian who remained a particular inspiration. Nix later moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music in preparation for a career in the mainstream. “I always had a penchant for straight-ahead jazz guitar playing,” he told me in 2013, “and I play that still. Before I worked with Ornette, I never thought I would be in Prime Time. But this music allows the harmony to shift, like chase-chords, moving through and beyond. It is in and it is out…”
The offer to work with the framer of free jazz was too much to pass up for the budding young guitarist. In 1975, after graduation, he came to New York and successfully auditioned for the job with Coleman, replacing James Blood Ulmer. Nix came to work closely with the master in the developing of Prime Time, Coleman’s vehicle for bringing his harmolodic theory into a funk-oriented, heavily amplified milieu. As was the case with the fervour raised by Ornette’s original quartet in 59, many audiences were critical of the new sound, claiming it to be a “sell-out”. Nix never agreed. “The ‘swing’ was always there,” he recalled. “This music is an extension of the early jazz tradition where the sense of freedom, the improvisation, was constantly creative. Here the band’s roles are never static and are always shifting, evolving…”
Nix became a core member of Prime Time, a focal point of its critically acclaimed debut LP, Dancing in Your Head, which also brandished the spectre of The Master Musicians Of Joujouka in its grooves. The album was utterly epic. Follow-ups Body Meta (1976), Of Human Feelings (1979), In All Languages (1987) and Virgin Beauty (1988) were nothing if not wonderfully controversial. New music circles everywhere paid heed to the band that begat whole schools of downtown thought. But even as he served as its first lead guitarist, Nix began working with others then populating the Lower East Side, crafting fusions of genre unique to the time and place. He toured with no waver James Chance in 1981 and performances with Sedition and Sabir Mateen followed, but the 1984 debut of The Bern Nix Trio offered the guitarist a personalised pool of creativity. The Trio also allowed Nix to maintain a public profile as Coleman embarked on a strike against the recording industry, protesting corporate stranglehold.
Nix’s band wouldn’t record until 1993’s Alarms And Excursions, by which time several changes of line-up occurred (bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Newman Baker are on the record), but its core maintained consistency: pure Bern Nix.
Though the Trio continued as a force, The Bern Nix Quartet grew from within and in recent years became Nix’s primary ensemble. Bassist Francois Grillot, multi-instrumentalist Matt Lavelle (trumpet, alto clarinet, flugelhorn) and drummer Reggie Sylvester cast an acoustic format that straddled the boundaries of free jazz, new composition and, yes, funk. Nix’s solos comprised of quivering single notes, barked dyads and chordal runs up and down and then across his instrument’s neck. He toyed with repetitions before tossing them aside for lines of advanced tonality. Kandinsky-esque staccato phrases and slippery runs alternated. Technique for Nix can be boiled down to legitimacy torn asunder by design.
Pertinent collaborations with poet Jayne Cortez, and downtown stalwarts Jemeel Moondoc, John Zorn, Kip Hanrahan, Elliot Sharp and Arto Lindsay kept Nix at the top of his game. But his presence was also felt in guest spots with 30 years’ worth of young lions, features in area festivals and ensembles such as The Beyond Group (led by flautist Cheryl Pyle) and those helmed by Lavelle, or saxophonists Patrick Brennan or Ras Moshe Burnett among many more.
Nix’s final performance was on 27 May, just several days prior to his passing. His set was a feature of New Music Nights, the series I curated, and by all account this was a particularly enlivened Quartet gig. Afterward, Bern spoke of the callous political climate afflicting the US since January, the weariness evident in his stance. As I folded mic stands, our discussion turned to future bookings in the series. “Of course, Bern. Any time. Any time,” I smiled as he departed.
Ever the bohemian, Nix lived a meagre life in a tiny single room Ooccupancy apartment. He struggled to make ends meet and pondered at length the loss of opportunities for creatives in these times. He played the same guitar over many decades, the carrying case of which seemed held together merely by hope. Arriving at dates with his instrument and an impossibly tiny amplifier, he could make the old instrument sing, cry, bite, bellow and swoon, with nary an effort. Leaning over its sunburst soundboard, he withheld his glance from the front row, tired eyes deep-set, pointed downward, not in a haughty manner but locked in an especially artful space all his own. His was a linear style which cut across expansive melodies, harmonies and rhythm.
While he had no opportunities in recent times to hit the major venues of the Prime Time era, Nix thrived in each performance setting he encountered. Whether on the Vision Festival main stage in 2013 or in the fleeting rooms that sprang up on New York’s Lower East Side or in Williamsburg, he offered audiences a rare, valuable and cherished glimpse into the legacy of Ornette. That giant of free jazz produced a stable of harmolodic emissaries whose work blossomed into whole other forms, still newer realms. Bern Nix stood proudly among them, a survivor, a model, a teacher, a musical adventurer and a gem. We were lucky to have been touched by his bold creativity and gentle hand.
John Pietaro is a writer, musician and cultural organiser from Brooklyn, New York. You can visit his blog at TheCulturalWorker.blogspot.com and website DissidentArts.com