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Visionary, Mensch, Dude: 60 on John Zorn at 60 (Part I)

By Paul Schmelzer

When we asked an array of artists, writers, and musicians to share their reflections and birthday wishes on the occasion of John Zorn’s 60th birthday, three descriptors kept recurring: “visionary,” “mensch,” “dude.” The terms seem to capture the essence of this vanguard music-maker. A celebrated improviser, experimenter, and genre-jumping producer, he’s become an icon of the New York downtown jazz and new music scenes, both for his own music and for the culture he’s helped foster through his label Tzadik, his venue, the Stone, and his Arcana series of music books. But as a mentor and friend, he’s welcomed new voices into his musical and spiritual communities, both in the US and overseas. To celebrate Zorn’s sixth decade, we present a two-part series in which we hear from 60 collaborators, colleagues, and friends—from performance artist Laurie Anderson and poet Charles Bernstein to guitarist Bill Frisell—who weigh in on the many facets of this versatile artist’s life and work.

Geri Allen

John, you are an unusual combination of musical maverick, community activist, and creative facilitator, directing your innovative abilities and vision toward a spirit of inclusion and altruism. Through your important work at The Stone, you have successfully mobilized meaningful, lasting connections between like-minded and/or controversially minded views on what art and creativity in sympatico mean. You’ve built a grassroots safe space for creative artists, across genres, to explode their ideals from week to week, from collaboration to collaboration—a rich/shared experience for all to be had.

It is a privilege, John, to have been invited to collaborate at the Stone with you and such an inspiring group of musical icons and brilliant artists. It’s been thrilling! Happy 60th!

Geri Allen is a jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader.

Scott Amendola

Happy birthday, John. Thank you. Thank you for your tireless efforts of pushing music to new boundaries and bringing us all along for the ride. Truly inspirational. Enough thanks cannot be given for how much you give back to the music community. I’m grateful. Here’s to many, many more years.

Scott Amendola is a drummer, percussionist, and composer.

Laurie Anderson

John is such a magnificent person, musician, composer, impresario, and friend. Plus a skilled texter, improvisor, collaborator, networker, and gourmet. Also arranger, visual artist, and film expert. Plus matchmaker. (He introduced me to my husband.) He knows a lot of people and loves them for who they are. John is one of the shining human beings. Plus I love him dearly. Also John taught me to improvise. I couldn’t imagine venturing out onto a stage with no clue about what the first sound might be. He taught me confidence and the skill of building a big live musical structure and then how to move it around, rotate it, dissolve it. John is fearless. Dismissive of pompous authority. Able to suffer and share suffering. (Such a rare skill!) Ready to celebrate, party. Happy birthday, dear John.

Laurie Anderson is a musician, composer, and performance artist.

Charles Bernstein

The Lie of Music

for John Zorn @ 60

I don’t want innovative music.
I don’t want experimental music.
I don’t want conceptual music.
I don’t want abstract music.
I don’t want figurative music.
I don’t want original music.
I don’t want formal music.
I don’t want emotional music.
I don’t want nostalgic music.
I don’t want sentimental music.
I don’t want complacent music.
I don’t want erotic music.
I don’t want boring music.
I don’t want mediocre music.
I don’t want political music.
I don’t want empty music.
I don’t want baroque music.
I don’t want mannered music.
I don’t want minimal music.
I don’t want plain music.
I don’t want vernacular music.
I don’t want artificial music.
I don’t want pretentious music.
I don’t want idea music.
I don’t want thing music.
I don’t want naturalistic music.
I don’t want rhetorical music.
I don’t want dull music.
I don’t want rhapsodic music.
I don’t want rigid music.
I don’t want informal music.
I don’t want celebratory music.
I don’t want cerebral music.
I don’t want formulaic music.
I don’t want sardonic music.
I don’t want sadistic music.
I don’t want masochistic music.
I don’t want trendy music.
I don’t want adolescent music.
I don’t want senescent music.
I don’t want grumpy music.
I don’t want happy music.
I don’t want severe music.
I don’t want demanding music.
I don’t want tempestuous music.
I don’t want incendiary music.
I don’t want commercial music.
I don’t want moralizing music.
I don’t want transgressive music.
I don’t want violent music.
I don’t want exemplary music.
I don’t want uplifting music.
I don’t want degrading music.
I don’t want melancholy music.
I don’t want chaotic music.
I don’t want provocative music.
I don’t want self-satisfied music.
I don’t want nurturing music.
I don’t want genuine music.
I don’t want derivative music.
I don’t want religious music.
I don’t want authentic music.
I don’t want sincere music.
I don’t want sacred music.
I don’t want profane music.
I don’t want mystical music.
I don’t want voyeuristic music.
I don’t want traditional music.
I don’t want expectable music.
I don’t want hopeful music.
I don’t want irreverent music.
I don’t want process music.
I don’t want static music.
I don’t want urban music.
I don’t want pure music.
I don’t want ideological music.
I don’t want spontaneous music.
I don’t want pious music.
I don’t want comprehensible music.
I don’t want enigmatic music.
I don’t want epic music.
I don’t want lyric music.
I don’t want familiar music.
I don’t want alien music.
I don’t want human music.
—Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein is a poet, essayist, author, editor, and Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Pennsylvania.

Steven Bernstein

I’ve known John a long time… My first record in New York was with Saheb Sarbib’s big band in July 1981. The day after the recording, David Sewelson invited me down to the Ear Inn, where the Microscopic Septet was playing. John was the alto player. I had read about his solo concerts in the Village Voice, but this was the first time I met him. We continued to run into each other: the East Village, Studio Henry, SoHo lofts… It was a tight-knit world. I remember sitting in with the Sonny Clark Project at Studio Henry around that time. On my first date with my wife (Spring 1986), we were walking east on 4th Street and John was bicycling west (John was always on his bike; Don Cherry was always on his roller skates). He invited us to Roulette, where he was playing a series of duets: Christian Marclay, David Linton, Jim Staley. Around 1994, John started bugging me to make a record for Tzadik. I resisted. We parried ideas for a few years, and I finally made Diaspora Soul, which was another life-changer for me. John has continued to call me every year on my birthday (way too early in the morning), offer sage advice, invite me to dinner, inspire me with his continuing evolution as a writer and bandleader (and saxophonist, when he feels like it), and make me laugh. A special kind of friend. Thanks, John, and happy birthday! I won’t be calling at 7:00 am.

Steven Bernstein is a trumpeter/slide trumpeter, arranger, composer, and bandleader (Sex Mob).

Philip Bither

My relationship with John began in 1984 when I invited him (along with record producer extraordinaire Yale Evelev, now at Luaka Bop records) to produce Once Upon a Time in the East Village—Zorn’s tribute to film composer Ennio Morricone—at BAM’s Next Wave Festival (where I curated music in the ’80s). His brilliant, radical re-interpretation of Morricone works, played by a 25-musician strong cast, packed with downtown rock, jazz, and experimental music luminaries, was mind-blowing. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. I have followed, with jaw-dropped admiration, the diversity, density, and quality of his creative output, and have presented a few of his many projects whenever I could.

The Walker’s relationship to John Zorn dates back to the ’80s as well (see Chuck Helm’s entry) with Houdini and Marquis de Sade commissions, memorable tributes like Godard and Spillane, and appearances by his supergroup Naked City. In my years at the Walker, we’ve introduced his remarkable Masada quartet to the Midwest in 2001, and in 2006 produced ZORN X 3, a day of music, conversation, and film that planted the early seeds for our current larger birthday tribute. His love and commitment to a community of hundreds of creative music-makers and his fierce DIY ethos have inspired a whole generation of artists. When John saw a need, he simply created a new platform, whether it be live (the clubs Tonic and the Stone), recorded (Tzadik), written (the Arcana: Musicians on Music books) or collaborative (dozens of different bands).

At our Zorn X 3 artist talk back in ’06, a fan asked how John could continue to make his music in a (Bush-era) world that was in such a desperate state. His answer: I am just one of those guys, believe it or not, that remains naïve enough to think that music can change the world. Certainly through his actions, staggering creative output, the family of so many musicians he has formed and supported, and the example he has set through his independence and his courage, I think in fact John Zorn has changed the world—changed it in ways that only a catalytic, visionary artist can.

Philip Bither is McGuire Senior Curator, Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center; he curated our John Zorn @ 60 celebration.

Larry Blumenfeld

An East Village walkup. The space was cramped but somehow serene and tightly organized: a wall of LPs, another of DVDs, shelf upon shelf of books, including one complete wall of titles relating to Judaica and another on visual arts. A blackboard hung with cryptic notes regarding a work-in-progress about mysticism and ritual. An episode of Columbo flickered, the mute button having rendered Peter Falk just a series of outsized gestures.

That’s how it was 15 years ago when John Zorn invited me into his home for hours of conversation that led to a magazine cover story. At one point, he left me alone with a prized possession, one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes—a moment I’ll never forget because it felt precious and personal and yet opened vast worlds for me. And then slowly, over hours and then across years of conversation with John, through deep listening to music he created, played, produced, or just willed and cajoled into being—stuff that spilled across disciplines and erased categories—he has given me (us) unforgettable experience after unforgettable experience, special and private and also far-reaching in impact. Like Cornell’s boxes, these have mostly been offerings we couldn’t have asked for, didn’t know we wanted, hadn’t yet and wouldn’t ever have imagined. Here’s something he told me in that first meeting: “Composing is more than just imagining music—it’s knowing how to communicate it to musicians. And you don’t give an improviser music that’s completely written out, or ask a classical musician to improvise. I’m interested in speaking to musicians in their own languages, on their own terms, and in bringing out the best in what they do. To challenge them and excite them.” And to empower them in so many ways, both tangible—a music label and club—and less so—an open mind and a diligent and unfettered ethos.

Beyond his rightful place as a towering thinker and artist, John is modern music’s consummate doer. Here’s something else he told me way back: “I like to work with the materials that I have at hand. That’s something I learned from the New York avant-garde. I learned that from Jack Smith, who made art out of garbage, who made theater performances out of air. To make something out of nothing. That’s magic.” At 60, John Zorn’s alchemy is potent and resourceful and beautiful as ever, and ever more needed.

Larry Blumenfeld, a music writer and editor, covers jazz for the Wall Street Journal and other publications; he is editor-at-large at Jazziz magazine.

Bill Bragin

John Zorn is a shapeshifter—a trickster who refuses to be pinned down by established genre boxes—who has been enormously inspiring to me as a curator. I still remember first meeting him as an intern at New Music Distribution Services in 1986 when he was working on his pioneering Ennio Morricone piece, The Big Gundown. I then started exploring the depth and breadth of his catalog, from early game pieces to the birth of such pioneering projects as Naked City (oh, how I miss those residencies at the old Knitting Factory on Houston Street), Spillane, the multiple Masada variations, his chamber pieces, to the founding of Tzadik Records and the Stone. Through all these permutations, Zorn has been a center to a universe of artists who have helped change the way I think about music, genre, interconnectedness, and following your muse wherever it may take you.

Bill Bragin is Lincoln Center’s Director of Public Programming. He tweets at @activecultures.

Uri Caine

John was one of the first people I met when I moved to New York in the mid-’80s. I had first heard his version of Thelonious Monk’s “Shuffle Boil” on the Monk tribute recording produced by Hal Willner. Then I started to investigate more of his music and got his recordings Locus Solus, The Classic Guide to Strategy, and a recording of the Archery game piece. I loved the energy and freedom in his music. We first met at a recording session when John walked in and blew everyone away with his solos. Afterwards we talked and John was so friendly, encouraging, funny, and open. Since those days, I have followed his music and its various tributaries. His music explores so many worlds of musical possibilities.

John is a wonderful and amazingly prolific composer. His music is extremely varied and sings and speaks in so many musical dialects fluently. I love the sound of compositions such as Aporias (for piano, orchestra, and children’s choir) and the humor of Cat o’ Nine Tails (for string quartet). I enjoy how John contrasts wild and stormy textures with quiet and still music in pieces like Necronomicon. I love his compositions where there are quick changes but also his music that develops more slowly, like Kol Nidre.

John is an inventive and fearless improviser. He directs his groups through a variety of hand gestures, visual cues, and conducting. Before beginning to play together he will say, “Watch Me!” Often he cues us in and out and creates orchestrations on the spot. John leads his groups in a relaxed way but he is also very specific in what he wants to hear, and he’s not shy about directing the music when he wants something to happen.

Besides being a composer and improviser, John is an important catalyst for a lot of the musical activity in New York City for the past four decades. His record company Tzadik has recorded hundreds of musicians from around the world in many diverse musical styles. His club the Stone offers challenging and interesting music night after night in New York City. Through his book series Arcana, he has published six books of essays by many different musicians writing about an astonishing variety of musical topics. It’s amazing that he has the time to do all of this and continue to produce, record, and compose.

John is an advocate of talent, both young and old. I’ve seen him go out of his way to help musicians by recording and promoting their music. He loves music that is experimental, different, unexpected, and takes chances. He has a healthy irreverence towards the conventional musical establishment.

In addition to all of this, he is also a food connoisseur who loves to explore restaurants in New York City and around the world. He is a lover of Japanese culture and fluent in Japanese, a lover of Jewish culture, and a lover of New York City. He is a reader of mystic tracts and of poetry. He is also a generous friend. Often he will call or write to ask how things are going, and he’s always ready to share a meal and talk about music and life. He loves to connect musicians with each other and to make things happen. John inspires me because he brings so much passion, enthusiasm, imagination, and defiance to all his work as a musician and an artist.

Uri Caine is a classical and jazz pianist and composer.

Claire Chase

John Zorn is, put simply, a force of nature. If he graced the world with only his musical gifts, as a boundlessly brilliant creator and performer of experimental music, that would by itself be an embarrassment of riches. But John’s contributions to the world—and especially to the younger generation of experimental musicians in New York—go far, far beyond his unparalleled musical genius. At every turn, he offers opportunities for young people; he kindles communities of contemporary artists through new production and curatorial models, publications, and performances; he gives fearlessly and selflessly of himself and of his vision, catalyzing and nurturing much of the creative richness of the current New York scene.

For me personally, John is the most important musician-mentor that I have had since I moved to New York. I cannot imagine my life or my work without him. What a privilege it is for all of us to celebrate his 60th birthday this year, to share in our gratitude for all that he has given us and to share in our excitement about all that he will engender in the years ahead.

Claire Chase is a flautist, arts entrepreneur, and CEO/artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble.

Nels Cline

I first heard John Zorn in the late ’70s when he came to my hometown of Los Angeles as part of a duo tour he was doing with guitarist Eugene Chadbourne. They played two nights at the Century City Playhouse. Zorn was instantly memorable with long hair pulled randomly into an almost-ponytail, glasses barely on his nose, football jersey, and cutoffs; his alto and curved soprano saxophones strapped on simultaneously around his neck and his clarinet held mostly between his scrawny legs. Impressively, I heard that they were touring on Greyhound buses with no change of clothes. I mention this because as the years progressed and I kept track of John as he started his gamesmanship pieces, put on concerts all over lower Manhattan, worked at SoHo Music Gallery, mounted tributes to some of his favorite jazz and film composers, etc., etc., he has, in my mind, always been as gonzo as that Greyhound tour. He is amazingly disciplined, thorough, iconoclastic, prolific, uncompromising—an artist through and through. He is also a generous, community-minded fellow, though that side of him seems to be kept more on the QT. His introductions to the Arcana series of essays by “musicians on music” that he edits say much about this side of him—and about not just his musical concerns, but also his humanistic and spiritual ones. I guess I could have made this more succinct by just saying that John Zorn is a damn genius.

Nels Cline is a guitarist and composer (Wilco, Quartet Music, Nels Cline Trio, Geraldine Fibbers).

Anthony Coleman

I’ve known John for more than 30 years. And there’s no way to truly summarize all we’ve experienced together in that time. Nor to enumerate all of the ways in which he and his work have impacted upon my life and work. But, to give it a shot…

John was really my last great teacher. I learned so much from him about timing, color, decisive actions… and about how to deal with the panoply of Routes and Influences that can create so much Post-Modern Anxiety. Nobody honors their forebears more than John does. But, in the face of Masters or Masterpieces, he is never cowed. He never falls into the trap of that deadly word “respect.” His is an active engagement with models and genres.

I also want to say something about the fact that, while John is as individual a creator as we have, he is, at the same time, someone who is and has always been actively concerned with community building. Way before Tzadik and The Stone, John was always right in the center of our musical world— organizing, engaging, challenging, cajoling. I can personally say that his encouragement and support have lifted me out of dark times of crippling doubt more often than I would like to admit.

John Zorn’s passion and drive and boundless creativity have thrown down a gauntlet which, honestly, can sometimes be more than a bit daunting. But it has been amazing and thrilling to share the adventures of this time with him. Here’s to 60 more years of that!

Anthony Coleman is a pianist, keys player, trombonist, vocalist, and composer.

Noah Creshevsky

John Zorn is at heart a mystery, but the depth of his soul is most fully revealed in his art. No one moves with greater agility between genres, instrumentations, and styles than Zorn, and nowhere are the roles of performer, composer, and producer more unified than in his breathtaking studio pieces, which include Interzone, Nosferatu, and Rimbaud.

John profoundly understands that all recorded music is electronic, and he takes full advantage of its infinite variety. Recorded music can be vast, otherworldly, and superhuman, but it can also be intimate, acoustic, and personal. In his studio pieces, Zorn glides seamlessly between elegant simplicity and astonishing complexity. In a single work, he mixes moments that are extravagantly electronic with measures of unprocessed acoustic piano, saxophone, or sung and spoken voice. He may follow a section that can seem to be performed by live musicians with one that can only be realized electronically.

Music in the 20th and 21st centuries has been enriched in countless ways by the miracle that is John Zorn, but I think his perfection of the studio piece is his greatest contribution to the music of our time and to the music of the future. I honor and celebrate my friend and colleague every day. It brings me special joy to honor and celebrate him on his 60th birthday. Happy Birthday, John.

Noah Creshevsky is a composer and electronic music artist.

Alvin Curran

John Zorn is tout-court the music of our time. A sync-pulse with the confluence of every sonic longing from every time and place and all the humble needs to love them, destroy them, resynthesize them, transcend them. Yes, the music of our time, all the 24/7 of it from the last 40,000 years in all its reckless, rule-less, irreverent, virtuoso ways of getting to the “ain sof” and if not there then to “the next whiskey bar oh moon of…” Beyond that, there’s a mensch of monumental proportions working nonstop to bring beauty wherever it might be needed.

Alvin Curran is an experimental musician, composer, and cofounder of the acoustic/electronic improvisational group Musica Elettronica Viva.

Dave Douglas

John is a blast! Aside from all the great music, we have had some enormous laughs. Masada was a band in hysterics, at least off the stage (and sometimes on stage). Thanks, John, for your generosity, openness, sharing, and of course for all the music. Still inspiring me and keeping me guessing after all these years.

Dave Douglas is a trumpeter, composer, and bandleader.

Stephen Drury

John shows us how any kind of music can be good music, if it is indeed good music. He shows us how fast we can hear. John brought music up to the speed of light and let it shatter the boundaries we had imagined.

Stephen Drury is a pianist, electronic musician, and conductor.

Jewlia Eisenberg

In high school, I loved empty piers, revival-house films, and loud music. I would go to almost any concert, as long as it was visceral, coming home bruised from punk mosh pits or with a contact high from dancehall reggae shows. I went to hear Naked City, stood in the front, and came out with my ears flayed. I loved it! It was all about velocity, fun, and chops. And then it turned out the bandleader also was deep into Morricone… Wow! Twenty-five years and a kaleidoscope of a canon later, I’m still digging this man’s work.

Obviously, he’s an important composer and musician, but I also want to witness on what Radical Jewish Culture has meant for me. The diversity of people doing ambitious new music, coming from many countries and traditions, all engaging with Jewish content, be it folk songs, texts, historical moments, or something intangible that you can argue about for hours… Mindblowing. Did anyone know this discourse was possible before JZ made a place for us to share our music, to take chances, to share provocative work, and be part of a floating sonic community? Thank you for the path you’ve chosen, JZ—you’re my hero! Until 120!

Jewlia Eisenberg is a composer, extended-technique vocalist, lay cantor, and the founder of Charming Hostess.

Richard Foreman

No question, aside from being a great musician-composer and multifaceted “organizer” of many different artistic forms, John is a very great and generous human being—a true mensch who has been kind to and supported so many of us in so many ways. As a very young man he appeared at my theater and answered phone and did some early events with small objects on a table. In later years (much later), we did an opera together—Astronome. It happened like this: I was walking down Broadway, and there was John, walking towards me.

“Hi Richard, Richard! What are you up to?”

I told him I was directing an opera. “Why don’t you write me an opera, John?”

“Oh, but I can’t write to words; it could only be an opera without words, even if there was singing.”

Fine, I said, an opera without words.

“Ok. I’ll do it!”

So a year passed, I didn’t hear from John, but I didn’t want to bug him. Suddenly, a call from John: “Richard, how are ya? I have your opera! It’s coming out on my record label.”

“Great, I’ll stage it. Sight unseen.”

So I listened to it… Wow! This will shake the theater to the ground, but I don’t know how the hell it can be staged—but I’ll do it! Of course, such are the most exciting projects. I did find a way—and it was a great success—John never trying to influence me in what I did with his great and overwhelming music! There is truly no one else like John in New York. He is fearless as an artist, and in his private life, he’s the kindest and most supportive human being I have ever known.

Richard Foreman is a playwright, director, and founder of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater.

Erik Friedlander

I first met and worked with John at the Knitting Factory in New York. It was September 1993, and John asked me to perform one his games pieces called Hockey. We were in rehearsal on Houston Street with John and violinist Laura Seaton as John laid out the rules of the game. To start John asked Laura and I to come up with five distinctly different loud noises that we could move quickly between, one to the other. As I recall, John was playing duck calls. The sounds he was after from us needed to be five distinct scratches or squeaks (harder than you think!). After listening to John lay out the rules, I offered a recap to affirm I had it together:

“So, we try and move as fast as we can between these five noises and then…”

“You don’t try,” John interrupted. “We do it or we don’t perform the piece.”

This was the Zorn clarity I would come to know over these last 20 years: a piece demands a particular kind of playing so we must bring it to bear. The music must be served!

Now 20 years later I will go into these performances at the Walker knowing exactly what I have to do. I’ve learned a lot from John because he is an expert at doing. Whether it’s visiting a friend’s sick wife in the hospital, composing, or going to lunch at some great restaurant, he finds the time. He simply doesn’t stop doing. He is the most inspiring, encouraging, prolific musician I know. Happy birthday, John. Much love!

Erik Friedlander is a cellist and composer; he is performing as part of the Walker’s John Zorn @ 60 celebration.

Bill Frisell

Wow. So much history. I don’t know where to begin. MUSIC. One thing leads to another. Early ’80’s. New York. Paul Motian introduced me to Tim Berne. Tim introduced me to Zorn at the SoHo Music Gallery (the great record shop, long gone, where they both worked). I’d heard of him… saxophone player… but had not heard his music. I didn’t know what I was in for.

Came into the store looking for African music. He recommended Ebenezer Obey. I thought he was some extreme scholar nerd specializing in this one area of African music. Soon realized he knew every record in the place.

Then I heard HIS music. Whoa! It changed the way I think. A door opened—one I never knew was there. John welcomed me in. Another world. Extraordinary. Incredible stuff in there. New people. New friends. New ways of thinking-doing… learning. It was fun and intense and wonderful. Loud, soft, big, and small. Track and Field, Cobra, Wayne and Robin [Horvitz and Holcomb], duck calls, The Big Gundown, BAM, Nonesuch, Spillane, Godard, Stephanie and Irving Stone, “Hard Plains Drifter” or, as the noose grows tight, the incredible events of the past three decades flash before my eyes: The Saint, Roulette, Arto Lindsay, Ikue, Hu Die, Fred Frith, Chandelier, Naked City, 8BC, Mike Patton, Radio City Music Hall recording studio, Walter Sear’s recording studio and his films on “film” not video, John Patton, Walker Art Center, Europe, Thomas Stöwsand, Japan, Eye, naked stage divers (literally) in Lake Geneva, George Lewis, Brazil, Claudia Engelhart, Town Hall, Marquis de Sade in Paris (THAT was somethin’!), Quine, The Theater of Musical Optics, Steve Beresford walking on the piano, middle of the night walking from one end of Paris to the other, Charles Bukowski, Eiffel Tower, Bill Laswell, Milford Graves, Masada Guitars, Silent Comedy, Gnostic Preludes, hard-ass music, walking, talking, good food, lost in Tokyo subway, REALLY good food, good times. We’ve been all over the place. It’s still going on. Thank you, John. Happy birthday.

Bill Frisell is a guitarist, composer, and arranger.

David Fulmer

John Zorn has an infinite amount of musical genius to give the musical community. His scores, performances, improvisations, and everything in between are a reflection of his musical fortitude and integrity. It was immediately apparent to me, from my very first performance of Necronomicon, that each note, each dynamic, each gesture, each musical contour, was filled with an extremely cultivated sensitivity—yielding a highly sophisticated web of sonic design. Each piece, more engaging than the next, hits me in the heart as a performer and in the brain as a composer. His industry is incalculable, and I am so honored to have been on the receiving end of his commissions—all of which I cherish deeply, and have a life-long commitment towards.

David Fulmer is a conductor, composer, and violinist.

Ben Goldberg

The job of the composer and improviser is to hear what comes next. John Zorn has given us what comes next in two beautiful ways: his own amazing compositions, and his loving dedication to the stirrings of something new in the work of musicians around the world.

Ben Goldberg is a composer and clarinet player (the New Klezmer Trio, Tin Hat).

Annie Gosfield

I moved to New York City 20 years ago, around the time of John Zorn’s 40th birthday celebration. Irving and Stephanie Stone gave me Zorn’s phone number and encouraged me to call him. (Zorn later named “The Stone” for Irving Stone. The Stones were an older couple on the scene, and you knew you were at the right gig if they were there.) Calling him felt a little bit like a scene from The Godfather, I was excited to meet him, but nervous about asking for any favors. When I finally made the call, he was typically friendly and down to earth, and invited me to play at the Radical Jewish Culture Festival at the Knitting Factory. It was an auspicious start to one of my most valued friendships, and a great introduction to a community of like-minded artists in my new home.

John’s been a great inspiration to me, moving seamlessly between so many different genres, defying categorization, and always producing work that is uncompromising, surprising, beautifully crafted, and 100 percent Zorn. As he looks 60 in the eye, he can be assured that in recent years his music has only gotten better. For decades he has used his boundless creative energy to blaze a trail artistically. He takes the same approach to building a community, supporting his fellow musicians and composers with new models that are innovative, artist-friendly, and leave the others in the dust.

Annie Gosfield is a composer and winner of a 2012 Berlin Prize.

Michael Hafftka

John Zorn has been an inspiration and an influence for me for over 30 years since I first heard his brazenly original music on the Lower East Side. He was making insanity but insanity that made sense with duck calls and his sax. Somehow the sounds he was making felt exactly like the brush strokes in my paintings. More so the emotional vibe emanating from his rhythms and melodies, or even the harsh brutal sounds with which he expressed the horrific loss in the Shoah, always connected to my soul. I came to the conclusion that John is one of the 36 (Lamed Vav) tzadiks. There is a great legend in Judaism that the world’s survival depends on 36 hidden tzadiks (righteous men). I am outing him as a hidden righteous one that is holding up the universe with his devotion to beauty and art. He is always creating more and melding various styles into his own unique voice.

I’ve wanted to paint John’s portrait for many years, and recently he came to my studio and sat for the portrait. He didn’t say much about himself, but rather asked about my art. I got the feeling that he was composing right there as he sat for me, and the amazing thing is that he helped me feel and portray him. There is that very special moment when you show the sitter the canvas and you never know how they will react to your vision of them. When I turned the easel around to face John he exclaimed in a loud voice with delicious enthusiasm, “There is me! You have captured me!” John is a beautiful, generous artist who can see into other artists and musicians and feel and enhance their vision. Happy birthday, John, and big respect!

Michael Hafftka is a painter whose works are included in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.

Lyn Hejinian

For John, beloved always, with gratitude, and asking nothing but that he knows, this—which was dedicated to him when it was published and is dedicated to him still
I am writing now in preconceptions
Those of sex and ropes
Many frantic cruelties occur to the flesh of the imagination
And the imagination does have flesh to destroy
And the flesh has imagination to sever
The mouth is just a body filled with imagination
Can you imagine its contents—the dripping into a bucket
And its acts—the ellipses and chaining apart
The feather
The observer
The imagination, bare, has nothing to confirm it
There’s just the singing of the birds
The sounds of the natural scream
The imagination wishes to be embraced by freedom
It is laid bare in order to be desired
But the imagination must keep track of the flesh responding—its increments of awareness—a slow progression
It must be beautiful and it can’t be free

Lyn Heginian is an essayist, translator, and poet associated with the avant-garde Language poetry movement. She’s a professor of English at UC-Berkeley.

Chuck Helm

All the best for your 60th birthday bash at the Walker, John. The concerts you’re doing there offer a terrific overview of the musical trajectory that you’ve shaped over the years. It’s truly an occasion to celebrate.

I take a measure of pride in having launched your longstanding relationship with the Walker and your avid Twin Cities audience through inviting you for your first concert there in the Eighties when sonic sparks flew between you, Arto Lindsay, Christian Marclay, and David Moss. You delivered such a series of memorable shows in those days including Naked City’s radical reshuffle of damn near everything, the cinematic sweep of Godard and Spillane, and—coincidentally, the last show I presided over at the Walker—the first unveiling of the dark magic of Houdini/de Sade that you and Arto provocatively conjured up.

In the years since you’ve amply demonstrated your growth as a major composer for our times, an energetic catalyst at the center of the action, a generous advocate for so many composers and players, and a standard bearer for artist’s rights, unrestricted freedom, and self-determination. As they say, you’re known by the company you keep. So, John, as you survey the depth and breadth of the work you’ve already accomplished, the many talents gathered to perform your music at the Walker as well as consider all the other artists you’ve inspired and touched, and the rapt glint in the eyes of your audience: all this reflects well on the very good company you enjoy and your place in this sphere. Keep it coming and savor this milestone in your life.

Chuck Helm is director of Performing Arts at the Wexner Center for the Arts; from 1984 to 1991, he was music consultant at the Walker Art Center.

Lee Hyla

Working and engaging with John has always been a great pleasure. I’ve known him for twenty years and it has been a great experience to see his growth as a composer and musician over that time. He has been a true inspiration to more than a generation of musicians and artists. Along with his artistic vision and depth, he has been one of the most generous and supportive musicians on the planet. It has been an honor to know him and work with him, and I send him my love on his 60th.

Lee Hyla is a contemporary classical composer.

Susie Ibarra

Dear John,
Happy birthday to you!
Your vision, music, and generosity have touched our hearts. You are always the one remembering all our birthdays. I’m happy that we get to celebrate you.

Wishing you a magical birthday filled with great music, joy, love, and health, and oh so many more years to come.

Susie Ibarra is a composer, improviser, percussionist.

Richard Kessler

Happy birthday to my dear friend and hero John Zorn!

John, on your 60th birthday, I want to say thanks. Thank you for helping to model for generations what it is to be an artist who thinks not only of themselves, but works to help and support other artists. Thank you for being an artist who searches for meaning. Thank you for having the chutzpah to do it your own way. Thank you for all the wonderful music you’ve made and will continue to make. Thank you for all the knowledge you’ve acquired and all the ways you have sought to share it. And thank you, John, for being a good friend to me.

Your fellow Jewboy from Queens,
 Richard

Richard Kessler is dean of Mannes College The New School of Music.

Bill Laswell

In a conversation a few years ago we found ourselves discussing some of the artists we have known and worked with over time, up to this point a very long time. We came to the conclusion that some of them had wasted a lot of time, two years here, ten there, in some cases more, sometimes just enough to keep something life-changing and rewarding from happening. There exists a substantial temptation to improve on thoughts and judgments formed earlier, reshaping them with hindsight.

I have tried to avoid such distortions.

Regarding John, one of the first things that comes to mind is I don’t recall him ever wasting time and energy on something that didn’t produce a clear and direct result. Nothing was shelved as far as I know and the backlog speaks volumes. I can claim only one of those statements for myself.

As far as the music, it has always spoken for itself. You like it, you dislike it, I’m sure to him it means the same. A true original.

Bill Laswell is a bassist, producer, and owner of record labels including M.O.D. Technologies and Axiom.


Read part two in this series, “Wild Man, Iconoclast, Dreamer: 60 on John Zorn at 60.” Have a birthday wish of your own? Please leave it in comments.

“John is one of the shining human beings.” —Laurie Anderson

“I think in fact John Zorn has changed the world—changed it in ways that only a catalytic, visionary artist can.” —Philip Bither

“John Zorn is a shapeshifter—a trickster who refuses to be pinned down by established genre boxes…” —Bill Bragin

“He is amazingly disciplined, thorough, iconoclastic, prolific, uncompromising… A damn genius.” —Nels Cline

“John brought music up to the speed of light and let it shatter the boundaries we had imagined.” —Stephen Drury

John Zorn

Photo: Scott Irvine

Poster from Zorn’s 1984 Walker performance

John Zorn on the Walker stage in 1989

Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Poster from Zorn’s 1989 Walker performance

John Zorn with Michael Hafftka and his portrait of the musician

Photo: Heung-Heung Chin