Fanfare for a Warrior: Remembering Greg Tate

Fanfare for a Warrior: Remembering Greg Tate

Vijay Iyer

Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer pens a love letter to his friend and collaborator, the legendary cultural critic and Free Jazz musician Greg Tate

Black and white photo of Greg Tate looking down whilst holding an electric guitar.
Photo of Greg Tate by Žiga Koritnik. Courtesy Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.

When Greg left us, we all felt kneecapped. I remember the shock to my gut, my heart as broken as when Amiri Baraka had passed eight years earlier – my body freezing mid-step on 125th Street, my eyes flooding, my mind ablaze trying to assimilate this newest void in our universe. The way each of them had continually shown up for us, held us, supported and nurtured us, challenged, confounded, and inspired us – we had come to depend on their regular presence and input, as observers, commentators, witness-bearers, gentle mentors, dispensers of jokes and shrewd takes and wise advice. Without you, how would we make sense of this world? And how should we carry on at all, in a world without you?

Greg Tate’s jangling, shimmering sentences first rang in my ear around 1989. Then a sophomore in college, I sprung for a subscription to the (now defunct) Village Voice in order to keep up with New York’s music and art worlds. Back then, that weekly paper featured a lot of cultural writing, all of it contentious, most of it progressive, a good portion of it decentering whiteness. But Greg’s thousand-word salvos invariably felt the most alive and current. He could and would write about anyone—Tina Turner, Spike Lee, Geri Allen, Cecil Taylor, bell hooks, Public Enemy, Sun Ra, Samuel Delany, Whitney Houston, Michael Jordan – implicitly asserting that they might all be understood as part of an interconnected fabric, that they all were vibrating together in so many heterogeneous ways, and that they could all be the sprawling domain of one writer. This sensibility was not new (certainly Hurston, Baldwin, Reed, and Baraka had already claimed such mobility), but it was new to me, and it felt thrillingly right. People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was the title of A Tribe Called Quest’s debut, but it might as well be the name for Greg’s signature meta-genre, his method, his take on cultural history. 

Black and white photo of five musicians, including Greg Tate, making music.

Photo of Greg Tate with Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.

Photo by Žiga Koritnik. Courtesy Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.

I learned as much from the way Greg connected dots across disparate fields of human endeavor as I did from the curvaceous liveliness of his prose. A forthright trickster, he would luxuriate in intoxicating flurries of ornate phrases before issuing a sharply devastating cut to the chase. His writing became my textbook, my history lesson, my back channel of continuing ed. And in the long run, his words gave orientation to my nascent brown life, showing me how I might move and feel, as a South Asian American in clangorous contact with Black musics and Black music-makers. 

In December 1998, I moved from Oakland to New York. I had become acquainted with Greg through some mutual friends; I was awestruck but tried not to show it. Somehow within weeks of my arrival, I was enlisted into his impromptu, exploratory, Bitches’ Brew-inspired recording session. It seemed a little sketchy, but it was Greg so I was up for anything. I showed up at the allotted time to find a motley collective of folks from every walk of musical life, a full subway car’s worth of outsized characters, packed into a cluttered, dusty studio whose saving grace was a sumptuous hundred-year-old Steinway tucked away in its own booth. I planted myself on its bench, donned the headphones, and set to playing with and against whatever was happening in the next room. 

What we did that day became the raw material for four or five albums of the band Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, including our (in retrospect, very piano-forward) debut Blood on the Leaf. On some of it, like the track “A Blood Sample from Erroll Garner,” his producer’s ear zooms in on a piano moment during which I sound unaware that the tape is rolling; I’m playing to myself, the sonic equivalent of “Dance like no one’s watching.” 

Album art featuring a woman with an afro wearing a green dress, upon a pink and orange background. The text reads "Angels over Oakanda, Burnt Sugar, The Arkestra Chamber."

Album cover for Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber. Portrait Art by Robert Pruitt and Graphic Design by LaRonda Davis.

Courtesy Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.

There was something pivotal in Greg’s way of hearing the beauty of our full quotidian selves, these ordinary and unguarded moments somehow elevated to art. It therefore made sense when he soon took up some of Butch Morris’s “conduction” language, a method of transducing people’s individual humanity into elements of musical architecture. We soon began assembling en masse on any stage that could barely hold us, playing gigantic sets of celebratory, gloriously sludgy grooves around New York. It felt like P-Funk meeting Sun Ra Arkestra as a weekend bowling league / be-in / lowkey cult. The conductor’s baton in Tate’s hand became a slightly demented lightning rod, adding a punk edge or stunt quality that channeled chaotic good. With all that he knew, this was his way of doubling down on the unknown. Burnt Sugar, baby! We dubbed ourselves “the band that never plays the same thing once.”

Most of all he helped me do what every musician must do, which is to learn to hear another person, and in so doing, to love them. His uncanny ability to hear and honor the greatness in others felt at one with the compassionate critical listening of Amiri Baraka, another legendary Black writer/performer/critic/theorist whose band I had joined at the time. The ongoing experience in those years of being fully heard by both of them, being received as a whole person, being included and embraced as though I belonged in the worlds they traversed, being allowed to feel like a comrade and fellow traveler among giants – it all invited and even dared me to summon the most sincere, most intensely liberated artist that I could find within myself. 

Something Greg wrote once about the contrasts in my own music - “violence and terror one minute, ravishing beauty the next” - reminded me of a line Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: “Proximity to terror is [Afrodiasporic] music’s inaugural experience.” What Black livingness might have to do with me, I had yet to figure out. But less than two months after 9/11/01, in that moment’s initial (now long since normalized) efforts to weaponize airport “safety,” I got pulled aside at JFK while boarding a flight with Baraka’s band. As the security guard went through my backpack and frisked me, Baraka strutted by, untouched and unbothered, pointing at me and cracking up. When I later recounted this moment to Greg, he chuckled too, naming it instantly: “Welcome to racial profiling.” The new world order had arrived. Baraka and Tate were alike in this way: both were able to pinpoint, in a single utterance, the absurd stakes white supremacy had imposed on us all by throwing the rest of us into such uneasy relation.

Over dozens of hangs with Greg and thousands of revelations in these decades in New York, it was not lost on me that I was the recipient of generous Black love and brotherhood from a true icon. Little that I can say can do it justice, but one phrase of his might. In summer 2021, I convened an online panel with Roscoe Mitchell, Imani Uzuri, Yvette Janine Jackson, and him. In the days leading up to it, our preparatory communications offered yet another glimpse of his trickster spirit, his effortless way of harnessing the unknown. Though it was months before he passed, it became one of the last written communications I would receive from him: a text message that read, “Always leave room for the ghosts.” 

Sound advice, if there ever was any. GT, if your ghost is reading this, please know that it has a permanent all-access pass to every joint in town. We miss your words, your rhythms, your signifying, your furious styles, your mellow touch. Thank you for your knowledge, your synthesis, your genius, your heat, your heart. 

Vijay Iyer
New York City
June 7, 2023

Black and white side profile photograph of Greg Tate conducting with right arm raised and holding a conductor's baton in his left hand..

Greg Tate conducting a band. Courtesy Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.

Photo credit to Žiga Koritnik.

Described by The New York Times as a “social conscience, multimedia collaborator, system builder, rhapsodist, historical thinker and multicultural gateway,” composer-pianist Vijay Iyer is one of the leading music-makers of his generation. His honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a United States Artist Fellowship, a Grammy nomination, and the Alpert Award in the Arts. His most recent album is Love In Exile (Verve Records, 2023), a collaborative trio release with Grammy-winning vocalist Arooj Aftab and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily.

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