In its day, the late 1960s, the Quatuor de Jazz libre du Québec (QJLQ) was the first local band dedicated to the cause of free jazz, the era’s most radical music. Remarkably, it grabbed headlines, joining forces for a while with singer Robert Charlebois, then the leading pop icon. As unlikely as it was, that pop-free jazz encounter was part of the order of the day, when musical genres clashed at will. This episode is but one of many dealt with in a new book (in French) on this trailblazing jazz ensemble. Entitled JAZZ LIBRE et la révolution québécoise: Musique-action, 1967-1975, this 200-page tome is a well-researched first-time account of the QJLQ’s meteoric rise and gradual decline. Its author, Eric Fillion, is an historian dedicated to the study of avant-garde and leftist cultural movements, a prime focus of his publisher M Éditeur. To set the table for the book’s early May release, the author shares some insights on his work.
La Scena Musicale: What is your personal history with the QJLQ?
Eric Fillion: By the time my interest was really aroused, around 2011, I had heard the self-titled LP and numerous tapes archived at the NFB. I had gleaned bits and pieces out of John Gilmore’s jazz history Swinging in Paradise and articles published in Québec Underground. I then came across an unreleased session dated May 13, 1973, which introduced me to its final and far more radical period. I felt the need of bringing it out, so I issued it under the title 1973 on Tenzier, my vinyl-imprint label dedicated to Québécois experimental music of the past. At its launch in January 2012, I met several people who corroborated my view that the group’s aesthetic pursuits, the purely musical ones, were inextricably bound up with its social agenda.
LSM: Were there specific events or facts that led you to write this book?
E.F.: The release of the LP occurred at a time when I was finishing my Masters in history. I was conducting research on filmmaking during the Quiet Revolution, which made me want to burrow a little deeper into a terrain left unexplored. In my view, the avant-garde movements were simply cast aside in the narrative of Quebec’s cultural history. To shed some light on how their practices contributed to social change, one ought to focus on the activities of all militant and left-leaning independence movements. That record opened a door for me, not only by the contacts I made and interviews I did, but also by giving me access to an amazing amount of privately-owned archival materials.
E.F.: I was understandably antsy after submitting requests for access to information to the RCMP and Sureté du Québec, so the very prospect of being the first researcher to lay eyes on declassified documents was quite exciting. I was astonished by the mass of material kept on file by these agencies. My greatest surprise, though, was an impromptu visit to the one-time commune of the Jazz libre out in the country near Granby. In a shed that once served as a pig-stall, only to be converted into the group’s information centre, I came across piles of flyers, posters and previously unissued printouts of their tabloid P’tit Québec libre, all left untouched for 40 years!
LSM: While the book’s main thrust is to recount the QJLQ’s rather rocky (hi)story, you conclude with an assessment. Now 50 years later, what, in your view, was its main strength and main weakness?
E.F.: In a general sense, the problems besetting the Jazz libre were the same as those encountered by all left-leaning independence movements of the 1970s. More specifically, its main failure lay in the refusal to reconsider its position because the music it played was not the right vehicle to get its politics across. On the upside, however, it paved the way for those emerging after them, younger musicians who took their cues to organize and get their own music out in the world on their own terms. Two good examples here were the collectives known as AME (Atelier de musique expérimentale) in the early 1970s, followed by the EMIM (Ensemble de musique improvisée de Montréal), both of whom were doggedly persistent in their efforts, and admirably so.
LSM: The cultural and social concerns of our time are totally different from those in 1969, and that makes us wonder about the group’s music now and its relevance.
E.F.: Its music is still relevant, no doubt about it in my mind. The free improv of Jazz libre is a valid tool of social change, even if its underlying discourse is entirely different from those held in our time. To prove my point, organizations currently devoted to the critical study of improvisation in society abound. As an aside, I must mention the upcoming June release of a five-CD set of unissued sessions by the Jazz libre, a project I worked on with the label Tour de bras in Rimouski. Its music is just as riveting now as it was then, believe me.
LSM: Those who read French will be struck by the use of gender inclusiveness, for example “participants-es.” More surprising, though, are the cases of “iels” or “toustes”, respectively for “they” and “all” (male and female), neither of which are accepted in French. Some will tax you for being too politically correct.
E.F.: This has always been the norm of my publisher, M éditeur. This practice, in my mind, is compatible to the unsettling socio-political agenda of a group that deliberately took aim at all existing codes. Jazz libre thought and acted differently so as to instil new solidarities and social change.
As memories of the group fade, its musical modus operandi has anything but disappeared. Montreal’s cutting-edge music fest, the Suoni per il Popolo, will salute this group on June 19. A variety of musicians will share the bill, with the added presence of its last original surviving member, drummer Guy Thouin. Details will follow on this and the box set in our summer festival music section.
You can read an excerpt of the book (in french, thanks to M Editeur)