On an early May evening, just as life started to resume, pianist Myra Melford took to the stage at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles to perform a duet. Her collaborator was the late composer and cornetist Lawrence “Butch” Morris, who appeared larger than life onscreen above her piano. The performance was a post-pandemic reimagining of an earlier site-specific project by conceptual artist David Hammons.
“Global Fax Festival” originally premiered in 2000, at Palacio de Cristal in Madrid, a glorious cathedral-like structure made of iron and glass, built in the late 1800s to house tropical plants. Hammons’ interactive installation ran from June until November that year: nine fax machines suspended from the palace’s vaulted ceiling, gently birthing incoming messages from all over the world. Five days before it closed, Morris gave a concert in the space.
I met Butch Morris, and his ensemble of improvisors, that same summer, at A Gathering of the Tribes, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The place was run by poet and playwright Steve Cannon, a former college professor who had gone blind in the late 1980s, and subsequently started a nonprofit arts organization from his East Third Street townhouse, as a way to stay ensconced in an avant-garde scene he had helped shape. Cannon, a New Orleans native who grew up in the segregated South, sought out diversity and multiculturalism in all forms, with an emphasis on literature and art.
Tribes was a bohemian fairytale, a veritable salon for counterculture characters and curious spectators exchanging ideas outside the page margins. It ran a literary magazine and small press, and hosted events and exhibitions in a gallery which attracted both emerging and established artists. (Cannon was a blind curator with impeccable taste.)
Compared to the white cubes of Chelsea and the white pearls of Upper East Side galleries, Tribes was a hole in the wall. And the wall happened to be a David Hammons original, painted bright red with golden capillaries and halos of hair clippings collected from barbershop floors in Harlem. Hammons and Morris were contemporaries of Cannon, as well as longtime friends, and they regularly dropped by.
I can still picture Butch and his band squeezing down Steve’s near-vertical stairwell that summer, into the little back garden, and playing mightily until nightfall. Morris’ movement was as memorable as his music, with hands like practiced mudras, palms pressed open, guiding his musicians: holding space, creating space, becoming space.
Born in Long Beach, California, Morris came up through the LA jazz scene before moving to New York City in the 1980s. His groundbreaking experimental work and collaborations with musicians, dancers, and poets drew both downtown and international acclaim. Playing at Tribes was as probable as performing in Europe, as he did with “Global Fax Festival.”
Hammons’ recently restaged version incorporated video footage from that millennial performance in Madrid showing Morris conducting a small ensemble, as audience members stood around and chatted, or stretched out on the palace floor, facsimiles falling from above.
The LA concert can now be streamed on “Ursula,” Hauser & Wirth’s digital art magazine, with a runtime of just under 30 minutes. The result is a screen within a screen, a portal into Morris’ mastery and Melford’s deep understanding of his music, often referred to as “Conduction,” structured improvisation that transcends genres. A bit like jazz. Or spontaneous combustion.
Hammons wanted to bring a reimagined “Global Fax Festival” to Los Angeles this spring just as the city was beginning to reawaken after a long and difficult hibernation. It is a tribute to Morris, who passed away in 2013, as much as a testament to this current moment, bridging past and present through image and sound.
Not long after Morris’ death, Steve Cannon moved from his townhouse to a smaller place a few blocks north. (The bright red Hammons wall went with him.) He kept Tribes going, albeit a pared-down version, with a steady stream of interns, volunteers, and visitors answering emails, reading the newspaper aloud, and bringing him coffee.
On a quiet Sunday in 2019, Steve fell and broke his hip, and began his descent into defeat. Like Morris, Cannon was a U.S. military veteran who spent his final days in a nearby V.A. hospital. His passing at the age of 84 marked the end of an era, though his vision for Tribes continues today under new directorship. David Hammons sits on the board.
This vanishing East Village poetry vortex is what comes to mind as I watch “Global Fax Festival” on my laptop. As Myra Melford takes her seat at the piano on a darkened stage in Los Angeles, strewn with white sheets of paper, and begins playing Morris’ “Dust to Dust.” Her blues-tinged interpretation in deep conversation with his onscreen Conduction. A single haunting note from his cornet stretches across an ocean of time and space like a whale’s call.
In this sense, the afterlife has gone virtual. Melford is taking her cues from Morris as memos fall from a white sky in Madrid more than 20 years ago. It is a paperless transaction between there and here. In the absence of Hammons’ fax machines, the message is still coming through.
To watch the performance online, visit hauserwirth.com/ursula/32341-global-fax-festival-performance-dedicated-butch-morris-david-hammons