Stephen Craig (Steve) Gnitka (May 13, 1953 – April 14, 2023)

For close to 4 decades, Steve was my primary collaborator. In his words, from an unpublished interview (circa 1979):
“I first met Milo in late ’75 as the result of my knowing a guitarist and tenor player named Scott* who was playing with Milo at the time but was going to leave the group to pursue other interests in Washington. The MFFJE [The Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble] consisted of Scott, an alto player** and Milo; apparently Milo wanted to keep the group a trio, so Scott mentioned me as a possible replacement for himself. Scott asked me if I wanted to attend the Ensemble’s next rehearsal and play and I said OK. I was enthused, but not hyped about the situation, I was very aware of Milo’s music and very aware of the reputation he had around town for being nasty and cynical which I figured was a point in his favor. I thought that playing with Milo would provide me with my first real chance to play high quality creative improvised music in public.
The first rehearsal was a circus, not because of anything musical, but because the members of the Ensemble had chosen this night to have a marathon argument. I just sat there while they yelled and discussed; it was boring. Eventually, things settled down and Milo, the alto player and I played a short piece. After some conversation and more music, Milo said, ‘Yeah, I like your playing,’ and, from there I was a member of the MFFJE.”

(*Scott Newell/**Curtis Wenzel)

“I like your playing” was, perhaps initially an understatement, as I was immediately struck by the fact that his approach was not beholding to any of the, even at the time, established “schools” for free jazz/improvised music guitar.*** (One clear death knell for something akin to genuinely creative endeavor is the establishment of “schools”.)

In his liner note to the 1980 LP, “Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!”, Cecil Taylor put it this way:
“The whole question of ‘freedom’ has been misunderstood by those outside and even by some of the musicians ‘in the movement’. If a man plays for a certain amount of time — scales, licks, what have you — eventually a kind of order asserts itself. Whether he chooses to notate that personal order or engage in polemics about it, it’s there. That is, if he’s saying anything in his music. There is no music without order — if that music comes from a man’s innards. But that order is not necessarily related to any single criterion of what order should be as imposed from the outside. [emphasis mine] This is not a question then of ‘freedom’ as opposed to ‘non freedom’, but rather it is a question of recognizing ideas and expressions of order.”

Without question, Steve and I both felt that the essential roots of our individual/collective music were jazz. But neither of us had the interest/appetite for, as an example, being able to play “Giant Steps’ in all 12 keys. Thus, in Taylor’s words, we exemplified the “what have you[s]”; finding and mining our voices outside (but, naturally beholding to) the tradition so-called, because, after all, it is inescapable.

That Steve’s work was essentially ignored, or, at best, underrated/under-appreciated by the self-appointed, meticulously positioned cognoscenti/intelligentsia (power brokers/gate-keepers/hipsters/scenesters) is as fascinating as it is revealing. And, as too many listeners take their cue from such sources, he remained essentially unheard.

However, all of his work, save for his/our collaborations with Joe McPhee, is currently still in-print (LP and CD). The out-of-print documents with McPhee can be found on Discogs and elsewhere. (Footnote: the best mix for “Old Eyes”, relatively speaking, can be found on the CD.)

***Seven months after writing this post, I rediscovered a September 2015 review of Earlier Outbreaks of Iconoclasm written by Daniel Spicer for Jazzwise wherein he made the following pithy observation about Steve’s playing — “Steve Gnitka complements [Milo’s] approaches with subtle shades of electric guitar, finger-dabbing the strings and rubbing the neck with a restlessly inquisitive attitude.”


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