What Malachi left behind
The memorial for Malachi Ritscher--the local free jazz archivist, musician and anti-war activist who ended his life through self-immolation on the side of the Kennedy Expressway downtown on November 3--was held Sunday, November 12 at the Elastic Arts Foundation in Logan Square.
Ritscher, 52, was a staple of Chicago's free jazz scene who supported underground jazz and its musicians by recording at least three shows a week for 12 years. He was also actively committed to opposing U.S. military actions in the Middle East. And that is how he died, setting himself aflame in front of the Flame of the Millennium sculpture and a video-camera, leaving a sign that said "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and a trail of compelling political and anti-war commentary that spelled out his decision as one of defiance (see www.savagesound.com/gallery99.htm).
One of the only mainstream media outlets to cover the incident was the Chicago Sun-Times, which glossed over the motivation behind Ritscher's suicide. Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper did follow up with a related column, concluding that Malachi's action was futile as a political act. The column and the reality of the incident being underreported begs the question: If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound? In this case--if someone kills themselves in the name of protest, as Buddhist monks did during the Vietnam War in crowded public plazas, but the media doesn't take notice, does it make a difference? What if this had happened in Daley Plaza--would things be different? A newly formed anti-war group, I Heard You Malachi, is selling T-shirts to publicize his story, and met for the first time this past Saturday at Elastic Arts. But the group, formed by a person who reportedly did not know Malachi or even how to pronounce his name, has been viewed with skepticism by his close friends and colleagues.
At Malachi's memorial on November 12 at the Elastic Arts space, there were no proclamations or call to arms. Local free jazz saxophonist/promoter Dave Rempis got up on a small stage near a table that held a mike recording stand and CDs of performances Ritscher had recorded, by artists like Fred Anderson, Mats Gustafsson and Paul Lovens. He simply said that instead of talking about the loss of Malachi, they would play the kind of music that Malachi loved to record.
Both Malachi’s anti-war sentiments and passion for music were evident on the website he produced, www.savagesound.com, which featured not only performance listings and recordings, but counters displaying the number of civilian deaths in Iraq and how many billions of dollars are being spent there.
He also used the site to promote other causes--like to urge readers to buy one of his favorite cinnamon rolls in the city, at Café Selmarie in Lincoln Square. He thought Selmarie might stop making the rolls because they weren’t selling well enough. At the memorial, a version of that story was taped above a box of cinnamon rolls. It ended with: "This campaign apparently succeeded--as you can see and taste for yourself.”
On the wall, near the cinnamon rolls, were photographs of Malachi with children, with friends, pretending to be choked by a big green snake, and in a flight suit gearing up to go skydiving. There were also photos of a Peugeot bike and of Malachi at protests, one where he was poised in front of police in riot gear, with a mischievous, knowing grin on his face.
Renown free jazz reedist Peter Brotzmann, who was grew up in Germany during World War II, was the first to perform at the memorial. He got onstage and offered an eloquent reflection and metaphor for the situation. He addressed the usual concerns or assumptions made by people in the case of a suicide, regarding the person’s mental health. And then ended with a reflection on what is considered the “norm” in society today and, more importantly, who it is that sets that standard.
A relayed version of Brotzmann’s comments is as follows:
Brotzmann went on to discuss societal norms and who decides them. How when he was growing up in Germany, it was Adolf Hitler who decided what the societal norms were. How today, it is George W Bush, money that set the norm. “We normal people, we should set the norms and the rules ourselves,” he said.
Then Brotzmann played. Followed by a set from free jazz keyboard wizard Jim Baker. Free jazz as a community exists on the outskirts of the mainstream music scene, even outside the jazz genre itself, freely exploring what else is out there. Brotzmann said that Ritscher found a mutual respect and willingness to learn from each other among the musicians he recorded—a community of artists trying to establish a different norm.
Free jazz pillar Ken Vandermark says that Malachi’s 2,000-plus recordings will be archived by Experimental Sound Studio to be used as historical documents.