George Cartwright, a leading composer and performer of avant-garde music since 1979, was born in the Mississippi Delta community of Midnight (near Belzoni in Humphreys County) on 10 December 1950 to George and Elizabeth Rosa Cartwright. The Methodist Church was an early influence on his music and view of life. In high school he discovered the blues by reading in a magazine that Cream, his favorite rock band, drew inspiration from Mississippi Delta music. As a college student at Mississippi State University, from which he graduated in 1972 with a degree in sociology, he heard memorable performances by B. B. King and Big Joe Williams. A sense of vocation was mysteriously aroused when Howlin’ Wolf silently tapped him on the shoulder and shook his hand between sets at the Black Elks Club in Greenville. He also studied at the University of Southern Mississippi, where Wilbur Moreland was an influential music teacher; Jackson State University; and Memphis State University. Cartwright was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. While in Jackson, he met free jazz drummer Alvin Fielder and in the mid-1970s joined an avant-garde ensemble, Ars Supernova, with Evan Gallagher, Bruce Golden, Mark Howell, and Jeb Stuart, all of whom stayed active as performers, and John Evans, who founded Jackson’s Lemuria Bookstore.
Already familiar with piano and guitar, Cartwright took up the saxophone during his senior year in college and thereafter played tenor, soprano, and alto sax. In 1977 he studied at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York, where he was influenced by Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic idea of music that is structurally open to the spontaneous contributions of all its players but also accessible to an audience. After moving to New York City in 1979 Cartwright began to work with notable musicians including Coleman, Fred Frith, Bill Laswell, and John Zorn. He founded a band, Curlew, in 1979 and became a leading figure in the Downtown New York music scene of the next two decades, with Curlew playing regularly at the Knitting Factory on Leonard Street.
Mississippians who have recorded with Cartwright include Howell, Curlew’s guitarist in the mid-1980s; Golden, percussionist in Curlew since 2002 and on the solo albums Dot (1994) and The Ghostly Bee (2006); and Gallagher (organ), Randy Everett (guitar), and Tim Lee (bass) on Dot.
Cartwright lived in Memphis from 1993 to 1999, a sojourn reflected in Curlew’s Paradise (1996), with baritone saxophonist Jim Spake, and in a Cartwright solo project, The Memphis Years. He has been based in Minnesota since 1999, performing with a trio called GloryLand PonyCat as well as with Curlew.
Representative recordings include Meltable Snaps It with Michael Lytle and David Moss (1986), Integrated Variables with Kevin Norton and Mark Dresser (1992), Red Rope with Michael Lytle (1998), Black Ants Crawling with GloryLand PonyCat (2003), and Curlew’s Live in Berlin (1986), Fabulous Drop (1998), and Mercury (2003). A Curlew concert at the Knitting Factory was documented in the video The Hardwood (1992). Cartwright has written several settings for poetry by Paul Haines, including the Curlew album A Beautiful Western Saddle (1993) and The Memphis Years. Cartwright has also collaborated with artist Anne Elias, his wife, on projects combining music, poetry, and film, one of which is represented by A Tenacious Slew (2007).
The hallmarks of Curlew’s music have been genre-crossing, whimsical geniality, high energy, and a mixture of virtuosic free playing and tightly composed “beat” tunes, often with a strong Americana flavor or southern derivation. Cartwright’s saxophone playing can be beautifully warm and restrained but often fiercely attacks the boundaries of intelligible sound and technique. As a composer, he favors modular riffs, often in odd meters, and a sense of journeying within a piece through diverse yet somehow continuous phases, with plenty of vernacular references. As player, composer, and bandleader, Cartwright places a high value on surprises, though generally within a firm structure.
- Allen Huotari, All about Jazz (March 2000)
- Mark Jordan, Memphis Flyer (10 June 1999)
- Robert E. Sweet, Music Universe, Music Mind: Revisiting the Creative Music Studio, Woodstock, New York (1996)
- Peter Watrous, New York Times (2 October 1988)