Free Jazz: A Subjective History
Of the many musical sub-species that have emerged and diverged from Jazz's evolutionary track, none has inspired such controversy as Free Jazz. Free Jazz represented a final break with the music's roots as a popular art form, casting it in an alternative role as an experimental art music, along the lines of the European "classical" avant-garde. The Free players were the first jazz musicians (early-beboppers and Duke Ellington notwithstanding) to focus almost exclusively on a furtherance of the music's creative possibilities, at the expense of being understood by a lay audience. Their emphasis on jazz's primarily expressive properties--and consequent de-emphasis of its harmonic and rhythmic customs-challenged listeners and disturbed mainstream players, who saw in Free Jazz an art form dominated by a totally unfamiliar set of musical values.
Free Jazz was originally erected on a foundation of late '40s and early '50s bebop. The first Free Jazz recordings were made by the pianist Lennie Tristano for Capitol in 1949. Tristano was one of jazz's legion of unjustly-neglected geniuses; his heady, harmonically sophisticated and melodically intricate post-bop extended the innovations of Charlie Parker. Tristano and his circle, which included most prominently the tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh and altoist Lee Konitz, paid great heed to the use of counterpoint in jazz composition and improvisation--a throwback, in a sense, to the earlybazz collectivism of New Orleans.
A concern with jazz's contrapuntal properties distinguishes Tristano's first attempts at free-form improvisation. Those initial two Free Jazz sides--titled appropriately, Intuition, and Digression--were an outgrowth of experiments Tristano had conducted in private and, occasionally, in his nightclub sets. The free music recorded by Tristano's ensemble (Konitz, Marsh, guitarist Billy Bauer and bassist Arnold Fishkin) had no preordained themes or harmonies, no distinct formal structure or tonality. While tentative and somewhat unsatisfying to modern ears (due in part to a certain rhythmic stasis characteristic in general of Tristano), these tracks were without precedent in recorded jazz. Unfortunately, the music went unissued by Capitol for several years; it's uncertain just how influential Tristano was to the first wave of Free players. His music more directly affected the "cool school" of the 1950s. Certainly, freedom was "in the air", though it would be some time before it would spark a revolution.
That had to wait almost another decade. The years directly following Tristano's discoveries yielded intimations of the coming "New Thing", but it wasn't until 1958, when a young Texas-born and California-based alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman recorded his first album, "Something Else!", that the Free Jazz movement, as we know it, began. Coleman reached his first level of musical maturity in his home town of Fort Worth, playing alto in a style derived from Charlie Parker. In the early '50s, Coleman moved to Los Angeles and worked at a non-musical day job, studying music theory books and developing his own ideas of how jazz could be played. After suffering through repeated rejections by members of the local jazz elite, Coleman was befriended by the established bassist Red Mitchell, whose influence reportedly gained Coleman his first recording session for the Contemporary label. "Something Else!", the resulting LP, was a qualified success; the music was representative of his work mostly to the extent that it highlighted his compositions and the rapport he shared with Don Cherry. Coleman's next album, "Tomorrow is the Question", was more fully-realized, the band stripped of the piano that had cluttered up the first session. On 1959's "The Shape of Jazz to Come", his first album for the Atlantic label, Coleman brought together for the first time in the studio several of the musicians with whom he was to make his most enduring statements--Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins. In the decade of the '60s, with this quartet and other groups featuring such soon-to-be Free Jazz icons as drummers Charles Moffett and Ed Blackwell, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, and bassists Scott LaFaro, Jimmy Garrison, and David Izenzon, Coleman would make a series of albums for Atlantic and Blue Note that permanently altered the face of jazz. These included such seminal documents as "Change of the Century", "At the Golden Circle, Volumes 1 and 2", and "Free Jazz"--the album that was to lend its name to the movement it epitomized.
Much of what Coleman did had ample precedent: his music swung in a relatively conventional sense; he used a traditional instrumentation (bard saxophonist Gerry Mulligan was only the most prominent of Coleman's predecessors to have recently dispensed with the piano); his lines--both improvised and composed--clearly reflected the rhythmic contours of bebop. It was Coleman's manipulation of jazz's basic elements that was unusual. First and most obvious was the manner in which he dealt with tonality. Coleman's tunes were, essentially, very creative and quirky bebop "heads", melodically conceived, with simple harmonic underpinnings of secondary importance. Early Coleman tunes like "Chronology" or "Bird Food" were straight 4/4 swingers taken at a fast tempo, with tonal (or modal) harmonies implied in both the melody and the bass. The structures of these compositions were fairly ordinary; the way they were played was not. Coleman played bebop alto like a Rhythm & Blues shouter. His solos were vocalized to an extent unheard of in the self-possessed world of modern jazz. Drummer Shelly Manne said that when Coleman played, "he sounds like a person crying...or a person laughing." Coleman's phrases were chromatic in the extreme. The utter simplification of his harmonic accompaniment allowed him maximum freedom in his improvisations. Liberated from the need to "make the changes", Coleman's creative choices were unencumbered by the exigencies of functional harmony's consonant/dissonant relationship. His improvisational strategies were built, not on the composition's prescribed harmonies, but on its melody and the contingencies of performance. After the head was stated, his forms grew organically out of the interaction between the musicians. This shift in improvisational emphasis, from an adherence to a predetermined structure to the spontaneous interchange of ideas among the players, was the most revolutionary aspect of Coleman's music.
Following Coleman's innovations, a growing number of musicians turned to Free Jazz, excited by the seemingly unlimited possibilities of this new music. While Coleman worked in the foreground of the public consciousness, most of these other players practiced their art in relative obscurity. Pianist Cecil Taylor studied classical music at the New England Conservatory in the early '50s, before devoting himself to jazz later in the decade. Initially influenced by straight-ahead pianists like Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk, Taylor eventually developed a concept that did away with tempo and functional harmony. Possessed of perhaps the most astounding technique of any jazz pianist ever, Taylor's mature music was a highly-energized tempest of freely improvised atonality. He continued to be a catalytic presence into the late '90s. Many of the players who passed through the early Taylor ensembles--soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, drummer Sunny Murray, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp--became forces on the scene. In 1964, Shepp's collaborator, the trumpeter Bill Dixon, organized a series of Free Jazz concerts at a New York cafe called "The October Revolution in Jazz", which presented many of the artists who would determine the direction of Free Jazz in the '60s and '70s--players like the trombonist Roswell Rudd, drummer Milford Graves, pianist/band-leader Sun Ra. The event went far in establishing Free Jazz as a movement, and led later that year to the founding of The Jazz Composers Guild, an ephemeral yet influential performance collective that counted Taylor, the pianist Paul They, and composer Carla They among its members.
While these early Free players worked mostly underground, the music's second major figure carried out his experiments in full view of the jazz public. Unlike Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane came up through the ranks of the jazz mainstream, spending time in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and, most notably, Miles Davis, as a member of the latter's first great quintet. By the time Ornette had first attracted the jazz public's attention in the late '50s, Coltrane was already well-known as one of the most far-sighted hard-bop tenor saxophonists. Up to that point, Coltrane's greatest contribution had been his expansion of the jazz vocabulary; with each successive recording, one can hear him chafing at the bounds of tradition through the use of ever-more sophisticated harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic techniques in his improvisations. Where Coleman bypassed the theoretical implications of common jazz practice-largely by inventing his own system--Coltrane delved deeper into jazz's conventional harmony and rhythm than anyone before him. In the same year (1959) that Coleman defined his art by reducing jazz's tonal base to its bare essence, Coltrane increased the complexity of jazz harmony many times over with the recording of his epochal "Giant Steps". That album's and title cut remains the quintessence of jazz harmonic intricacy.
After "Giant Steps", Coltrane seemed to recognize the need for a greater contextual simplicity. Always an emotional player, Coltrane looked for ways in which he might obtain greater freedom to express his personal spirituality. In 1960, inspired by his experiences with Miles Davis, Coltrane began an extended exploration of modal jazz. The wealth of melodic choices given a soloist within such a system (a system somewhat like that which Ornette Coleman had simultaneously, yet independently, developed) appealed to Coltrane, and he began using it to his own ends. Over the next several years he recorded a series of modally-inclined albums that culminated in the late-1964 recording of his studio masterwork, "A Love Supreme", a heartfelt offering to God which featured the saxophonist's great quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones.
It was at this point that Coltrane began to embrace Free Jazz in earnest. The year 1965 saw Coltrane recording a series of albums that became progressively more free in content, beginning with "John Coltrane Quartet Plays...", and including "Transition", "Kulu se Mama", "Om", "Meditations", and "Ascension"--Coltrane's large-group parallel to Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz". Until his tragically premature death in 1967 at the age of 40, Coltrane continued to work in the realm of Free Jazz, experimenting with a variety of instrumentations and structures for improvisation.
It's interesting that, over the years, Coltrane's saxophone playing did not change nearly so drastically as did the background provided by his accompanists. Though he did alternately expand and contract his phrasing a bit in his later work, Coltrane's manner of improvising remained essentially the same; his searing intensity and extraordinary facility never waned. What changed was his musical surroundings. A literal sense of swing was ever-present in Coltrane's early-'60s music; Elvin Jones played with a great deal of rhythmic flexibility, but was always grounded by a sense of pulse. Jones' successor, Rashied Ali, loosened time to a significant degree. While he still "swung", Ali's tempt fluctuated by design. His concept was altogether more coloristic; he would often drive the ensemble with waves of free rhythm. By 1966, Coltrane had replaced the explicit muscularity of pianist McCoy Tyner with the more ambiguous textures of his wife Alice Coltrane. Also added to the mix was the tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, whose screaming multiphonic attack ignored the horn's basic tenets of sound production. This later music was raw and asymmetrical: intelligent, to be sure, but almost totally at the service of emotion and physicality. In his last years Coltrane transcended jazz, looking to create a more universal music by incorporating non-Western devices and instruments; no musician did more to expand the definition of jazz than he.
Coleman and Coltrane were of monolithic importance in the development of Free Jazz, but that's not to say that there weren't others who, in those formative times, made major contributions. Los Angeles born multi-reedist Eric Dolphy's first high profile gig came as a member of drummer Chico Hamilton's band in 1958. The next year he moved to New York and became a member of Charles Mingus' piano-less quartet, where he formed a front line with the trumpeter Ted Curson. His fleet and harmonically unpredictable style on flute, bass clarinet, and alto sax was, in it's way, as radical as Coleman's, only Dolphy worked--in the beginning, at least--within jazz's customary frameworks. Dolphy was briefly a member of Coltrane's classic band, before striking out on his own, recording a series of modal/free albums of an increasingly high quality that peaked with the remarkable "Out to Lunch" in February 1964. Dolphy's untimely death four months later robbed the music of a dogged visionary.
Tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler fomented a revolution of sorts by virtue of his near-total indifference to the jazz that came before him. Ayler was born in Cleveland, where he was taught the basics of music by his saxophone-playing father. Some of his earliest performances took place in church; aspects of the African-American sanctified worship service characterized Ayler's mature style, with its ecstatic and cathartic whoops and screams. Reputedly, the young Ayler was conversant with bebop, though there is no convincing recorded evidence to support this thesis. Indeed, Ayler's music avoided the values of modern jazz; his art was, instead, a personal type of abstract expressionism made possible by the new aesthetic. His group concept was extremely free--Ayler used simple, hymn-like melodic materials played out-of-time and developed collectively. His saxophone technique was derived from the instrument's capacity for speed and tonal flexibility. Ayler's high-energy approach influenced Free Jazz saxophonists of his own time, and the generations to follow; John Coltrane took note of and was influenced by Ayler, who played at the former's funeral in 1967. Ayler himself died in 1970 at the age of 34--like so many of the greatest jazz musicians, well before his time.
The hyper-dense free improvisation of late-Coltrane and Ayler was the music's dominant strain in the late '60; at the same time, however, another group of players had begun working along very different lines. The musicians of the Coleman/Coltrane axis lived and worked mostly in New York City; this new movement was located in Chicago, and its priorities were considerably different.
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was an outgrowth of the Chicago pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band, an early '60s ensemble dedicated to finding new methods of jazz composition and performance. Members of the AACM included the saxophonists Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, and Roscoe Mitchell, violinist Leroy Jenkins, drummer Steve McCall, and trumpeter Lester Bowie. Music of the various AACM players was characterized in the main by a concern for the use of textural contrast and compositional structure. Their early albums, such as Mitchell's "Sound" and Jarman's "Song For" defined a new, restrained concept that placed a premium on the use of unadorned space in the process of free improvisation. The Chicagoans' preoccupation with structure and silence was a logical reaction to the no-holds-barred energy music preferred by the New York musicians.
By the end of the '70s, the AACM sensibility had gained ascendance. Members and associates like Braxton, saxophonist Henry Threadgill, and drummer Jack DeJohnette led important bands; Mitchell, Jarman, Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors, and drummer Don Moye formed the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the decade's preeminent Free Jazz group. In St. Louis, an AACM-like organization, the Black Artists Group (BAG), produced saxophonists Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, and Hamiet Bluiett--three-fourths of the World Saxophone Quartet, which in the '80s would become perhaps the most commercially-successful of all Free Jazz ensembles.
The '70s and '80s saw a greater awareness of Free Jazz in Europe; in England, the saxophonist Evan Parker developed an extraordinary method of improvisation that relied upon the technique known as circular-breathing. Parker was able to play the most complex lines without pause and at the most incredible speed. Also British, the guitarist Derek Bailey pioneered the use of alternative tunings and unusual effects; he also wrote a notable text on various aspects of musical improvisation. In the Soviet Union, the trio of pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin, percussionist Vladimir Tarasov, and saxophonist Vladimir Checkasin played a vital form of Free Jazz that combined elements of their own national musical tradition with the American high-energy aesthetic. In Norway, the saxophonist Jan Garbarek played a Iyrical, folkish music reminiscent of Coltrane at his most tuneful. The German tenor saxophonist Peter Brotzman was a force of nature, playing a music reminiscent of Ayler, yet informed by the European art music continuum. In the '70s and '80s, Free Jazz truly became an international music, its many European practitioners by and large as accomplished and as critically acclaimed as their American counterparts.
The '80s and '90s were a period of both consolidation and fragmentation for Free Jazz. Innovation, where it existed, occurred in smaller increments. The older generation of musicians continued producing. Anthony Braxton continued his melding of jazz and contemporary classical music; Cecil Taylor refined his prodigious pianistic technique; Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell formed the quartet "Old and New Dreams", in tribute to their old boss, Ornette Coleman. As for Ornette, he reasserted his influence by adapting his concept of free polyphony (which he came to call "harmolodics") to funk music. Sun Ra, the mystic keyboardist/composer/philosopher, reached his greatest level of prominence. He led his long-lived "Arkestra" until his death in 1993; his group's highly theatrical performance style and the leader's eccentric personality drew attention away from a rather erratic and not always successful stylistic melange.
Younger musicians appeared, the most influential of whom was probably the tenor saxophonist David Murray. Murray came on the scene in the mid-'70s; he initially played tenor in a Free Expressionist style similar to that of Albert Ayler, except Murray displayed a greater interest in the whole of jazz's development. As the fourth member of the World Saxophone Quartet, Murray became that group's most volatile soloist and composer. With his own groups, Murray showed a consisent growth, bringing the opposing realms of masinstream and Free Jazz ever closer. By the late '90s, he had arguably become jazz's most conceptually well-rounded musician.
Other musicians who came on the scene in the '80s and '90s are too numerous to list; a few include the phenomenally dextrous pianist Borah Bergman, the timbrally-prescient saxophonist/trumpeter Joe McPhee, the powerful Free/Funk drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, and the texturally inspired pianist Marilyn Crispell. In 1986, the Knitting Factory, a new night club on New York's Lower East Side, opened, and quickly became the center of Free Jazz activity in the city. A great many of the most prominent Free players of the late '90s became inextricably linked to the club, including the influential conceptualist composer/alto saxophonist John Zorn, the jaggedly lyrical trumpeter Dave Douglas, and the explosively Ayler-esque tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle. Other players making their mark by the end of the decade included pianists Myra Melford and Matthew Shipp, guitarist Joe Morris, saxophonists Tim Berne, Thomas Chapin, Ken Vandermark, Joe Maneri, and David S. Ware, bassist William Parker, trumpeter Herb Robertson, and drummers Joey Baron and Bobby Previte.
The radical self-consciousness possessed by the Free players has led to the creation of some extraordinarily original and ultimately influential music. It sprung from the font of modern jazz, yet very quickly became quite a different thing, something very apart from the populist forms of the music that, even today, define jazz in the public's perception. Free Jazz is, however, a stubborn and resourceful art form, and while it will not (and probably should not) supplant the existing mainstream, it will certainly continue to thrive in its own iconoclastic way.
20 Essential Free Jazz Albums
Lennie Tristano, Intuition (Capitol)
Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic)
Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz (Atlantic)
Ornette Coleman, Dancing in Your Head (A&M;)
John Coltrane, Ascension (Impulse),
John Coltrane, Live in Japan (Impulse)
Cecil Taylor, Jazz Advance (Blue Note)
Cecil Taylor, For Olim (A&M;)
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch (Blue Note)
Archie Shepp, Four For Trane (Impulse)
Albert Ayler, At Slug's Saloon, Vols. 1 and 2 (ESP)
Roscoe Mitchell, Sound (Delmark)
Art Ensemble of Chicago, Full Force (ECM)
Anthony Braxton, The Complete Braxton (Arista)
World Saxophone Quartet, W.S.Q. (Black Saint)
Ganelin Trio, New Wine (Leo)
David Murray, Children (Black Saint)
Borah Bergman and Evan Parker, The Fire Tale (Soul Note)
Ronald Shannon Jackson, Barbeque Dog (Antilles)
Dave Douglas, Tiny Bell Trio (Hat Art)
9 Essential Books about Free Jazz
Four Lives in the Bebop Business, by A.B. Spellman (Limelight Editions, 1966)
The Freedom Principle: Jazz after 1958, by John Litweiler (Wm. Morrow, 1984)
Outcats, by Francis Davis (Oxford University Press, 1990)
Musical Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, by Derek Bailey (Prentice Hall, 1980)
Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton, by Graham Lock (DaCapo, 1988)
Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, by John Litweiler (Wm. Morrow, 1992)
Chasin' the Trane, by J.C. Thomas (DaCapo, 1975)
Free Jazz, by Ekkehard Jost (DaCapo,1974)
As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz, by Valerie Wilmer (1977)