Free Jazz and the Avant-Garde

History of Jazz: Part 6

Free jazz is perhaps one of the more misunderstood forms of music. Free jazz draws from other forms of improvisational music that are based on instrumentalists playing based on either a very loose thematic element or perhaps no specific starting point, and playing based on what they are hearing other musicians in the group playing at any given time. The element of playing and listening is a large part of any improvisational music, from primitive folk music to art music.

Jazz music developed at a fast rate and by the late 1950s many jazz musicians had reached the same point that classically trained musicians and composers had already begun to confront: getting beyond the most basic constraints of the music. Tonality, time signatures, compositions vs. improvisation, harmonics and chord changes, even the technique of playing a given instrument–all of these were up for consideration and experimentation.

While no musician plays without hoping for at least some listeners, free jazz musicians were not overly concerned about alienating the general public. Bebop had already turned jazz from a popular musical form for dancing into an art music for listening. While some musicians turned to the gospel and blues oriented sounds of hard bop and soul jazz to appeal to listeners who were fans of R&B, free jazz proponents took an opposite turn, towards a music that was first and foremost about freedom and creativity for the musician.

To some people free jazz means a noisy cacophony of wailing and shrieking instruments, and it certainly can sound this way, but the term encompasses a continuum of approaches. Free Jazz is not necessarily an all or nothing proposition. Some musicians use overblowing or unconventional sounds while others remain within the average sonic tone of their instruments. Some use compositional elements as starting points or as guideposts along the way to move the group from one improvisational section to another. Some still swing while others adopt the rhythmic vocabulary of contemporary European musical compositions.

Ornette Coleman, 1975

While it can be argued as to who did what first, Ornette Coleman is generally identified as the first jazz artist to develop free jazz ideas on recordings. While his first releases, Tomorrow Is the Question and Something Else, moved away from blues changes and often moved from one mood to another quickly, they were not really free jazz. Coleman’s Atlantic releases, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, were a huge step forward. Coinciding with Coleman’s move to New York from the west coast, they began experimenting with atonality and a much freer jazz language than his previous recordings. In 1960 he released Free Jazz, and the game was truly on.

Free Jazz is a mostly improvised piece with very few composed sections as buffers between solos. It was recorded in a single take, with one outtake, “First Take” that has been included on reissues since 1971. The improvisation lasts for the length of the entire original album and the group is comprised of two quartets, each with a drummer, bassist, saxophonist, and trumpet player.

On left channel is a quartet comprised of Coleman, Don Cherry, Scott LaFaro and Billy Higgins, while on the right the group is comprised of Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell. These names comprised much of the who’s who of experimental and free jazz at the time of recording. Most of these musicians continued to be experimental musicians and improvisation has been a hallmark of much of their work.

Other artists who were experimenting with some of the same ideas began to break through with influential recordings within a year or two of Free Jazz. Albert Ayler recorded Spiritual Unity in 1964 with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. The trio recording took Ornette Coleman and late John Coltrane as a starting point, focusing not only on freeing up the melodic and harmonic components of the music but the very language of the instrument (saxophone) itself. Other saxophonists who were inspired by Coleman, Coltrane, and Ayler include Pharoah Sanders, Yusef Lateef, and Archie Shepp.

Cecil Taylor, Free Improvisation #3

Pianist Cecil Taylor began to work with a free jazz framework as well, exploring the possibilities of music’s most orchestral acoustic instrument on recordings such as Unit Structures and Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come. Utilizing tone clusters and a percussive playing style, Taylor redefined the way the piano was approached by jazz musicians.

Another key element in the survival and expansion of the ideas presented in the free jazz movement was the creation in Chicago of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1965. Artists associated with the AACM include cofounder Richard Muhal Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lester Bowie, and Pete Cosey. The AACM was by no means restricted to free jazz but their artists and performances tended toward the avant-garde and some artists included elements of experimental visual art, dance, and theater in their performances.

From Wildflower 1: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions
Track: New Times, Ken McIntyre (as), Richard Harper (p), Andrei Strobert (perc.), Andy Vega (conga)

In the 1970s, following the deaths of Coltrane and Ayler, the free jazz scene became a fixture in New York City, with performances taking place in private spaces. This created the basis for what became known as the New York jazz loft scene. In 1972 the New York Musicians’ Jazz Festival was organized as an alternative to the Newport Jazz Fest. Also key during this period was saxophonist Sam Rivers, who along with his wife Bea ran the RivBea Studio in Lower Manhattan. RivBea was the most well-known of the loft spaces. The loft movement was important in that if represented artists finding their own performance spaces and ‘inviting’ the public in rather than booking gigs the traditional way.

Free jazz spread to Europe as well, where it was greeted with somewhat more enthusiasm by the public, at least in some countries, than in the U.S. Peter Brotzmann (Germany), Evan Parker and John Surman (Great Britain) were some of the influential musicians who worked heavily in the intersection of free jazz, improvisational music and the European avant garde. The creation of the German record label ECM was also influential, as the label recorded many influential free jazz and improvisational artists. The influential AACM group Art Ensemble of Chicago released many albums on ECM as did Parker and Surman.

The spirit and ideas behind the free jazz movement have continued to be part of the music’s development and have also proven open to fusion with other styles. New York No Wave musicians like James Chance, Arto Lindsay, John Lurie, and John Zorn began to combine elements of free and avant garde jazz with the noise and aesthetic of punk rock and new wave. While most of the bands were short lived, many of the musicians involved went on to profoundly influence a variety of musical styles.

Spring Heel Jack, Track: Erroneous from album Masses

In the year 2000, the British drum and bass electronic duo Spring Heel Jack recorded an album called Disappeared that drastically changed the way their music sounded. The album featured James Surman and it pointed to a new direction for the group into free jazz and improvisation. Subsequent albums Masses, Amassed, and Sweetness of the Water utilized avant-garde musicians like Evan Parker, Tim Berne, William Parker, Kenny Wheeler, and Wadada Leo Smith.

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