Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from K-O

New York: Free Jazz and the Avant-Garde - WHAT IS FREE JAZZ?, ORNETTE COLEMAN, ALBERT AYLER, CECIL TAYLOR, SUN RA ARKESTRA

music playing musicians time

Classic jazz, swing, Dixieland, bebop, cool jazz, and hard bop, despite their differences, have chordal improvisation in common, meaning that the soloists base their choice of notes on the chord structure of the song; the majority of the pieces are thirty-two bars or twelve-bar blues. Once a group gets to the end of a chorus, it begins the next chorus. The format is a bit predictable and comfortable, with the creativity expressed in the solos and the jammed ensembles.

It was quite a shock, therefore, when the Ornette Coleman Quartet began playing regularly at New York’s Five Spot Cafe in 1959, performing originals that dispensed with chords altogether. Altoist Ornette Coleman and cornetist Don Cherry, with stimulating backup and commentary by bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins, performed a melody in unison just as classic bebop groups had a decade earlier; but when the solos started, the lead player was free to improvise, based on the mood of the song rather than the chords. Haden was possibly the only bassist of that time who could set a feeling of forward momentum, usually stating notes right on the beat, without restricting the soloist to specific chords. While the group often played in a specific key, both Coleman and Cherry soloed in a highly expressive fashion, playing between the standard notes and sounding a bit as if they were talking. The nightly audiences were full of musicians who debated the merits of “the new thing,” not just wondering whether it was the future of jazz, but whether it was music at all.

By the mid-1960s the free jazz movement had evolved to the point where the original Ornette Coleman Quartet almost sounded conservative. Many performances were free improvisations altogether, the musicians playing without any preplanned music. Not only were chord structures not being used, but also melody, steady rhythms, and harmonies were abandoned. Musicians were free to play whatever they wished, and the range of emotions utilized by the performers, particularly the horn players, became vast and at times quite violent, breaking the sound barrier. It is not surprising that free jazz became the least commercial and accessible form of improvised music.

One of the breakthroughs in avant-garde jazz of the 1970s and 1980s was the idea that any combination of instruments can potentially result in rewarding music, whether it be the World Saxophone Quartet, unaccompanied Anthony Braxton alto solos, or percussion ensembles. A piano-bass-drums rhythm section was not required for the music to be coherent and viable.

The term “avant-garde jazz” overlaps with free jazz but covers a wider area of ground. While free jazz emphasizes free improvisations, avant-garde jazz, while using fairly free improvising, often contains melodies, harmonies, a steady rhythm, and arrangements, although all of these are much more complex, dissonant, and unpredictable than in standard straight-ahead jazz.

In classic jazz, swing, and Dixieland, some notes were wrong if placed in certain spots, clashing with the chords, whereas in bebop and its direct descendants, any note could fit in any place, if it were resolved. In free improvisations there are no “right” or “wrong” notes, just notes and sounds that are better at a particular moment than others. The way to judge the music is simply to decide if it has an emotional impact and if the musicians’ interactions are enjoyable. Are the results colorful or meaningless?

ORNETTE COLEMAN

Free jazz officially arrived in New York with Ornette Coleman in 1959. Unfortunately the altoist did not make his first records until he was twenty-seven, so his early musical growth is very difficult to trace. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930, Coleman began on alto when he was fourteen, adding tenor two years later. His early influence was Charlie Parker, and he worked mostly in r&b bands throughout the Southwest, but by the early 1950s he was already having difficulty with audiences and other musicians as he sought to form his own style. Coleman moved to Los Angeles in 1953 and was thrown out of a few jam sessions, but he met kindred spirits in trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins.

In 1958 Coleman made his recording debut with Cherry and Higgins for the Contemporary label. Although pianist Walter Norris and bassist Don Payne set chordal patterns on the initial album, the beginnings of Coleman’s free jazz appeared on this date. From the same period, Coleman, Cherry, Higgins, and Haden can be heard on two live sessions with pianist Paul Bley, even doing their interpretations of some standards in addition to Coleman’s originals.

In May 1959 Coleman started a series of innovative recordings for Atlantic, after a second album for Contemporary with a pianoless rhythm section that has drummer Shelly Manne and either Percy Heath or Red Mitchell on bass. His records from 1959 to 1961, usually with Haden and either Higgins or Blackwell on drums, sounded quite revolutionary for the time, setting the standard for free jazz and making many musicians question their own styles. Most intriguing among these dates is an album titled Free Jazz that utilizes a double quartet comprising Coleman, bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, Cherry, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, both Haden and Scott LaFaro on basses, and Blackwell and Higgins on drums. The thirty-seven-minute piece has a quick opening melody and brief, loosely organized parts between the solos but is otherwise a free improvisation, with the other horns being free to comment musically on what the lead voice is creating. Despite some meandering sections, there are plenty of inspired moments, particularly Coleman’s rollicking ten-minute solo.

In the summer of 1961 Ornette Coleman made the very surprising decision to retire from active playing because he was frustrated at how little he was being paid by clubs and record companies. Other than a special Town Hall concert in late 1962, Coleman did not play in public again until he returned to the scene in 1965, playing not only alto, but also trumpet and violin. Unlike his much-improved alto playing, Ornette merely used his primitive-sounding trumpet and violin as props, additional sounds that were added to his music. He had a trio with bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett, later in the decade adding tenor-saxophonist Dewey Redman, who had a complementary style. Coleman had reunions with virtually all of his alumni on some early 1970s recordings and became involved in writing avant-garde music for classical ensembles; the best known was his complex work Skies of America . He developed a theory called “harmolodics” that emphasized the equal importance of melody, rhythms, and harmony. Utilizing that method, in 1975 Coleman formed Prime Time, an ensemble that developed into a new type of double quartet consisting of two guitars, two electric bassists, two drummers, and the leader’s alto. The music, which could be called fusion, but was really free funk, emphasized dense and noisy ensembles with Coleman as lead voice in the ensembles. Among the players was Ornette’s son Denardo Coleman as one of the drummers.

Since that time, Ornette Coleman has continued appearing occasionally with newer versions of Prime Time, had acoustic reunions with his surviving alumni, and been involved in special projects. He has never compromised his music and remains a highly original innovator.

ALBERT AYLER

Even more than Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor were the most controversial of the free jazz musicians. A tenor saxophonist with a large tone and a wide vibrato, Ayler often played pure melodies that were punctuated by screams, honks, and wails. His music looked back toward the early twentieth century in his utilization of simple themes and religious fervor, and his group with his brother trumpeter Donald Ayler often sounded eerily like a runaway New Orleans marching band from 1905.

Ayler, like Coleman, started his career playing with r&b bands. His early alto playing was undocumented but apparently influenced by Charlie Parker. He served in the army during 1958 to 1961, during which he switched to tenor and became a much more explorative player. After his discharge Ayler found it difficult to find any work in the United States, so he spent 1962 and 1963 in Sweden and Denmark where he made his first recordings, playing with rhythm sections that had no idea what he was attempting to create. In 1964 after he returned to New York, Ayler began to work with musicians more in tune with his free-form explorations, including bassists Henry Grimes and Gary Peacock, drummer Sunny Murray, and cornetist Don Cherry. On tunes such as “Holy Holy,” “Saints,” “Spirits,” and his most famous original, “Ghosts,” Ayler played with remarkable intensity and fire, creating solos that were sometimes bloodcurdling. The following year he formed a quintet with his brother Donald, altoist Charles Tyler, bassist Lewis Worrell, and either Sunny Murray or Beaver Harris on drums that utilized military themes, Scottish jigs, and New Orleans brass band melodies plus some of his earlier themes that served as a contrast to the often riotous solos. Sometimes Michel Sampson, playing his violin as a drone, was added along with other instrumentalists.

When Ayler was signed to the Impulse label in 1967, it seemed for a moment as if his career would gain a higher profile. But his projects for Impulse were erratic with the addition of unsuitable vocalists and some odd commercial material. The group with his brother broke up, and Ayler’s career became aimless, for he seemed confused as to what direction to go toward next. It all ended under mysterious circumstances in 1970 when Ayler’s body was discovered in New York’s East River. It has never been determined if the thirty-four-year-old saxophonist had committed suicide or been murdered. Albert Ayler’s legacy, as a musician who always went for broke and was never shy to create new sounds no matter what the risk, is still felt in jazz.

CECIL TAYLOR

Cecil Taylor was among the very first free jazz musicians, and nearly a half century later, he is still arguably the most advanced musician performing jazz. Born in 1929 he started piano lessons when he was six and was classically trained at the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory. Taylor’s early influences were Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Dave Brubeck. He picked up experience in the early 1950s playing with the groups of Johnny Hodges and Hot Lips Page, but Taylor was quite original by the time he made his recording debut in 1955. He led a quartet at the time that included soprano-saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger, and drummer Dennis Charles, and although his sidemen were advanced, Taylor was already far ahead of them. His chord voicings were quite dissonant, and though he played some standards through 1960, his improvising was already almost completely free. Not too surprisingly, Taylor found it difficult to get much work in jazz clubs.

During his recordings of 1960 and 1961, Taylor performed standards for the last time, introduced tenor-saxophonist Archie Shepp, and showed that he was the leading voice in avant-garde jazz. By 1962 he was leading a trio with altoist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray, the first “free” drummer; there was no need for a bass. Taylor’s improvisations were now completely atonal and full of dense high-energy outbursts of emotion. In the 1960s he recorded two notable group albums for Blue Note and worked in Europe, but otherwise it was a lean decade for Taylor, who was too advanced for even many of the free jazz players. The pianist’s career improved greatly in the 1970s when he became active as an educator and was featured at many European jazz festivals, leading to greater recognition in the United States. He has recorded more frequently since then, Page 208  both as a piano soloist and with his Unit, and his playing became even more relentless than earlier.

Listening to Cecil Taylor is almost like observing a thunderstorm. His music is about waves of sound rather than notes, and to a certain extent he plays the piano as if it were drums, with thunderous rolls and powerful abstract rhythms. Taylor, who turned seventy-five in 2004, has not mellowed with age, still playing with as much passion, energy, and uncompromising creativity as ever.

SUN RA ARKESTRA

Sun Ra was one of the most unusual and eccentric of all jazz musicians. Way ahead of his time in the 1950s and 1960s, Ra was one of the first pianists to explore electric keyboards, hinting at avant-garde jazz with his Arkestra as early as the late 1950s. Because Ra was deeply involved in developing his own inscrutable philosophy of life, he often had his bands dress in outlandish costumes, and he utilized chanting lyrics that combined his interests in ancient Egypt, religion, and science fiction, it was easy to write him off as a joke during much of his career. It didn’t help that his ensembles combined superior musicians, especially tenor-saxophonist John Gilmore, altoist Marshall Allen, and baritonist Pat Patrick, with out-of-tune amateurs, and that his countless number of recordings were released in haphazard fashion.

Ra, born Herman Sonny Blount, claimed he was from Saturn, but he was actually born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1915. He led a band as early as 1934, worked with Fletcher Henderson in 1946 and 1947, and formed his Arkestra in Chicago in 1953. Ra’s Arkestra evolved quickly from a hard bop band to one that became increasingly adventurous, experimenting with atonality by the late 1950s. In 1961 Ra and the main members of his ensemble moved to New York where during the next decade much of their music was very avant-garde, using odd electronic instruments, chants led by singer June Tyson, and dense ensemble work. After relocating to Philadelphia in 1970, Ra rediscovered swing and Fletcher Henderson’s music, spending the remainder of his career until his death in 1993 alternating between free-form explorations, outer space music, and his own quirky brand of spaced-out swing.

MILES DAVIS, 1965 TO 1968

When the free jazz movement hit New York and began to have an impact, Miles Davis at first watched from the sidelines. His quintet of 1961 and 1962 featured hard bop tenor-saxophonist Hank Mobley and the swinging Wynton Kelly Trio, giving Davis an opportunity to show off his bebop chops. He soon hungered to move ahead again. After Mobley and the rhythm section departed in 1963, Davis worked on putting together a new quintet. By the end of the year he was using pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams, but was unsure about which tenor saxophonist would fit best. For a time George Coleman worked well; but the rhythm section, particularly Williams, considered Coleman’s hard bop style to be too predictable, and Coleman departed by mid-1964. Sam Rivers toured Japan with Davis, but he thought Rivers’ avant-garde playing was out of place. The trumpeter had really wanted Wayne Shorter in his group as early as 1962, but Shorter was with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Finally in September 1964, he joined Davis’ highly original band.

Although the second classic Miles Davis Quintet often played standards in concert, usually at much faster tempos than the originals, their studio albums were full of new compositions. Wayne Shorter, whose tenor solos had their own fresh new logic, was also a major composer, and his songs inspired the other members of the quintet to write and develop new ways to improvise. Sometimes the quintet was a little reminiscent of the no-changes approach of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, leaving Hancock to create innovative piano playing to avoid restricting the other musicians, but the interplay between Davis and Shorter had never been heard before. In addition, Tony Williams’ approach to drumming was brand new and soon became as influential as that of Elvin Jones. The quintet’s recordings, E. S. P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti , and Miles in the Sky , were esoteric and certainly much more subtle and complex than those of the better-publicized, high-energy, free jazz jam sessions of the 1960s, not to mention the albums by the John Coltrane Quartet.

Nothing about the music of the second classic Miles Davis Quintet was obvious or predictable. The music was actually closer much of the time to post-bop, falling between advanced hard bop and the avant-garde, than to free jazz, and despite Davis’s celebrity status, it was largely overlooked and overshadowed in the 1960s. In fact, it was not until the rise of Wynton and Branford Marsalis in the 1980s that other musicians began to explore Davis’ unusual brand of jazz.

In 1968 both Davis’ music and his band began to change. He encouraged Hancock to use electric piano and began to open his music up ever so gradually to the influences of rock and r&b. Soon Chick Corea, mostly on electric keyboards, had succeeded Hancock, and Dave Holland took over for Ron Carter; Filles De Kilimanjaro had recordings by both rhythm sections with Davis, Shorter, and Williams. By the following year, Miles Davis was leading the way in fusion, helping jazz to move into its next phase.

NEW YORK AVANT-GARDE JAZZ TODAY

Avant-garde jazz has remained a major force in improvised music up to the present time, although it never caught on as popular music and by the 1970s was overshadowed by fusion. In the 1970s many musicians in New York became part of the “loft movement.” It was a time when some of the players opened up their lofts and rental spaces to adventurous concerts, essentially running their own concert halls rather than always relying on conventional night clubs.

In the 1990s the Knitting Factory in New York became one of the centers of avant-garde jazz, as Minton’s Playhouse had helped to spawn bebop in the early 1940s, featuring music that was completely unheard of a decade earlier. Although Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman are the acknowledged senior statesmen of free jazz, there have been scores of younger and major free jazz and avant-garde musicians during the past four decades who have enriched the Page 214  music, recording frequently for independent labels and stretching the boundaries of jazz. Other styles may have generated more headlines since the 1970s, but free jazz and avant-garde jazz have continually enriched improvised music with new ideas and approaches.

New York: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz - WHAT IS HARD BOP?, CLIFFORD BROWN, HORACE SILVER [next] [back] New York Bebop, Latin, and Cool Jazz - BOP TAKES OVER, WHAT IS BEBOP?, CHARLIE PARKER, DIZZY GILLESPIE, BUD POWELL, THELONIOUS MONK, SARAH VAUGHAN

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or

Vote down Vote up

almost 5 years ago

I'll echo Hugo's thought -- I see the first three musicians listed, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, and think of the one drummer that played with all of the them, Ronald Shannon Jackson. To go on about the two drummers in Prime Time and skip to only Denardo Coleman makes the omission more pointed.

In the world of Harmolodics, what the author of the article wants to call Free Funk, Jackson was, along with Ulmer and arguably Jamaaladeen Tacuma, the most important and interesting composer and musician after Ornette himself. Critics seemed to get this in the 1980s, when the press was very favorable to his recordings with his band, The Decoding Society. Lets get this artist back on the (living) history pages. Jackson is a national treasure who should be a major name in this story.

Vote down Vote up

almost 5 years ago

The article states that Albert Ayler's quintet had "either Sunny Murray or Beaver Harris on drums," but makes no mention of drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Jackson played with Ayler in the mid-60's, and is featured on "At Slug's Saloon, Vol. 1 & 2". He is even pictured on the iconic album cover with Ayler and his band standing in front of Slug's. Jackson is also on disks 3 & 4 of Ayler's "Holy Ghost: Rare & Unissued Recordings".

How could anyone write a piece on avant garde jazz and fail to mention Ronald Shannon Jackson? He may very well be the only person to have recorded and performed with the three titans of free jazz: Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. And that doesn't include the 18-plus records he made as a bandleader and composer. Or his work with James Blood Ulmer. Or Power Tools, his supergroup with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Melvin Gibbs. Throughout the 80's and 90's, he frequently played the aforementioned Knitting Factory with various line-ups and projects.

You wouldn't write about the Sun Ra Arkestra without mentioning John Gilmore. Any piece on avant garde or free jazz that excludes Ronald Shannon Jackson is incomplete and needs to be amended.