The Jazz.com Blog
February 26, 2008 · 0 comments
This is the second part of a three part series looking back at the fifty year history of Free Jazz. For part one, click here.
Under any circumstances, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman would have forced jazz fans and critics to take Free Jazz seriously, despite the relatively modest sales of their LPs. Music this provocative demanded a response, yea or nay. But matters became even more urgent when John Coltrane (who had recorded with Cecil Taylor in the late 1950s) moved solidly into the Free Jazz camp in the mid-1960s. It now seemed that those outlandish predictions made in the early Ornette Coleman LP titles (which had names like The Shape of Jazz to Come or Change of the Century) had come true.
Free Jazz might very well be the shape of jazz to come, especially now that the most admired saxophonist of the era had come on board. Indeed, wherever one looked, signs of sweeping change were evident. Trend-setting Impulse Records released New Thing at Newport, which showed that the established jazz festival had opened its doors to the avant garde. Needless to say, there was no Old Thing at Newport album.
But who needed Newport or Monterey? When Bill Dixon promoted a series of Free Jazz music in October 1964, he dispensed with the light-hearted term "festival" altogether, preferring to call his event The October Revolution in Jazz - a title which seemed rather appropriate at the time. Free Jazz was not just another style hoping to be heard and appreciated. The old regime also needed to be overthrown. Observers were reminded of what had happened when serialism had swept the classical music world, and even fierce individualists such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein felt compelled to adapt, in some degree, to the demands of the new paradigm.
The jazz critics were, of course, also forced to take sides. Today, when a pluralistic jazz scene predominates, the idea of picking the winning side must seem strange to many jazz fans. A refusal to pick sides is, in fact, one of the defining aspects of new millennium jazz. But life was different in the 1960s. The ethos was "those who aren't with us are against us," and everyone of note in the jazz world was expected to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down. You ask: What about a flat hand wavering in the middle? Sorry, not allowed! You could be Siskel or Ebert back in those turbulent days, but weren't supposed to mess with Mr. In-Between.
Yet was there really a choice? Twenty years earlier, critics had been in a similar pickle when bop came on the scene. Those who had tried to dismiss or attack the modernists eventually discovered that they had foolishly picked a losing battle with some Hegelian historical force that would just mow them down in the process. Who dared do that again? There are many ways that a critic can go wrong, but getting trampled by the Shape of Jazz to Come is an especially painful way of going down to defeat. This lesson was not lost on the establishment. Critics would now take the lead as advocates for Free jazz, many of them emerging as vociferous champions, even when the general public showed hardly any interest in this music. Just as Jackson Pollock had his Clement Greenberg, Stravinsky his Robert Craft, Ornette and company had many of the savviest critics of the day in their court.
And what about the established jazz musicians? How did they react? Coltrane's Ascension was far from an isolated incident. Eric Dolphy, who had also made his mark as a master of traditional chord changes and song structures, was now also looking to move outside their sway. Sonny Rollins came back from his self-imposed sabbatical and recorded with Don Cherry, from Ornette's band, showing that he too (perhaps Coltrane's single biggest rival) was also feeling the heat from the new music. Miles may not have jumped on board, but in LPs such as Miles Smiles and Nefertiti his horn work with Wayne Shorter was coming closer and closer to the sound of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. And even his song titles—"Madness," "Riot," "Agitation"—showed the influence of the zeitgeist, which demanded extreme forms of musical expression. Leading indicators were sending clear signals that this would be the era of un-smooth jazz.
Yet Albert Ayler topped them all with a series of recordings that pushed saxophony to the breaking point. This was more than dissonance, more than atonality. The very idea of musical notes, scales, even playing in tune . . . all of these elements were now seen as so much ballast to be thrown overboard, as obstacles on the path to a transcendental freedom of expression. This was sound beyond sound, jazz beyond jazz.
Anthony Braxton has sometimes used the term 'post-Ayler' to desribe later music, and the label is an apt one. What could you do next to raise the ante? Scrape chalk against a blackboard? But in fact, Ayler was able to get a sound very similar to this out of his tenor sax. (Listen to the 2:06 mark on his track "Wizard" from Spiritual Unity and tell me he hasn't pulled it off.) Or destroy the saxophone itself (move the the 3:58 point on the same track, if you dare)? No, Ayler had pretty much done it all. After this artist demonstrated the total "negation of fixed pitches," to quote critic Ekkehard Jost, it seemed like the final page of a book had been written, or (more perhaps more appropriately) torn to shreds.
Yet maybe this was the first page of a new book. Had Ayler and Ascension, Ornette and Taylor started music on some exciting new journey? Now that jazz was "Free," would it exercise that freedom in surprising and exciting ways? Could jazz continue to progress beyond these sounds? (And what might it mean to go beyond Ayler and Taylor?) Or was this mid-1960s moment a high point from which, inevitably, things would decline and settle back into more predictable, structured paths?
END OF PART TWO
For part three of this essay, click here.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia