The Jazz.com Blog
February 27, 2008 · 2 comments
The success of the Free Jazz movement during the 1960s was as pervasive as it was rapid. During the period from 1958 to 1968 the new music changed the form and substance of jazz music. Yet how could the New Thing, for all its successes, ever live up to the expectations of its most fervent admirers? For this was a new style that hoped to be more than just a new style, not another passing fad like the bossa nova or soul jazz crazes of this same era, but something that realized the promise of the album covers that proclaimed the Change of the Century.
Did any jazz style ever have loftier goals? At the close of his book on this style of performance, The Freedom Principle, John Litweiler announced his hopes that avant garde music would be "philosophically crucial to humanity as a whole" and "lead to a new consciousness that will deter mankind from its present catastrophic course." David Such takes up a similar theme at the end of his survey Avant-Garde Jazz Musicians: Performing "Out There" when he enthuses that his favorite music helps life "achieve purposefulness" and points the way toward "solving at least a portion of the problems and misunderstandings in the world." When Valerie Wilmer wrote her book on the new movement, she simply called it As Serious as Your Life, and no one seemed at all surprised by the extravagant title.
This type of rhetoric is what set the free jazz aficionados apart from everyone else in the jazz world. Dixieland players may have loved their old records, but they didn't expect to change human consciousness. Retro swing dancers were devoted to the big bands, but they didn't hold out the Lindy Hop as an alternative to the arms race. (Of course, in a leg race, you might be tempted to bet on them.) Boppers loved to bop and sock-hoppers had to hop, but they never released CDs called The Future is Now or Change of the Century.
A backlash was inevitable—not so much against the music, as against the rhetoric and overly schematic view that implied (or stated outright) that jazz needed to progress like some sort of scientific discipline, that new ideas dislodged and replaced the discredited old ones. And when the backlash came, it arrived in varied and surprising ways. The emergence of neo-traditionalist Wynton Marsalis as the most famous jazz musician of the 1980s would be its most visible sign, but even before Wynton a change was in the air. In 1974, a few years before his death, Charles Mingus mused "I used to play avant garde bass when nobody else did. Now I play 4/4 because none of the other bassists do." When Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and other jazz stars returned to playing hard bop for their 1977 VSOP tour, Newsweek put it on the front cover. Playing without the chords might have been newsworthy in 1957, but twenty years later a return to acoustic, structured jazz was seen as the real story.
If Newsweek had been paying more attention, it might have found it equally surprising when the very leaders of the avant garde started to signal a retreat from the core principles of Free Jazz. Anthony Braxton began recording standards over familiar chord changes. Cecil Taylor played duets in concert with Mary Lou Williams, and let her set out structured harmonies and familiar jazz vocabulary under his blistering keyboard attack. And the next generation of progressive players would be even more accommodating, moving inside and outside the changes without thinking twice. Musicians such as David Murray or Don Pullen may have felt the call of free-form jazz, but they never forgot all the other ways one could play African-American music for fun and profit.
Clearly progressive jazz no longer matched the rhetoric and ideology that had given rise to the Freedom Principle (to borrow a useful term from John Litweiler, with its nice overtones of a music that was inextricably embedded in an accompanying ideology). For the most part, the ideology of jazz still looked at the music as embodying an ineluctable linear progression, in which each generation went beyond what had happened before. The ideology still demanded new things, but the musicians and fans seemed increasingly interested in restoring their connections with the traditions and heritage of the music. Even before Wynton Marsalis came on the scene, it was increasingly clear that most jazz critics (acutely sensitive, as we have seen, to Hegelian forces) were more radical than most musicians. And the fans were the least progressive of all, still hoping to snap their fingers and shake their hips. Something would have to give.
And what gave the most was the Freedom Principle. The very term Free Jazz started to disappear, replaced by new phrases such as "progressive jazz" or "experimental jazz." Or people would talk about "downtown music" or "M-Base"—or whatever the flavor of the month might be next. Jazz was increasingly acting like the contemporary art gallery scene, where new things came and went, no one looking for a linear progression, or a "change of the century." Just some sort of change - for a week, for a day - was good enough.
This shift in perspective was inevitable in an age in which the leaders of Free Jazz were no longer quite so free. The return to chord changes and traditional song forms, which started as a surprising development among the experimentalists of the 1970s, became so common in the 1980s as to hardly draw attention. Even pastoral performers with big mass-market followings, such as Keith Jarrett or Pat Metheny, could add atonality to their repertoire without raising eyebrows, while the iconoclasts and radicals were allowed to play "Body and Soul" or a twelve bar blues night after night without anyone questioning their credentials as progressives.
Even before this, with the rise of the Art Ensemble of Chicago in the late 1960s and 1970s, the progressive movement in jazz began to move toward a new policy of "peaceful coexistence." The Art Ensemble was more about eclecticism than a firm adherence to any one style, free or otherwise. The very diversity of instruments in their music was a symbol of this emerging pluralism. The AEC, by one measure, was said to use some 500 different instruments. How could you get more inclusive than that? Moreover, this band was part of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) which became more and more influential during the 1970s—and, again, names are revealing. Here was no promise of an October Revolution or some plan to topple the old order. Instead of Free Jazz or atonality, we have the simple label "Creative Musicians." Who could be against that?
This is the jazz world we have inherited, a happily-ever-after in which anything goes, everything goes, and pluralism (not freedom or atonality) is the single guiding principle. There is no sign that this will change anytime soon. Indeed, it is almost inconceivable that it could change. No one in the jazz world believes in the Hegelian force of history any more, even if they pay it lip service. No one believes that jazz styles move ahead like science, each generation progressing beyond the last, superseding and replacing what went before. Sometimes they talk as if they believed these things, because the language in which jazz criticism is written still smacks of this positivistic attitude. But the reality, which everyone can plainly see, is that jazz styles are more like Paris fashions, which must change with the season, but not with some linear sense of inevitability, more just for the sheer fun of it.
And fun is the catchword that first comes to my mind when I think of jazz today. Call me, if you will, the advocate of The Fun Principle in jazz. (My motto: I can't solve socio-political problems, only show you a good time.) But the rhetoric of jazz - as opposed to the reality - is still mired in the old paradigm. Much jazz writing remains situated in the world view of art historian Giorgio Vasari who, in the sixteenth century, legitimized the idea that artistic styles followed a progressive evolution—a view he adopted because he found it a useful way of conceptualizing Renaissance art. But it is merely a conceptual tool not reality. It had explanatory power for a long time, roughly four hundred years. This crude, positivistic model lingers on in our sub-conscious even after it has failed to describe the path of artistic development for some four decades. New ways of conceptualizing the role of the artist are in formation—and I have speculated in other settings about what these might be, and have even offered some bold predictions. But the alternative ways of describing the role of the contemporary artist have yet to capture people's imagination to the degree that Vasari's simple idea did. Even so, the confusion about the new paradigm cannot blind us to the fact that the old one has lost its explanatory power.
So here is our puzzling final assessment of Free Jazz. This music survived (and even thrived) as one style among many styles. This is a considerable achievement. Yet the rhetoric of the Freedom Principle could hardly count this achievement as real success. Free Jazz has always been married to an ideology that saw this style as riding a historical wave that gave it some degree of pre-eminence over other styles. The very term "progressive" implies others must be regressive; an avant garde requires others to play the role of the derriere. But who wants to volunteer for that?
What can you do for an encore after your first act was to declare yourself as "the shape of jazz to come"? Nothing seems quite good enough after coming down from that high peak, and it is perhaps understandable that the most devoted followers of Free Jazz want to re-assert their superiority. Even today, the Free Jazz fringe are the least tolerant of the successes enjoyed by other jazz styles. They grumble when Herbie Hancock wins a Grammy, when Norah Jones has a platinum record, when Brad Mehldau gets a glowing review. And who can blame them? They were supposed to supersede all these ordinary folks, the remnants of an outmoded tradition with their consonant harmonies, hummable melodies and repeating metric structures. Instead the avant garde has been forced to live in a pluralistic jazz world in which everyone is on the same footing.
And even more surprising: the avant garde is now seen as a venerated tradition in its own right. Part of the allure of this music was its outsider status, its exclusion from the power structures of society, which it was supposed to oppose. Yet someone like Cecil Taylor can point to his Guggenheim Award and MacArthur fellowship, and has played at the White House. (And look at how many other avant-gardists, from Anthony Braxton to George Lewis, have won the so-called MacArthur "genius grants.") Ornette Coleman has had more books devoted, in whole or part, to his career, than almost any other living jazz musician. Universities, foundations, festivals all open their arms to the former revolutionaries. Anyone else might delight in such acceptance and rewards. But those most closely aligned with the Free Jazz movement can only ask "Where did our revolution go?"