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The History Of Jazz - Part 7
- Free Jazz

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The History Of Jazz - Part 7
- Free Jazz

By the Fifties jazz had become habituated to messianic figures 'The Leather Stockinged Geniuses'. The critic Gary Giddins once said  'Who was it came along and taught the world a new musical language? Was it Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and who would be next? '

Was Ornette Coleman, an iconoclastic young altoist who had recently blown into New York from the West Coast, the new Bird?  It seemed probable at this time.

He had extremely disturbing musical ideas which defied conventional notions of harmony. His instrumental sound was raw, fresh and expressive in a novel way, just as Parker's had been. Previously  just like Charlie Parker and Lester Young, Coleman had been derided by older musicians and boppers like Dexter Gordon.

He had many of tile marks of a messiah but the jazz world was divided. Many, including the normally avant-garde Miles Davis and Charles Mingus were suspicious, openly suggesting that Coleman's playing showed not so much profound originality, but profound ignorance.

The radicality of Coleman's music divided the spirit of the times, it promised a great step forward, agreeable to the modern-minded Sixties and it proposed a new type of music which would be more clearly the possession of African Americans. This had been one of the initial motives of Bop, but that of course had been very quickly assimilated by white performers.

This new music, the 'New Thing' as it was sometimes called, was arguably a sort of a return to more purely African roots, jettisoning the European elements in jazz, conventional harmony and form and indeed some of Coleman's work does indeed suggest the most primitive Afro-American roots.

By the beginning of the Sixties a number of younger musicians were following Coleman's lead, including the tenor players Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. By the mid-Sixties John Coltrane himself, another putative messiah had adopted Free Jazz. His major records in 1965 i.e. Ascension, Meditation, Kulu Se Mama were recorded with such collaborators as Shepp and an Albert Ayler follower called Pharoah Saunders who actually became the frontline partner in his regular band.

Although Coleman made the big splash others had already been working on parallel lines. The pianist Cecil Taylor had long been evolving a keyboard approach based on furious attack and dense textures and continued to develop along his own lines throughout the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. His music is more inaccessible and arguably more musically rich than Ornette Coleman's.

Another isolated experimenter was Sun Ra, a musician who has the unique distinction among big band leaders of having been born on the planet Saturn (an alternative theory holds that he was once called Herman Blount and came from Alabama).

Sun Ra started leading bands he called the Solar Orchestra in the Fifties (always with the tenor player John Gilmore), evolving towards a style which mixed musical freedoms with great theatricality. His musicians danced and processed and might be dressed in spacesuits or flowing robes.

This theatricality was shared with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a band containing the trumpeter Lester Bowie and reed players Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell. The excitement of seeing this band live, its supporters claim, was much greater than that which was captured on its recordings.

Another player from Chicago is the composer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, a performer whose work is occasionally beautifully persuasive, but often forbiddingly recondite (he was interested in the mathematical aspects of music which was interesting in itself).

The New Thing was a not a unified style like Bop or Swing, so much as a collection of coteries. Taylor's music, for example is not really compatible with Coleman's. Also it is not so much a musical language as a platonic ideal. Many musicians, for example the altoist Jackie McLean and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy moved more or less 'outside', as it was called the boundaries of Bop.

To sum it all up! - As with much that happened in the Sixties there were many experiments attempted which didn't work and even fewer solutions were found. It was often the most strikingly expressive which was simplest, closest to the blues, the dirge, the cry, but to get to the sound that worked the listener often had to sit through lengthy stretches of rebarbative and self-indulgent chaos. This did not help the jazz gene in a musical landscape which threatened to banish jazz to a diminished popularity.

Not surprisingly it never developed much of an audience in the USA. Free Jazz found more of a home in northern Europe where it fitted into the existing tradition of esoteric modern classical music.

Many of the most prominent European players of the Sixties were affected by the Free Jazz movement including German trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff and British baritone saxophonist John Surman.  It was in fact in the Free Jazz movement of the Sixties that European jazz at last began to attain autonomy from its American counterpart.

Next Time in Part 8 - Fusion Jazz

* Also see :- Louis Armstrong Biography
* Also see :- Dave Brubeck Biography
* Also see :- John Hammond Biography
* Also see :- Nica de Koenigswarter Biography
* Also see :- 52nd Street
* Also see :- Tin Pan Alley

Wes George (former Sony Jazz webmaster)
Email : info@jazznet247.net
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