Free Jazz
Copyright © by Robert Levin, 4/21/03

[Listen to Bob guest on Omniversica's Show # 4, recorded 4/9/03.]

  More or less officially unveiled with the first New York appearance of the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot Café in the fall of 1959, free jazz (or new black music, space music, new thing, anti-jazz or abstract jazz  as it would variously be identified), gave a new dimension to the perennial "where's the melody?" complaint against jazz.
  Certainly, for most of the uninitiated, what the Coleman group presented on its opening night was, to say the least, perplexing.
  Four musicians (a saxophonist, trumpeter, bassist and drummer) abruptly began to play-with an apoplectic intensity and at a bone-rattling volume-four simultaneous solos that had no perceptible shared references or point of departure. Even unto themselves these solos, to the extent that they could be isolated as such in the density of sound that was
being produced, were without any fixed melodic or rhythmic structure. Consisting, by turns, of short, jagged bursts and long meandering lines unmindful of bar divisions and chorus measures, they were, moreover, laced, by the horn players, with strident honks, squeaks, bleats and squeals. A number ended and another began-or was it the same one again? How were you to know? Just what was going on here? No way this madness
could possibly have a method.
  But umbilically connected to the emergent black cultural nationalism movement, the madness did indeed have its method. The avowed objective of the dramatic innovations that musicians like Ornette and Cecil Taylor, and, in their footsteps, Sunny Murray, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille, Eric Dolphy, and the later period
John Coltrane, among hundreds of others, initiated and developed from the late '50s into the early '70s, was to restore black music to its original role as an instrument of spiritual utility. When these men abandoned an adherence to chord progressions, the 32-bar song form, the fixed beat and the soloist/accompanist format, and began to employ, among other things, simultaneous improvisations, fragmented tempos and voice-like timbres, they were very deliberately replacing, with ancient black methodologies, those Western concepts and systems that had, by their lights, worked to subvert and reduce black music in America not
just to a pop music but-and this was considered no less a corruption of what black music was supposed to be-an art form.
  Alan Silva, a one-time bassist with Cecil Taylor and then the leader of his own thirteen-piece orchestra, made the point in an interview I did with him for Rolling Stone.
  "I don't want to make music that sounds nice," Silva told me. "I want to make music that opens the possibility of real spiritual communion between people. There's a flow coming from every individual, a continuous flow of energy coming from the subconscious level. The idea is to tap that energy through the medium of improvised sound. I do supply the band with notes, motifs and sounds to give it a lift-off point. I also direct the band, though not in any conventional way-like I might suddenly say 'CHORD!'" But essentially I'm dealing with
improvisation as the prime force, not the tune. The thing is, if you put thirteen musicians together and they all play at once, eventually a cohesion, an order, will be reached, and that order will occur on a transcendent level."
  ("Silva says his band wants to commune with the spirit world," I commented in that interview, "and you aren't sure that it doesn't. With thirteen musicians soloing at the same time, at extraordinary decibel levels, astonishingly rapid speeds, non-stop and with complete emotional abandon for more than an hour, the band arrives not only at moments of excruciating beauty, but at sounds that rising in ecstatic rushes and waves and becoming almost visible in the mesmerizing intensity, weight and force of their vibrations, do indeed seem to be flushing weird, spectral things from the walls, from the ceiling, from your head.")
  Of course not all of these musicians shared Silva's position entirely. Some perceived the music as an intimidating political force in the battle for civil rights and exploited it as such, Others, like Taylor, did and quite emphatically, regard themselves as artists. For Taylor,
who took what he needed not just from Ellington and Monk, but from Stravinsky, Ives and Bartok, it wasn't about rejecting Western influences on jazz, but about subsuming them into a specifically black identity and esthetic.
  For the most part, however, disparities among the younger musicians of the period amounted to dialects of the same language. Most all of them shared a new black consciousness-a new pride in being black-and their reconstruction of jazz, their purging of its Western elements, or their assertion of black authority over those elements, was, to one degree or another, intended to revive the atavistic in the music.
  Silva saw grand extra-musical ramifications in his procedures. He believed that by jettisoning externally-imposed and introjected constraints the inherent goodness in men would surface and enable them to function in absolute harmony with both nature and each other. "Man," he said to me once, coming off an especially vigorous set. "In another ten years we won't even need traffic lights we're gonna be so spiritually attuned to one another."
  And I thought he might be right.
  This was, after all the '60s, a period in history when "restrictions" of every conceivable kind, from binding social and sexual mores to the very law of gravity, were successfully being challenged. If you were regularly visiting Timothy Leary's "atomic" level of consciousness, and if you could call a girl you'd been set up with on a blind date and she
might say, "Let's' ball' first and then I'll see if I want to have dinner with you," you could be forgiven your certainty that nothing short of a revolution in human nature itself was taking place.
  And some of us who regarded Western values as both the cause of all ill (had they not brought us to the brink of annihilation with the hydrogen bomb?), and the principle impedance to such a transformation, saw the new black music as leading the way, as the veritable embodiment of what Herbert Marcuse called "the revolution of unrepression."
A heady, intoxicating time, you could, in this period, un-self-consciously engage in earnest debates about the relative revolutionary significance of rock and this new black music.
  I remember a conversation I had with John Sinclair, the Michigan activist, poet and author of "Guitar Army." John took the position that rock was "the music of the revolution."
  No, I argued, rock did stand against the technocratic, Faustian western sensibility, It did, and unabashedly, celebrate the sensual and the mystical. But in these respects it only caught up to where jazz had always been. In contrast to what some of the younger black musicians were up to-the purging of white elements African music had picked up in America-rock music was simply the first hip white popular music.
  Rock, it was my point, never got beyond expressing the sentiment of revolution while free jazz, by breaking with formal Western disciplines-by going "outside," as the musicians termed it, of Western procedures and methodologies and letting the music find its own natural order and form-got to an actualization of what true revolution would be. Rock lyrics promoted, in many instances, the idea of a spiritual revolution, but musically rock remained bound to the very traditions and conventions which its lyrics railed against. and the audience never got a demonstration or the experience of spiritual communion. Rock lyrics
were subverted in the very act of their expression by the system used to express them. Free jazz, I said, achieved freedom not just from the purely formal structures of western musical systems, but, implicitly, from the emotional and social ethos in which those structures originated.
  Now, of course, some thirty to forty years later, free jazz in anything resembling a pristine form hardly exists, and it would not be inaccurate to describe many of the recordings that have survived from the '60s and '70s as mere artifacts of a failed revolution. (Obviously, this is true as well of the remnants of most of the other emblematic expressions of the epoch, expressions set in motion by the faith that in deconstruction lay epiphany and of which free jazz was only one of many.)
  But free jazz has not been without impact and influence. If it never achieved what Alan Silva expected it to, it certainly, on purely musical terms (and however contrary to its original purpose), extended the vocabulary and the field of options available to mainstream jazz musicians. And if men like Taylor and Ornette function now in what are largely their own isolated spheres, they remain as true as ever to their respective visions and continue to discover surprise and the marvelous.
  Indeed, for a  living demonstration of what this music could be, what it could arrive at, try to catch Cecil in one of his live performances-what he would call "exchanges of energies"-with drummers like Max Roach.
  In this age of determined mediocrity, I could name no better tonic.

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