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How Far Is Too Far Out?

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When listening to free-form avant-jazz, it may seem like anarchy rules, but if you listen closely, there are many things happening at once and they are happening with a purpose in mind.
The year was 1948. It was a few years after the end of World War II. The world was climbing out of the residue left by a horrible war. Big bands, dance bands and small groups played the music of the day. All over America and around the world people turned on their radios and listened to soap operas, mystery plays, comedy shows, news programs, sports and music. Many musicians made their living traveling. Swing music, considered old fashioned by some, was moving towards avant-gardism by visionaries such as Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Be-bop (the new avant-garde of the day) could be heard up and down 52nd Street and in Harlem.

In every age of musical advancement, the musicians who sought to raise the bar were met with outrage and disdain. The musical world and society at large were not ready for change.

Change is difficult. When John Coltrane came along playing slightly out of tune and re-harmonizing diehard standards, the critics went nuts. When he added Eric Dolphy to his famous quartet, the musicians complained and the critics criticized again. They didn't understand Eric's polytonal approach, but John did. They just didn't get it. Go back and read some of the old Downbeat reviews and you will see how angry some of them got. Both John and Eric were considered the "out" cats then, but at the same time Ornette Coleman arrived from Texas with his plastic saxophone playing with his Harmolodic approach. Wow! That was very out—for that era. At the same time, there was a pianist by the name of Cecil Taylor sitting in a downtown coffee shop that no one wanted to play with because he was absolutely non-musical and crazy and no one could relate to anything he played. When Trane moved from Bebop to modal playing he was eventually accepted, but when he moved on to his free-form Avant-garde out playing, he was ridiculed. Yet he was the only one who understood and believed in what Albert Ayler (another apostle of "spiritual out-ness") was trying to do.

Looking back, we wonder: "what was all the fuss was about?" Ornette is still going strong and accolades have been bestowed upon him from all over the world. There is an established Church of John Coltrane and practically every tenor saxophonist from 1970 on has tried to emulate him. The misunderstood Thelonious Monk has been escalated into a God. His music is a required study for anyone who studies jazz. There has been a resurgence of Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy's music. Along with the re-discovery of both saxophonists there seems to be a new CD of newly-discovered recordings released every few months. Fans wait for hours to hear Cecil Taylor play. There are festivals and radio programs dedicated to these "Icons of Music" all over the globe. One of the most respected modern musician/composers of our day, Anthony Braxton, continues to record and perform offering the world a glimpse into his mind.

The New York City loft scene that went underground in the seventies has re-emerged as "the downtown scene". Downtown New York City clubs such as Tonic, The Knitting Factory and the Sunday Night Avant & New Music Series at CBGB'S present some of the very best of the avant-garde players in the world. In the last few years the scene has extended to some venues in New York City's borough of Brooklyn. On the "Left Coast", players such as Vinny Golia, Nels Cline, and Henry Kaiser are part of a handful of musicians who are keeping the flame alive. So why in this era of mediocrity in music— and almost everything that surrounds us in the arts—is there such an outcry against an art form that seems to have proven itself through the years with quality musicianship and outstanding originality, but is not truly accepted as a form of Jazz?

Europeans have accepted American jazz as an art form without hesitation and prejudice. They welcome American avant-garde artists to their shores with open arms. Why do you think that is so? To understand this phenomenon, you must look back at European musical history. Europe is the land of Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Chopin, Wagner, Schoenberg, Berg, Ravel, Bartok and many many more. By the time Western European music had reached the 20th century, the European musical ear had grown and was adjusting to dissonance. It was a natural growth for them; and yes, sometimes there was an outcry about the music. Witness the outrage and the riots that occurred with the premier of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring—now considered a musical masterpiece.


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