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Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the '60s

By Published: August 8, 2010
For the most part, however, disparities among the younger musicians of the period amounted to dialects of the same language. All of them shared the "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 and reinstate the music's first purpose.

Silva saw broad extra-musical ramifications in his procedures. He believed that by rejecting all externally imposed 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 electrifying set. "In another ten years we won't even need traffic lights we're gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another."

And I have to say that I agreed with him.

This was, after all, a period in history when "restrictions" of every conceivable kind, from binding social and sexual mores to (with the moon shot) the very law of gravity, were successfully being challenged. And 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 sea change 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 impediment 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."

In so heady a time, earnest unself-conscious debates about the relative revolutionary merits of free jazz and rock—the other musical phenomenon of the period—were not uncommon.

I remember a conversation I had with John Sinclair, the Michigan activist, poet and author of Guitar Army (and the co-author, with me, of Music & Politics).

John took the position that rock was the true "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 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 methods and letting the music find its own natural order and form—got to an actualization of what true revolution would be. Rock's lyrics, I said, promoted, in many instances, the idea of a spiritual revolution, but musically rock remained bound to the very traditions and conventions that its lyrics railed against and the audience never got a demonstration or the experience of authentic spiritual communion. Rock's lyrics were undermined and attenuated in the very act of their expression by the system used to express them. The new jazz, on the other hand, 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.

As I say, it was a heady time.

Now, of course, free jazz, in anything resembling a pristine form just barely exists, and obviously it has ceased to exist altogether as a revolutionary movement. Like other emblematic movements of the epoch with which it shared the faith that a new kind of human being would surface once all structure and authority that wasn't internal in origin was rejected, free jazz was ultimately ambushed by its naiveté.

But on purely musical terms free jazz has not been without an ongoing impact. If it never achieved what Alan Silva expected it to, it did (however contrary to its original ambition), expand the vocabulary and the field of options available to mainstream jazz musicians. And while they function today in what are essentially universes of their own, Taylor, Coleman, Murray, Cyrille, Shepp and Dixon are still very much around and continuing to discover the marvelous.

Indeed, stripped though they may be of their mystique as harbingers of an imminent utopia, these extraordinary musicians continue to produce musical miracles as a matter of course. For an always compelling demonstration, try to catch Cecil in one of his live performances—what he would call "exchanges of energy"—with drummers like Tony Oxley
Tony Oxley
b.1938
drums
.


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