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Fre-Formation

The Beginnings of Free Form

By Published: May 4, 2012
"For me, free jazz or avant-garde is improvised music with little preconceived form. It can equally be afforded to contemporary classical music, as some of its origins come from that area as the so-called 'Third Stream,' suggested by Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
b.1925
composer/conductor
. With jazz, it was Charles Mingus and George Russell
George Russell
George Russell
1923 - 2009
piano
taking an extension to bebop, as a development from Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and, most importantly, Monk. Then, Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
conjuring up modalism with Gil Evans
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
composer/conductor
and John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
reeds
and Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
taking it further."




Albert Ayler played his tenor sax like his life depended on it (I defy anyone to listen to his nine-minute version of "Summertime" and not smile) and almost—but never quite—lost the tune while punctuating his playing with wails, whispered notes and other strange noises. When he came to New York in the early '60s he found musicians with whom he connected like Don Cherry
Don Cherry
Don Cherry
1936 - 1995
trumpet
. Though he died before his 35th birthday, Ayler, like Beiderbecke before him, proved that you could push the boundaries of limitations set by traditional playing.

From the classically trained stable came pianist Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
. Trained at the New York College of Music and the New England Conservatory, and heavily influenced by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, you could hardly get a more traditional background. Yet, by the late '60s, Taylor had developed an almost completely free style. After he began to play with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
b.1937
saxophone
, Taylor played almost exclusively free form.

Sun Ra
Sun Ra
Sun Ra
1914 - 1993
keyboard
began to explore electronic music using keyboards, and his Arkestra started regular gigs in New York. These led to new audiences embracing his freer style of playing. Not free from as such but, with his unusual take on life—linked closely to influences from ancient Egypt, religion and science fiction—he appealed to hippies and the '60s youth culture, as well as free jazz lovers.

It is impossible to acknowledge all the influences on the free form movement since the 1950s. Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean
1932 - 2006
sax, alto
, Evan Parker, John Stevens
John Stevens
b.1940
and Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
b.1945
reeds
have all pushed the boundaries musically, and influences came from other cultures as well, including Joe Harriott
Joe Harriott
Joe Harriott
1928 - 1973
saxophone
, with his distinctive fusion of Jamaican roots and free-style playing.

Art Blakey, whilst relying heavily on traditional themes, provided an arena for people like trumpeter Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard
b.1962
trumpet
and saxophonist Kenny Garrett
Kenny Garrett
Kenny Garrett
b.1960
sax, alto
. Despite his passing in 1990, you can still find Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers revue, performing at the Birdland club in Manhattan.

Ornette Coleman was an important artist in the free form style and his 1961 album, Free Jazz (Atlantic) is widely considered the origin of the name which stuck.

No one listening to Coleman's "Eventually" can say he was a true free form player, but there is something very different about his playing. It can make a listener smile, and is a dialogue rather than something that is simply heard. Free form players talk often about the dialogue of playing—the interaction between the players, the audience and parts. As a listener, player or watcher, you are drawn in and become part of the music.

While free form as a name has stuck, Brötzmann thinks the name is a misnomer:

"No one can just do exactly what they want. It is a dialectic process and you have to be responsible. As soon as you work with somebody or something and even if you destroy the existing rules, you make your own. It is always dialectic between what you have in mind and what is possible."


Though it is said to have developed from dissatisfaction with the limitations of jazz in the '60s and musicians attempting to break out of the conventions of fixed chords and tempos, the scene was set long before; the time just had to be right. That time was the early '60s. However, information flowed interminably slowly, and new musical styles were slow to spread or reach new places at the time, so the evolution of free form jazz took a long time.

By the '60s, the need to progress—and there being enough musicians in the US, UK and Europe ready to break away from mainstream—meant the time was right for free form to take its place as a recognized genre. It was time for musicians to really play.

By that time, Europe had become far less reliant on the US. What was once a one-way street from the US to Europe soon became a two-way avenue, as European artists and musicians found their own way of doing things. The development of the free form movement in Europe and the UK meant you no longer had to be in New York for great gigs. Europe began to sever established musical ties with the US and, in Europe, people became more radical, looking for something different.


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