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The Beginnings of Free Form

By Published: May 4, 2012
Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
Derek Bailey
1932 - 2005
, the Sheffield-born guitarist, was a very important figure in experimental music in continental Europe. He experimented with time and rhythm—something which both astounded and enthralled audiences at the time.

As more musicians sought to experiment, push boundaries and do something different with jazz, free form began to take a solid shape. Because it was a new form of playing, many players had a difficult time getting established and finding gigs.

"No one," says Brötzmann, "made a living in the 1960s from free form playing, and nearly all players had other jobs." Brötzmann himself had a family by the time he was 21, and had to support them by getting other jobs. However, gradually, the response grew and the audiences got larger. Free form players started to record their music and to press more records.

Tony Oxley
Tony Oxley
, the British free form drummer, was a big influence in Europe at the time and there developed solidarity among all players of free from. They had to work hard for every small success and each small step could be seen as a victory. They took time to develop their own style—a process which is still going on today. Fifty years on, free jazz is no longer part of a revolutionary movement but it still allows musicians to create small miracles in terms of musical boundary-pushing.

Brötzmann is also quick to point out that free form emerged in the '60s due to the times in which people were living:

"The mid-60s felt like a violent time. There were race riots in Detroit and Washington; Martin Luther King was stirring the conscience of Americans; and there were burnings of churches and even people. In Europe, there was unease and the generation after the war wanted an alternative society. Music was just a little bit on the side but it was the main way young people could express themselves. There was solidarity between European musicians and the US. Maybe this is missing lately but Vietnam had a knock-on reaction in Europe."

In the early 1960s, Brötzmann was involved in fine art, playing jazz and seeking more, but unsure where this might lead. Through art he met lots of fellow artists, like composer John Cage
John Cage
John Cage
1912 - 1992

"These kinds of people gave different information from the ordinary jazz scene, so I found it easier to get rid of forms and start from a new point. I began to work without harmonies or any formal format."

Gustafsson continues the thought:

"I don't think that the Vietnam War thing and the general radical situation in the late '60s really effected the development of free form music that much. It was, for me, a very logical development of the music we had before that and it was primarily for both political and artistic reasons that the music opened up and deepened. It was a very logical step to start opening up the forms. It was necessary even after bebop, hard bop on one side and the extreme notation systems of contemporary classical music.

"The only way to go was towards the open forms with electronic music, free jazz and more ideas—based music with, for instance, flux connections. There was similar experimentation in other art forms like the theatre, dance, poetry, art and other fields. Some, of course, had a very direct connection to the political situation at the time but free form jazz, with some exceptions, did not have sharp connections politically."

And he is right. Talk to any musician and they see the free from emergence as a result of both the political stage of the world at the time but also simply the fact that musicians wanted to do something more, something different and to experiment.

Terry Day, who played with Kilburn and the High Roads, Peter Cusack, The People Band and the London Improvers Orchestra to name a few remembers that in the late 1960s and early '70s there were small audiences for free form and this is still true today. In 1965, he met people like Mel Davis, John Stevens, Mike Figgis and George Kahn
George Kahn
George Kahn
at The Starting Gate club. They began to play with rhythms and beats, improvising and finding the voice which united the musicians.

Day coerced pianist/fellow Kilburn Russell Hardy into improvisation. Like many other European musicians, they came to the same place at the same time and took a dislike to the accepted formats. They met other musicians seeking greater freedom like Terry Holman, Russell Hardy and trumpeter Henry Lowther
Henry Lowther
Henry Lowther
. Most were playing in "structured" jazz ensembles, so Day suggested something different. The Continuous Music Ensemble was formed—later to develop into The People Band, an influential free form ensemble of the late '60s that is still playing today. Martin Davidson, of the Emanem label, showed an interest in what they were doing. Recordings were made and sold—in small numbers, admittedly, but still they sold and the audience for free form grew exponentially in the UK.

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