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Dave Liebman: Placing Free Jazz and the Avant Garde in Musical and Historical Perspective

Dave Liebman: Placing Free Jazz and the Avant Garde in Musical and Historical Perspective

Courtesy Ray Cho


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Like free jazz, this interview arose spontaneously from an informal "how are you doin'" telephone conversation between saxophonist Dave Liebman and All About Jazz contributor Vic Schermer. Schermer phoned Liebman to compliment him on his new e-book The Art of Skill: Establishing the Mindset for Unleashing the Music Inside You published by Michael Lake, and how the book captures some of the insights that Lieb, as he is affectionately called, has been transmitting to his groups and his students for decades. The conversation then touched upon the effects of the pandemic, but all of a sudden Liebman changed the subject to free jazz and the avant-garde. He said he has something to say about this topic and he wanted to do an interview about it. Schermer, who has interviewed Liebman a few times in the past, doesn't associate Lieb with free jazz. But then he thought, free jazz, or what is sometimes called the avant-garde or the new thing, is an ongoing interest of his own and a lot of readers. And Liebman, if not labeled as a free jazz player, has certainly brought it into his repertoire, as in his recording David Liebman Ensemble: John Coltrane's Meditations (Arkadia Jazz, 1998.) Perhaps he can provide a fresh perspective. So let's do this interview.

Even though Liebman is not identified with free jazz as such, he was part of the scene in the 1960s-70s when free jazz came of age, and he and a lot of others like Chick Corea, who passed on very recently, and Dave Holland, both of whom at the time lived in the same loft building with him, were learning and growing through their exposure to and forays into the ideas and music of the free jazz innovators Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and others who created and ventured into music that was not based on standard harmony and rhythm, but somehow emerged without those obvious structures.

The interview also turned out to provide a fascinating comparison between the musical developments in Liebman's early days -the sixties and seventies -and today, with the emergence of world music and musicians delving into music from diverse sources through the internet, recordings, and interactions with peers from remote places and cultures. As Liebman points out, both time periods have insisted that the artist find a way of integrating what begins as eclecticism, (a collage of diverse concepts) into a coherent story. What emerges in Liebman's discussions is how free jazz and the avant-garde arose in the contexts of their times, and how that impetus continues in jazz today. Liebman is an NEA Jazz Master, a prominent jazz educator and a good story teller. The topic of free jazz really grabs him, so jump in with him as he begins the interview without even waiting for the interviewer to ask him a question!

Dave Liebman: Let me have a shot at setting the history. This is just running around in my head and I'm not sure how accurate it will be. But basically, I want to talk about how a case could be made that more or less every five years in the 1950s and 1960s something happened to make the music change. For one thing, Charlie Parker's passing in 1955 signaled the end of the bebop era. It was codified by that time and a lot of guys could do it. Hard bop was raising its head and there was an accumulated repertoire that was being laid out which everybody could latch onto. Then, when you get to 1959 and 1960, two recordings strike me the most about that year: Coltrane's Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1960), in particular the title tune, and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), especially the tune "So What."

All About Jazz: What was it that struck you so much about "So What?"

DL: It was the official beginning of modal playing in jazz. For simplicity's sake, modal playing is using a scale rather than a chord cycle as the basis for improvising. It is first heard on the Milestones (Columbia, 1958) recording with Miles on the title track, but "So What" became more famous than "Milestones." What's really interesting is that John Coltrane, who of course always comes up when we talk about that era, was involved in both of those records: his own Giant Steps and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue within a month of each other. "Giant Steps" was the epitome of playing chord changes at a very fast speed, (in some ways akin to Bird playing "Cherokee"). The album Kind of Blue and particularly "So What," were by contrast to "Giant Steps" basically no chord changes. So Coltrane was playing the least and the most chord changes on two record dates within a month of each other!

The Emergence of Free Jazz in New York

AAJ: How do these recordings relate to our topic of free jazz?

DL: I was just about to bring free jazz into the next two periods in jazz history. Another year that I think was very important was 1965, where you had Ornette Coleman at the "Golden Circle" Stockholm (Blue Note, 1965) and Coltrane Live at the Half Note: One Down One Up (Atlantic, recorded 1965; released 2005), the title tune of which had the same form as "Kind of Blue" but with a different melody and chords. Sticking to saxophone players, you had Wayne Shorter doing the Plugged Nickel recording [Miles David Quintet: The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (Legacy, 1995) (Eds.)] , a milestone record. Also Sonny Rollinswho had up to that time still kept playing pretty much the same repertoire that Charlie Parker and his generation created, but the way Sonny was playing in 1965 was unbelievable. So the stage was set every five years for something to happen, and of course free jazz, which we're gonna discuss, occurred around 1959-60. (Also I would mention as another point of development, 1970, with Miles Davis' In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and other ground-breaking fusion records which launched the 70s).

AAJ: You mentioned modal jazz, which relies more on melody than on chord structure. One of the things I've been wondering about is whether there are connections between modal jazz and free jazz, either historically or in musical concepts. But we'll come to that a little later. First I want to ask you a couple of questions that will give the reader some familiarity with your own history as a musician and where you stood within all these developments. So the first question is just to get an idea of your tastes in free jazz, a variation on the desert island question: What are your favorite free jazz recordings, the ones you'd take to the desert island with you?

DL: Of course, I'd take Coltrane's forays into free jazz, but also Ornette's. Ornette Coleman arrived on the scene in New York in 1959 coming from the West Coast. When he did a ground breaking stint at New York's Five Spot, his initial two week gig was extended to 10 weeks, and after a three month break, the group came back for a second stay of four months! It was clear that Ornette was speaking a whole different language from everyone else. Soon he made that record called Free Jazz (Atlantic, recorded 1960; released 1961) just around the time the Five Spot gigs finished up. It all stirred up a lot of controversy, because the way Ornette came on was very brash, very nervy with a lot of major key and blues lines, but no direct preconceived harmony. The way bassist Charlie Haden played was a sort of counterpoint. This changed the way the bass played, more melodic lines, no longer just accompaniment. Plus the recording group was augmented to two rhythm sections playing together at the same time, and also you had Freddie Hubbard on trumpet sort of representing the tradition. The recordings that Ornette did in the early 60s were a real declaration of what he brought into New York.

For me, the next major milestone free jazz record is Coltrane's Ascension (Impulse! 1966), which on its initial hearing seemed to be just a gang of guys all playing at the same time. Here Coltrane was signing on to the avant-garde. Trane's presence gave free jazz the respect that it didn't have before. It was that record that exemplified what Coltrane was moving towards in his late stage. Each of the musicians would have a short solo followed by a group interlude repeated for each of the eleven musicians. The sheer energy of Ascension was incredible.

The matter of what does the drummer do if not steady pulse becomes apparent. Somehow that got figured out by the likes of drummers Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille, Barry Altschul, and of course Trane's man, Rashied Ali, among others.

Keith Jarrett's album, Belonging (ECM, 1974) clearly demonstrates a more lyrical approach, with and without chord changes, with straight pulse and free time, chromatic harmony, the use of world music instruments, and more. The record label ECM, was an important voice for this kind of free jazz. It showed another side of playing "free," but not necessarily with the intensity of Ascension or Ornette's free jazz recordings. In the beginnings of free jazz, it seemed like a lot of intensity was necessary, but what Belonging showed was that there was a lyrical side of "free jazz" that has to do more with floating rhythm, a textural and color aspect, with harmony, but not necessarily so abstract though more open than bebop. And you had to thank Keith for that. That record is a masterpiece. I would certainly include it in my collection.

What makes Free Jazz "Free"?

AAJ: I think definitions of terms are important here. When people talk about free jazz or avant-garde jazz, they usually don't define it clearly and specifically. I think it's important that we know what we're talking about. So could you, for the purpose of this interview, acknowledging that it could change tomorrow, give us your definition of free jazz?

DL: Good question. Well, as usual, words fail when one talks about musical genres. Like I'm sure you've heard people saying, well I don't call it this or that kind of music, it's just good music or bad music, and so on. In other words, there's a reluctance of musicians to categorize specific approaches because it kind of closes the door. But for the sake of journalism and future edification it's important to have a definition. Free what? I usually say it's "free of" or "free from" and then I fill in the lines: Free from meter, because often free jazz is associated with a varying pulse. Also, free jazz is into angular, intervallic melodies, what Ornette did which is not easy to explain without hearing it. It's the use of wide intervals, which was new for that time. Harmonically speaking that's where a lot of people criticize free jazz. If they're not playing chord changes, are they not skilled? Is that a hole in their training?

That debate went on for decades, and there's that famous statement by George Russell: "The last refuge of the untalented is the avant-garde." [Laughter.] It gets a chuckle, but in any case free jazz became a real force in jazz. It wasn't just a fad. Fusion was more of a fad. That quote by Russell created a lot of controversy because we know that playing chord changes is probably among the hardest thing you do when you play jazz. Learning harmony and being adept at it is a real challenge. And if you ask a lot of musicians what was the hardest part of learning jazz which they had to spend the most time to acquire? I think they would say harmony. So when free jazz seemed to negate using harmony, a lot of people took that as a denigration of the music: "You can't play chord changes? How do we know you're the real thing?" So free jazz was extremely controversial at the beginning.

AAJ: Yes, and some musicians reacted to Ornette like he was a charlatan. But Leonard Bernstein went to hear him at the Five Spot and said he was really onto something great.

DL: Stravinsky went to hear Charlie Parker at Birdland in the late 1940s, and he loved the way Bird played. Classical music had a much longer history than jazz, 400 years as opposed to 100 years, and a lot of the harmony that comes from 20th century classical music is very challenging. Harmony locks you into something; the agenda is set by the form of the tune. That was true even of Ornette. He had a very melodic approach, and in some ways an harmonic approach. He wrote and played hundreds of tunes. Some of his original tunes have harmony, but most of them are "implied" harmony that is partially free and not free harmonically at the same time. And by the way, his rehearsals were legendary in terms of duration! Finally, there is the rhythm which is not pulse oriented but more towards color and not necessarily a steady or swinging pulse. The concept of color means ambience and sound. These two musical elements are a big part of 20th century classical music. Bebop had only one main color. In this context, bop was about swinging and playing chord changes. With free jazz we have music that doesn't swing and doesn't have chord changes, often with abstract melodies.

AAJ: The lack of swinging and chord changes is where the issue comes in for a lot of listeners.

DL: Yes, exactly.

AAJ: The question becomes, if it doesn't have some familiar, recognizable elements to compare it with, how can you tell that there is anything meaningful at all! It's like listening to a foreign language that you don't understand. You could get a guy coming on stage with a pennywhistle, blowing some notes, and calling it free jazz.

DL: That's what I mean when I say it was controversial.

AAJ: There's the story of Dexter Gordon rehearsing at a club in L.A. with Charlie Haden on bass. Ornette walks in and asks to jam with Dexter, who says, OK. After a while Dexter stops and tells Ornette to pack up, get out, and never come back. But Haden puts his bass down, and chases Ornette down the street and says, "Hey, when can I get together with you?" So you have two great jazz musicians, one thinks it's horrible and the other thinks it's "the new thing." [In fairness to Dexter, his widow and biographer Maxine Gordon told me that Dexter was very open to new developments in jazz, including Ornette's. That would be much later, after she met him. -VLS]

DL: What it gets down to is whether the musician is open and receptive enough to go between both worlds. Coltrane or Haden could do it. Dexter and Ornette not so much. We have to look at the free jazz music in New York. It wasn't just Ornette. There was a lot more to free jazz than Coleman. There was Cecil Taylor. If we think of how Cecil played it makes Ornette seem like nursery rhymes! There was Cecil's intensity, the use of his elbows and arms, crashing all over the piano using it as a percussion instrument. Cecil was quite rhythmic in a lot of ways. Ornette and Cecil both came on the scene silently and reservedly just saying: "We're doing something new."

But by the time you get to 1964-66, free jazz begins to have a bit of a social element of rebellion in it. Certainly, there's a tie-in with what was going on in American history and culture, with a lot of questions about color and race, which is still happening today. So the "free" music came to represent or express some of the feelings about race on the part of the musicians who played it. My own overall goal as a musician was to be able to play anything you put in front of me regardless of style. The only thing I couldn't do was, of all things, Dixieland! But today, fifty years later, the question is whether musicians can play in both camps, mainstream and free jazz, and the answer is yes, by and large they can! They can play "Oleo" or "Blues in F" and then play completely "free" with no agenda. They can just walk in the room, say hello, have a glass of wine, and start playing. I do that a lot in Europe, which by the way has provided a real home for free jazz. There still is a lot more free jazz in Europe than there is in the States, even now.

AAJ: When you bring in the aspect of race and culture, it appears on the surface at least that free jazz is a rebellion against the status quo. And we've got to realize that Dexter Gordon was rehearsing for a gig at a club, not an experimental workshop.

DL: Well, Dexter could have said, "OK, Ornette, that's not what we're into, but I'd like to hear a little bit of what you're doing."

Free Jazz as a Rebellion Against the Status Quo in Music and Society

AAJ: It sounds on the surface at least that free jazz is experienced by many as a rebellion, and people, including musicians, reacted to it initially with either extreme: love it or hate it. It was as if you were forced to choose sides in the conflict.

DL: It would seem that way. And that's where the social element comes in. The whole Black Panthers thing was going on in the 1960s and 70s. When I was with Miles Davis back then, I was the victim of reverse racism—not terrible but present. I was the lone white guy in Miles' group at the time. There was a lot of tension between white and black, including the question of who represents the "real thing" in jazz. Some of the critics would say about free jazz: "It's cacophonous, there's no clear melody, it didn't swing," etc. On the reverse was: "You're not free enough!" When you get into the whole social thing, at the other extreme, for example in 1964, there was a concert series called "The October Revolution" in New York organized by trumpeter Bill Dixon that received a lot of press.

AAJ: Oh, that explains why a concert I covered a couple of years ago in 2018 with Bobby Zankel, Dave Burrell, and others in the avant-garde called "The October Revolution." I was puzzled by that title other than that the concert was held in October.

DL: That was what they were referring to. This series of concerts became famous because they were well-organized, during which those musicians who were really into the "new thing" made the point that the new music is going to find a home by tying in perfectly with the African American challenge to racism. Free jazz in some ways blended in perfectly with African American calls for freedom. In the wider context, you had diverse artists like Jimi Hendrix and Eldridge Cleaver carrying the message. The bottom line is that during the late '60s into the '70s there was a great period when all kinds of music were being made in several genres. Free jazz was just one of many creative changes that were happening.

Free Jazz and the Avant-Garde in the Late 1960s and 1970s, When Liebman Comes on the Scene

AAJ: That brings us to the point where you yourself come on the scene in the late '60s and the '70s. Some time after your inspirational moments hearing Coltrane, you're fully into being an up and coming jazz musician. You lease a loft in Manhattan where many great jazz musicians came to talk and play, and from what you've told me the other two lofts in the building were also leased by jazz musicians So in that space and elsewhere you're immersed in a seething cauldron of jazz. DL: That was the loft at 138 West 19th Street. It was my first loft, which I lived in from 1969-72. My "schooling" as a jazz musician took place during those years of incredible learning and experimenting. Through a set of circumstances, I rented the top space. This was followed by Dave Holland on the middle floor and eventually Chick Corea on the street level. Now they were playing with Miles so it was interesting to hear comments after a gig or tour. When the Miles group played in New York, I would join in with these two masters discussing what they played that night and so on, quite a learning experience on its own merits. By the way, that configuration with Miles later became called "the lost quintet" with Jack DeJohnette, Wayne Shorter, Chick and Dave. At that time they played very free, over a rock feel, yet another way of expressing the free genre. They never formally recorded in the studio (hence the "Lost Quintet" name), but there are a lot of unbelievable live bootlegs that are now available. Miles wanted to play with these younger guys who literally could speak the bebop language, free jazz, funky rock and world music (Airto Moreira Nana, and Don Alias a bit later in the band). That group lasted about a year and a half before everybody moved on.

The point is that everybody was playing a lot of free music. I have tapes from my loft where we were playing free, four or five hours in a row with guys switching instruments, smoking grass and more. Nobody ever called a key or a tune or counted off a tempo. Everything and everybody just started! if you came up to my loft around that time, you would have heard almost all free jazz.

AAJ: Did you do any gigs that way?

DL: We had an organization which I founded called Free Life Communication. We got grants, put on dozens of concerts, again all different versions of free music. The music had the psychedelic influences, rock and roll, and eventually fusion. Free jazz and its cousins opened the door bringing all those elements together, encouraging the musicians to get in on all these things that were happening.

AAJ: In a certain way, you were an important part of that synthesis of free jazz with fusion and so on. Your contribution has not been sufficiently acknowledged in my opinion. And you started that organization, Free Life Communications.

DL: Well, that was the period. We had three hundred concerts in one year. For me, it started with drummer Bob Moses who is my longest playing partner. Moses grew up in a family that was tuned into the New York art scene. His godmother was vocalist Abbey Lincoln. He was very active and knew a lot at a relatively young age. We were playing free in the loft, but it became obvious that we needed an audience, no matter the size. So we decided to arrange some concerts on our own. That's why we started Free Life Communication. I called a meeting at my loft on 19th Street. Participants included Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker, Bob Moses, Lenny White, Chick Corea, Bob Berg, Dave Holland and others. We got a grant for $5,000 from the NY Council for the Arts and somehow did an "audition" playing completely free jazz in my loft for Mr. and Mrs. Rubin, who were patrons of the arts! They agreed to include us in a project with artists from several genres, renovating a church on the West Side in the garment district as a performance space. The most well known groups were the Alwin Nicolais and Murray Lewis dance companies. So we were a bunch of hippies playing free music at an elegant home using giant pillows for seating, free rent, a grand piano, beautiful wood flooring and a place where we could mix with other high level artists with the understanding to "be creative." Music like this doesn't exist in a vacuum. There have to be some tentacles, a rationale to exist. This music is a challenge for people to listen to. It doesn't have a clear melody. It doesn't swing. Everybody seems to be playing at once. So we had to develop our own audience who would know who we were. In the end, there were forty to fifty members in Free Life.

AAJ: So during that time, you were exposed to and created a lot of diverse forms of jazz and ways of doing it. Somehow, out of all this exposure and interaction with so many musicians and approaches, you ended up with a style of playing that is unique, one of a kind, and easily recognizable as your own rather than a mixture of what others have done. It's got your signature on it. It's not free jazz as such, but it's very open to possibilities. So if you agree with that assessment, how did you get from a maelstrom of people doing everything imaginable to forming your own unique approach to playing?


DL: Well, you have to remember that most of us were only around 25 years old at the time. One of the hallmarks of youth is change. Because of our age, and all the possibilities we were exposed to, we had no choice but to join the party. This meant experimenting. Incredibly with all this discussion of jazz happenings in the late 60s, jazz in itself was not in great shape at this time. In a certain sense it had been eclipsed and neglected by the press by and large. Free jazz was never popular. The beginnings of fusion were not popular yet. Bebop guys like Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin and others were leaving for Europe where they could tour and make a living. Finally, Trane had just passed on in 1967 so the ship didn't have a captain.

By contrast, I would say with respect to our present time the younger musicians in the last five or ten years are re-examining free jazz and coming up with interesting combinations of things. You see a tabla player with an electric guitar, a flute-o-phone or something like that. All combinations are on the table. Everything is possible. The young musicians are open-minded to all these things because our generation paved the way.

We were the first "eclectics." Eclecticism can be positive or negative. Negative means the music has a little of this, a little bit of that, but where's the meat? On the positive side, eclecticism could mean having Jimi Hendrix influenced by Prince and then followed by Bartok as influences? In the loft, we would have listening sessions for four/five hours at a time; have a smoke, a beer, whatever and check it out. Again, a potential "menu" might mean the Who, James Brown, Coltrane, the Bulgarian Girls Choir, Stravinsky,etc. So eclecticism became a style that our generation went a long way towards establishing, whether you regard it as positive or negative. That's what my generation represents. We played softer, textual stuff with electronics. We played ambient music, whatever. We played anti-jazz, anti-rock, everything, and that's what one identifies as my generation: eclecticism.

Why couldn't we play a rock tune followed by a beautiful jazz ballad afterwards? We could! No reason why we shouldn't. You have to remember that bebop had a very conservative repertoire. It was basically blues, rhythm changes and chord cycles. There were some guys breaking it up, like George Russell, Charles Mingus, experimenting in the '50s, but for the most part the repertoire was limited in scope. Then you come to the '60s, and there were young guys like me trying to do everything at the same time.

AAJ: Yet somehow you homed in on a way of playing that was very recognizable as specifically your own, Dave Liebman's voice. I don't hear you as eclectic as much as having evolved your own way of playing.

DL: It was my own voice but I learned from Miles was that he basically played the same stuff throughout his fifty plus years of playing. But what he did do was change the background, the musicians and what they played. He got Herbie, Chick Corea, even Keith Jarrett playing on electric keyboards for example. Miles as a performer needed to be surrounded by something appealing to the audience of the time, which in this case was the rock influence. One of Miles' trademarks was how he used space between phrases for which he needed great rhythm sections, making them central to the drama. This was a very different approach for typical jazz groups. Miles knew that. When I realized that he had been using this eclectic approach all along, it was a bit of an awakening. I could do this eclectic thing and I'm still going to be myself.... Dave....whether you put me in a red or a blue coat. There's a question of semantics here in some ways, but it's important to realize that eclecticism refers to the repertoire, and the style comes from who you are, what people identify as the Dave Liebman sound. Does that make sense?

AAJ: Yes, it makes a lot of sense. Now, you brought in classical music when you mentioned Bartok, Stravinsky. So I would like to ask you whether, in your opinion there is a relationship between free jazz and the atonal 12-tone music of Schoenberg.

DL: On the surface, there is a connection. Both involve dissonance for the sake of dissonance. 12-tone music provokes the same discussion about the audience jazz that we just covered with respect to free jazz. How does the audience appreciate the atonal music of the 20th century? When I taught my class based on my chromatic book at Manhattan School of Music, I would bring in some classical concert programs for the present season to see who classical concertgoers were listening to. Guess what. A lot of the music being performed is from the 18th and 19th century. There are a few pieces by Schoenberg or Alban Berg for example, but not much. When do we hear this 20th century music? Rarely, for the most part. It was because of the same free jazz problem, which is that it's not "catchy." It's not appealing to the audience.

AAJ: Yet Schoenberg composed for Hollywood films, using 12 tone concepts with dissonance all over the place in film scores. And a lot of the young jazz musicians have brought 12-tone and atonal music into otherwise mainstream playing.

DL: There is that ten percent of the audience that appreciates it, and in some cases musicians try to incorporate mannerisms and facets of the genre. 12-tone music is on the plate, but it's not the main dish. The same could be said about free jazz. Ten percent or maybe even less of the audience is going to be into free jazz and/or Schoenberg. The next obvious question is, how does all this stand now, in the 2000s? Today, it's a big bouillabaisse. It's even more eclectic than in my time. I love it. I think it's a great period in jazz because of eclecticism, different of course than what I have been describing from the 60s. The current musicians have learned how to finesse the subject and make it palpable without their audiences freaking out. On the other hand you have to think about rap music. No melody, no harmony, all rhythm!! Yet rap has great appeal to a certain segment of listeners.

World Music

AAJ: And today we have all kinds of world music at our fingertips on the web, with all kinds of different scales, rhythms, and so on.

DL: Of course! How could I leave that out? World music fits great into free jazz. When we think of world music, we used to think of a conga drum or something like that. However, today the musicians out there are very skilled at replicating things and in some cases mastering the world music idioms, whatever they may be. World music did not replace jazz or fusion and so on. It took technology to make world music viable. Like, who could go half-way around the world to hear a live drummer from Ghana, say, in 1962 or 1971? We didn't have the internet. The musicians and audiences now can push a button and get music from any country they want. The artists copy and use it, which is just what musicians do in any genre. And that's a very good thing. In fact I think it's saving jazz. Today there's so much more to draw from that you can put a lot more seasonings into the soup,

AAJ: So in a way there's another revolution taking place.

DL: In a way, yes!

AAJ: So you have to be very open and receptive, just like when free jazz came in.

DL: Exactly!

AAJ: We've got all this free music, world music, twelve-tone music, but in some way they all seem related to one another. Does that mean that our collective ears have evolved beyond scales and modes to where all notes are equally valid as in 12 tone rows? I'm just thinking that jazz composers and players are using a lot of classical stuff, as they always have, but now they're using what's called contemporary classical materials, from Bartok, but also Schoenberg all the way to Steve Reich, Ligeti, Stockhausen, you name it.

DL: They are! I agree!

AAJ: So the question in my mind is whether there is a connection between free jazz and the innovative developments of contemporary classical music?

DL: Of course. Keep in mind that classical music has a lot longer history than jazz. Ornette was on the border of diatonic harmony and full-blown chromaticism. Cecil Taylor was more of a colorist with great use of the piano as a percussion instrument. It's not like he's playing a C7th chord. What he did was create a texture rather than specific harmonies or scales. And that texture is very active and energetic. Cecil could be quite lyrical in a 20th century kind of way. By the way, Cecil loved mainstream jazz. He was an expert on the original Miles Davis groups. Richie Beirach and I would go to Bradley's Bar to hang out in the Village. Cecil would tell us all about Philly Joe Jones and those guys. He knew more about Miles Davis and his quintets than all the other musicians put together. The bottom line is that Cecil was freer in his tastes than Ornette.

Coltrane's Ascension and the Legendary Philharmonic Hall Concert

DL: So in the early '60s, you basically had two streams of free jazz: Ornette Coleman on one side and Cecil Taylor with a lot of visitors in between including two saxophonists who were influencing the scene: Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. Then, with the "Ascension" recording in 1966, Coltrane breaks into the free jazz movement giving it a sense of legitimacy and approval.

But audience resistances to free jazz didn't go away that quickly. There was a concert in 1966 at Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center entitled "Titans of the Tenor Saxophone." Most notably it featured Trane and Sonny Rollins. As was the custom in those days of all star concerts, everyone played one or two tunes, then a jam session vehicle. Everybody did their stint. Sonny was in one of those moods walking around the stage, playing snippets of tunes and so on. But when break time comes, Sonny says to the audience: "I'll be back with John Coltrane," which got everyone excited for the second half. This mix is perfect for the kind of public with expensive tickets, who liked short tunes and the prestige of the then relatively new Lincoln Center.

The second set starts with the lights going on. Coltrane walks across the stage holding his wife Alice Coltrane's hand. There are about eight to ten musicians coming on stage with shopping bags full of percussion instruments. It's 1966 and whether intentional or not they're making a statement. If I recall correctly the guys were wearing dashikis. I was sitting way in the back of God's country so I couldn't be sure who was who, but the audience was getting a little shaky and believe me there were no white guys on that stage! I can tell you that!! There was no previous indication that anything "free" was going to happen. The shock value of it must have been incredible!

The music starts with Alice arpeggiating on the piano. Everyone including Trane is shaking tambourines and bells and clickers. There are all these percussion instruments in their shopping bags plus two drummers. Trane starts chanting from the Tibetan Book of the Dead: "Om mane padme hum" ("praise to the jewel of the lotus.") This is as heavy as you can get in the Tibetan arena. The audience is losing it; they're looking around at each other and thinking: "What the hell is going on?" And remember this is after the release of the "Love Supreme" recording. Trane is a jazz star. The stage is vibrating; there is complete cacophony. Coltrane picks up his soprano saxophone and plays the melody to "My Favorite Things." It sounded different from the many times I heard him play this signature tune, having been to the Village Vanguard often by that time, where it was not unusual for "My Favorite Things" to be Trane's entire hour and a half set! So I was not taken aback to hear this version that night. He played the head very freely with no steady rhythm. The audience applauded. After all this is Trane's "hit tune" with a clear melody they're familiar with. Trane finished the head and then all hell broke out. This is not music for your grandmother!!

My friend Steve Lipman was with me. We looked at each other in disbelief ....couldn't believe Trane had the guts to play like that at Lincoln Center. It was completely cacophonous. You don't know who's playing when. The musicians are walking around that very large stage designed for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. They're playing into the curtain and the wall! Many people left shaking their heads: "This guy's lost it! What happened to John Coltrane Ballads (Impulse! 1963) and the recording he made with Ellington [Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (Impulse!, 1963)]? When it was all over, it seemed that half the audience of a couple of thousand people walked out!

Trane, by doing something like this was declaring his kinship with the new generation of musicians. He had made a huge statement. Steve and I left without speaking for the next hour or so. Unbelievable!! Everyone in New York was talking about it the next day. So once again free jazz seemed to be the last thing you would play if you want people to relate to it. Arnold Schoenberg could tell you a lot about that kind of experience!


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