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Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the '60s

Robert Levin By

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[Editor's note: Revised and expanded here, this piece originated as an oral essay for an installment of the Cosmoetica Omniversica internet radio series on the arts and sciences. The series was hosted by Dan Schneider and Art Durkee.]

More or less officially unveiled with the first New York appearance of the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot Café in the fall of 1959, free jazz (or new black music, space music, new thing, anti-jazz or abstract jazz as it would variously be labeled), gave new dimension to the perennial "where's the melody?" complaint against jazz.

For most of the uninitiated, what the Coleman group presented on its opening night was in fact sheer cacophony.

Four musicians (a saxophonist, trumpeter, bassist and drummer) abruptly began to play—with an apoplectic intensity and at a bone-rattling volume—four simultaneous solos that had no perceptible shared references or point of departure. Even unto themselves the solos, to the extent that they could be isolated as such in the density of sound that was being produced, were without any fixed melodic or rhythmic structure. Consisting, by turns, of short, jagged bursts and long meandering lines unmindful of bar divisions and chorus measures they were, moreover, laced with squeaks, squeals, bleats and strident honks. A number ended and another began—or was it the same one again? How were you to tell? No. No way this madness could possibly have a method.

But umbilically connected to the emergent black cultural nationalism movement, the madness did indeed have a method. The avowed objective of the dramatic innovations that musicians like Ornette, Cecil Taylor—and, in their footsteps, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler, Jimmy Lyons, Eric Dolphy and (the later period) John Coltrane, among hundreds of others—initiated and practiced from the late '50s into the early '70s, was to restore black music to its original identity as a medium of spiritual utility. When these men abandoned an adherence to chord progressions, the 32-bar song form, the fixed beat and the soloist/accompanist format, and began to employ, among other things, simultaneous improvisations, fragmented tempos and voice-like timbres, they were very deliberately replacing, with ancient black methodologies, those Western concepts and systems that had, by their lights, worked to subvert and reduce black music in America to either a pop music or (for many of them no less a corruption of what black music was supposed to be) an art form.

Alan Silva, a one-time bassist with Cecil Taylor and then the leader of his own thirteen-piece orchestra, made the point in an interview I did with him for Rolling Stone.

"I don't want to make music that sounds nice," Silva told me. "I want to make music that opens the possibility of real spiritual communion between people. There's a flow coming from every individual, a continuous flow of energy coming from the subconscious level. The idea is to tap that energy through the medium of improvised sound. I do supply the band with notes, motifs and sounds to give it a lift-off point. I also direct the band, though not in any conventional way—like I might suddenly say 'CHORD!' But essentially I'm dealing with improvisation as the prime force, not the tune. The thing is, if you put thirteen musicians together and they all play at once, eventually a cohesion, an order, will be reached, and it will be on a transcendent plane."

(I commented in the interview that "Silva says his band wants to commune with the spirit world and you aren't sure that it doesn't. With thirteen musicians soloing at the same time, at extraordinary decibel levels, astonishingly rapid speeds and with complete emotional abandon for more than an hour, the band arrives not only at moments of excruciating beauty, but at sounds that rising in ecstatic rushes and waves and becoming almost visible in the mesmerizing intensity, weight and force of their vibrations, do for sure seem to be flushing weird, spectral things from the walls, from the ceiling, from your head.")

Of course not all of these musicians shared Silva's position entirely. Some saw the music as an intimidating political weapon in the battle for civil rights and exploited it as such. Others, like Taylor, did and quite emphatically, regard themselves as artists. For Taylor, a pianist and composer who took what he needed not just from Ellington and Monk, but from Stravinsky, Ives and Bartók, it wasn't about jettisoning Western influences on jazz, but about absorbing them into a specifically black esthetic.

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