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Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the '60s

Robert Levin By

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In a bad time in every department of the culture, a time of rampant—often willful—mediocrity, I could name no better tonic.

[Editor's Comment: Edited remarks on the '60s from the interview that followed.

It's admittedly facile to cast it this way, but you could say that what we mean by the '60s" began with the Cuban Missile Crisis and ended with the moon shot—the moon shot and the Yippies failed attempt to levitate the Pentagon and shake out the "demons" that inhabited it.

At bottom the '60s were a reaction to the prospect of total annihilation posed by the invention of the hydrogen bomb and they were rooted in the belief that what was wrong, what had brought us to this place, was the denial and suppression of our true selves, of the human beings we were intended to be.

This belief—variously shaped, nourished and focused by a conflation of psychedelic drugs, birth control pills, the popularization of Freudian psychology and Eastern philosophies, glaring racial and gender inequities and a clearly unjustified war in Vietnam—opened virtually every tradition and institution, every custom and convention and every embodiment and instrument of authority, order and structure, to attack. On one level or another everything from the anti-war, civil rights and woman's rights movements, to the anti-materialism and sexual abandon of the period, to spontaneous prose, rock and free jazz, stemmed from the conviction that somewhere in antiquity humanity had taken the wrong path and that the course could be corrected.

The enemy was the superego, the cultural, social and psychological restraints we'd inflicted on ourselves. Destroying the superego would yield the good human beings we were supposed to be. It was, again as Marcuse described it, a "revolution of unrepression." We wanted to abolish the apparently arbitrary and misbegotten rules that artificially limited us and led to deluded thinking and behavior. We wanted, ultimately, to abolish the constricting forces of guilt and shame themselves. Guilt and shame were invented by authority, they were trips governments and parents laid on you to keep you in line. We wanted to take an unfettered pride and joy in our bodies. We wanted to be free of the guilt and shame that had crippled and disfigured us.

This is where Jerry Rubin was coming from when he exhorted us to "kill" our parents.

Of course I'm talking about what the '60s were in their deepest aspirations. The vanguard figures—like Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Norman Brown, Allen Ginsberg, Marcuse—envisioned a kind of benign anarchy, a society with no need for governments or police; a society ordered by natural needs, appetites and rhythms and made up of men free of neurosis and in perfect harmony with both nature and other men.

And fueled as it was by the sheer number of people involved (and in what seemed every corner of the culture) I don't think the sense of utopian possibility we were feeling could possibly be exaggerated. Certainly the intensity of the psychic fevers we were experiencing in the East Village (which to me was the epicenter) can't be overstated. In the East Village, and in addition to all manner of radical political activity, there was an amazing pullulating of iconoclastic art in every category—dance, music, theater, poetry, painting. People like Ginsberg, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Roi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Kate Millet, Yvonne Ranier, Meredith Monk, Ed Sanders and the Fugs (I'm forgetting a couple of dozen other major players) were all living and working within a one-mile radius and feeding, challenging, validating and energizing one another.

But upheavals like this were hardly limited to New York. They were occurring everywhere—San Francisco, Paris, on every college campus and in the smallest towns. And, Jesus, we were going to the fucking moon—successfully breaking the very law of fucking gravity!

So those of us who were sucked into the vortex of the '60s can maybe be forgiven the fact that we were failing to recognize something very basic—that we were challenging a reality that was beyond our capacity to fundamentally change. There was, after all, only so far we could go without entering into a void. We could tinker with social, cultural, economic and political systems—make reforms, expand our horizons, achieve more justice—but essentially society already reflected the best we could do.

I mean we didn't recognize (and I'm standing behind Ernest Becker here) that the very problems we were attempting to overcome—the constraining social and sexual codes, the emotional hang-ups and the destructive tendencies we wanted to jettison—were actually working solutions to our worst and deepest problem, the problem of mortality. (We also didn't appreciate that guilt and shame weren't created by society, but were built into our essence, that they were a natural consequence of living under a death sentence.)

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