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The Beginnings of Free Form

The Beginnings of Free Form
Sammy Stein By

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"Free form" is a term used to encompass a whole genre—or genres—outside mainstream jazz. Jazz has its roots in spiritual music, Dixieland, New Orleans, blues and ragtime, and after the 1940s these became fused into a catch-all assignation of genre. Jazz took on a predictability that was largely influenced not by the limitations of the players, but by the necessity of filling venues and adhering to musical rules. Jazz became generic and took on a style which was immediately recognizable as "straight" or traditional.

Since the '40s, jazz has calved several offspring. Musicians have taken traditional beats, rhythms and tempos and tweaked, stretched and tempered them into many genres. We now have a very active free form jazz and improvisational scene in Europe; it coexists alongside traditional jazz but has a largely different audience. There are venues which embrace free form and encourage experimental music whilst others will not touch it.

Somewhere in the intervening years between US-led straight-ahead jazz and now, free form was born and began to grow. For a while, free form jazz became linked with political movements—the art scene as a whole, particularly in the East Village, New York, envisaged a Utopian society with few rules and freedom of thought and religion. Free form is no longer associated with radical thinking, but has evolved into an accepted genre which is still developing. Speak to players, venue managers and promoters and they will tell you the mood is positive and the future looks bright.

I thought I knew about jazz. I played clarinet in orchestras, then oboe, and then switched back to clarinet again, and later sang in bands. I spent years exploring classical, jazz, opera even, but never quite found my niche until I found the Camden Jazz Festival and free jazz workshops, discovering free form for myself. I admit when I was playing or singing I was not that bothered whether the scale was chromatic, minor pentatonic or a harmonic minor, but then again, maybe I was—maybe I was as fettered as many musicians in the past? I decided I needed to learn more.

I have spent the past months discussing free form with musicians, venue managers and promoters. I have found willing helpers in musicians like reed multi-instrumentalists Peter Brötzmann and Mats Gustafsson, drummer Terry Day, managers like Alan Wilkinson of FlimFlam, and promoter Ian Storrer of Jazz at the Albert in Bristol, UK, and many others whose material will be used for later Fre-Formation articles. These people have contributed in ways far greater than I expected or deserve and have shown support for what I am trying to do with an unexpected open heartedness. I quote with permission and unashamedly because many of them express viewpoints with far more clarity than my rearranging of their words ever could. This series of articles will first discuss the origins of free form from the viewpoints of those involved, then cover the scene at the moment, venues in Europe, the US and the UK (particularly London), the musicians themselves and the future of the genre, as seen by those involved.

Discovering more about free form has not led to peace and harmony; rather, it has led to a desire to know more. I have learned from people who are in tune, not just with the music but with life itself. Those who have offered their thoughts have helped put clarity to the shapes in the mist; they have painted for me a picture which is clearer. However, the more I look at the picture, the more I find out, the more layers I see and the greater the depths. I have encountered managers and musicians both as a player and writer but none seem genuinely as up front and open as free form players. Perhaps that says a lot about the genre in itself?

Music needs to progress, and by the 1950s, there was already a growing band of musicians who wanted to develop jazz further. It is too simplistic to think of these players as being "radical," pushing boundaries and trying to be different as the reasons behind the emergence of free form; it was more a natural evolution and development of jazz to its extremes. Up to that point, for many musicians, there was a sense that jazz had stopped partway through its development; a feeling of more to explore; more notes than diatonic scales could provide; and a distinct lack of spirit, as they became fettered by what was popular and becoming mundane. The spirit of jazz, that wonderful muse which had led so many to the genre, was dying on its feet.

Most free form musicians have a grounding in traditional jazz, classical music or both. Without this the musician cannot perform, fully understand or produce good contemporary or improvised free jazz. These genres provide the building blocks upon which to build. However, there comes a time when excellent musicians must decide whether to stick within the traditional/classical boundaries of playing or play free form. A few do both, but most players who decide to play free form play little else because it stretches them in different ways. Classical and traditional playing have their own beauty, and free form players would take nothing away from it, but free form allows them the possibilities of exploring, and finding new ways to evolve and express themselves.

There are those who argue that free form jazz is a misnomer because experimental, improvised and free playing abandons most of the rules which made jazz, well, jazz in the first place. The more the dependence on fixed and established forms is eliminated, the less jazz-like the result. Others would advocate free form as a natural evolution of the traditional jazz genre and, just like evolution, changes are still happening. Some see free form as taking jazz back to its beginnings, with its primal rhythms and noises. Most free form players readily acknowledge the debt they owe to jazz players of the past. Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Art Blakey, Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke all introduced more to the music. Bechet brought the soprano sax recognition as a solo instrument and Beiderbecke—an improviser rather than a free form player as such—added his own pure sound to the tunes. Free form players today even mention players of the '30s and '40s like Charles Mingus who spoke of, ''playing a pulse but not having to state time.''

Brötzmann, acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of free form playing, comments that:

''Improvised music is not Dixie or New Orleans or Be-bop but a thing which depends on people like Duke Ellington in the 20s and always depends on the person. Bebop was a process in the connections and influenced Rollins and others. Later musicians can always learn from the guys before.''


Brötzmann is grateful he got to play with some of the greats of previous times. You can celebrate youth, but looking back is part of the process and always, new developments are a consequence of what has gone before. Looking back is why we can turn our heads after all.

A little younger than Brötzmann, the Swedish Gustafsson acknowledges that the evolution of free form owes much to musicians of the past:

" What Beiderbecke was doing, along with Armstrong, Mingus, Ellington, Bird and others was to open things up but they were not free players by definition.''


Then he reconsiders and adds:

"They might have been free. Yes, they were."


Meaning that, for their time, they bucked the trend in what was accepted but had to avoid being too radical if they wanted to work, yet they also set the scene for players who followed.

On the subject of Beiderbecke, Brötzmann is quick to point out he was a German-American, but does not think he saw himself as playing against convention, though he definitely developed his own way. Bechet took the soprano sax, which until then had been a novelty instrument, and got it taken seriously.

Brötzmann, a man with his own definitive style of playing, initially insists he was not influenced by anyone directly but, after a bit more thought, adds that he was influenced by Bechet and Beiderbecke, learning from older guys just by observing and playing with some of them:
"Bechet and Beiderbecke just played. They had their own style and other players found themselves drawn in. As these movements of players who went a little against the grain grew, more players dared to improvise and later free form had the stage set for its true emergence. Without the few taking those small steps, free from would never have developed. It is hard to categories free form or pinpoint when it first really emerged. It naturally took a long time to develop. It did not suddenly 'appear' in the '60s. Players like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk underwent a lifelong process until they got to somewhere they wanted to be musically, and it is still the same, whether you are a free form or traditional player. Evan Parker started playing his own way and developed his own free style over time. Sonny Rollins started as a teenager but is still playing his own stuff and in a style he has developed over six or seven decades."

"It does not make sense to jump on any fashionable movement one week and then another the next."


Ian Storrer comments:

"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. With jazz, it was Charles Mingus and George Russell taking an extension to bebop, as a development from Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and, most importantly, Monk. Then, Miles Davis conjuring up modalism with Gil Evans and John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans 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. 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. 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, Taylor played almost exclusively free form.

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