Free jazz

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Free jazz is an experimental approach to jazz improvisation that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s when musicians attempted to change or break down jazz conventions, such as regular tempos, tones, and chord changes. Musicians during this period believed that the bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz that had been played before them was too limiting. They became preoccupied with creating something new and exploring new directions. The term "free jazz" has often been combined with or substituted for the term "avant-garde jazz". Europeans tend to favor the term "free improvisation". Others have used "modern jazz", "creative music", and "art music".


The ambiguity of free jazz presents problems of definition. Although it is usually played by small groups or individuals, free jazz big bands have existed. Although musicians and critics claim it is innovative and forward-looking, it draws on early styles of jazz and has been described as an attempt to return to primitive, often religious, roots. Although jazz is an American invention, free jazz musicians drew heavily from world music and ethnic music traditions from around the world. Sometimes they played African or Asian instruments, unusual instruments, or invented their own. They emphasized emotional intensity and sound for its own sake, exploring timbres.


Ornette Coleman Ornette Coleman.jpg
Ornette Coleman
Pharoah Sanders Pharoah Sanders photo.jpg
Pharoah Sanders

Some jazz musicians resist any attempt at classification. One difficulty is that most jazz has an element of improvisation. Many musicians draw on free jazz concepts and idioms, and free jazz was never entirely distinct from other genres. But free jazz does have its own characteristics. Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane used harsh overblowing or other extended techniques to elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments. Like other forms of jazz it places an aesthetic premium on expressing the "voice" or "sound" of the musician, as opposed to the classical tradition in which the performer is seen more as expressing the thoughts of the composer.

Earlier jazz styles typically were built on a framework of song forms, such as twelve-bar blues or the 32-bar AABA popular song form with chord changes. In free jazz, the dependence on a fixed and pre-established form is eliminated, and the role of improvisation is correspondingly increased.

Other forms of jazz use regular meters and pulsed rhythms, usually in 4/4 or (less often) 3/4. Free jazz retains pulsation and sometimes swings but without regular meter. Frequent accelerando and ritardando give an impression of rhythm that moves like a wave. [1]

Previous jazz forms used harmonic structures, usually cycles of diatonic chords. When improvisation occurred, it was founded on the notes in the chords. Free jazz almost by definition is free of such structures, but also by definition (it is, after all, "jazz" as much as it is "free") it retains much of the language of earlier jazz playing. It is therefore very common to hear diatonic, altered dominant and blues phrases in this music.

Guitarist Marc Ribot commented that Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler "although they were freeing up certain strictures of bebop, were in fact each developing new structures of composition." [2] Some forms use composed melodies as the basis for group performance and improvisation. Free jazz practitioners sometimes use such material. Other compositional structures are employed, some detailed and complex. [1] :276

The breakdown of form and rhythmic structure has been seen by some critics to coincide with jazz musicians' exposure to and use of elements from non-Western music, especially African, Arabic, and Indian. The atonality of free jazz is often credited by historians and jazz performers to a return to non-tonal music of the nineteenth century, including field hollers, street cries, and jubilees (part of the "return to the roots" element of free jazz). This suggests that perhaps the movement away from tonality was not a conscious effort to devise a formal atonal system, but rather a reflection of the concepts surrounding free jazz. Jazz became "free" by removing dependence on chord progressions and instead using polytempic and polyrhythmic structures. [3]

Rejection of the bop aesthetic was combined with a fascination with earlier styles of jazz, such as dixieland with its collective improvisation, as well as African music. Interest in ethnic music resulted in the use of instruments from around the world, such as Ed Blackwell's West African talking drum, and Leon Thomas's interpretation of pygmy yodeling. [4] Ideas and inspiration were found in the music of John Cage, Musica Elettronica Viva, and the Fluxus movement. [5]

Many critics, particularly at the music's inception, suspected that abandonment of familiar elements of jazz pointed to a lack of technique on the part of the musicians. By 1974, such views are more marginal, and the music has built a body of critical writing. [6]

Many critics have drawn connections between the term "free jazz" and the American social setting during the late 1950s and 1960s, especially the emerging social tensions of racial integration and the civil rights movement. Many argue those recent phenomena such as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the emergence of the "Freedom Riders" in 1961, the 1963 Freedom Summer of activist-supported black voter registration, and the free alternative black Freedom Schools demonstrate the political implications of the word "free" in context of free jazz. Thus many consider free jazz to be not only a rejection of certain musical credos and ideas, but a musical reaction to the oppression and experience of black Americans. [7]


Although free jazz is widely considered to begin in the late 1950s, there are compositions that precede this era that have notable connections to the free jazz aesthetic. Some of the works of Lennie Tristano in the late 1940s, particularly "Intuition", "Digression", and "Descent into the Maelstrom" exhibit the use of techniques associated with free jazz, such as atonal collective improvisation and lack of discrete chord changes. Other notable examples of proto-free jazz include City of Glass written in 1948 by Bob Graettinger for the Stan Kenton band and Jimmy Giuffre's 1953 "Fugue". It can be argued, however, that these works are more representative of third stream jazz with its references to contemporary classical music techniques such as serialism. [7]

Keith Johnson of AllMusic describes a "Modern Creative" genre, in which "musicians may incorporate free playing into structured modes—or play just about anything." [8] He includes John Zorn, Henry Kaiser, Eugene Chadbourne, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell, Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Ray Anderson in this genre, which continues "the tradition of the '50s to '60s free-jazz mode". [8]

Ornette Coleman rejected pre-written chord changes, believing that freely improvised melodic lines should serve as the basis for harmonic progression. His first notable recordings for Contemporary included Tomorrow Is the Question! and Something Else!!!! in 1958. [9] These albums do not follow typical 32-bar form and often employ abrupt changes in tempo and mood. [10]

The free jazz movement received its biggest impetus when Coleman moved from the west coast to New York City and was signed to Atlantic. Albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century marked a radical step beyond his more conventional early work. On these albums, he strayed from the tonal basis that formed the lines of his earlier albums and began truly examining the possibilities of atonal improvisation. The most important recording to the free jazz movement from Coleman during this era, however, came with Free Jazz , recorded in A&R Studios in New York in 1960. It marked an abrupt departure from the highly structured compositions of his past. Recorded with a double quartet separated into left and right channels, Free Jazz brought a more aggressive, cacophonous texture to Coleman's work, and the record's title would provide the name for the nascent free jazz movement. [7] :314

Pianist Cecil Taylor was also exploring the possibilities of avant-garde free jazz. A classically trained pianist, Taylor's main influences included Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver, who prove key to Taylor's later unconventional uses of the piano. [10] :792Jazz Advance, his album released in 1956 for Transition showed ties to traditional jazz, albeit with an expanded harmonic vocabulary. But the harmonic freedom of these early releases would lead to his transition into free jazz during the early 1960s. Key to this transformation was the introduction of saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray in 1962 because they encouraged more progressive musical language, such as tone clusters and abstracted rhythmic figures. On Unit Structures (Blue Note, 1966) [11] Taylor marked his transition to free jazz, as his compositions were composed almost without notated scores, devoid of conventional jazz meter, and harmonic progression. This direction influenced by drummer Andrew Cyrille, who provided rhythmic dynamism outside the conventions of bebop and swing [7] :319–320 Taylor also began exploring classical avant-garde, as in his use of prepared pianos developed by composer John Cage. [10] :794

Albert Ayler was one of the essential composers and performers during the beginning period of free jazz. He began his career as a bebop tenor saxophonist in Scandinavia, and had already begun pushing the boundaries of tonal jazz and blues to their harmonic limits. He soon began collaborating with notable free jazz musicians, including Cecil Taylor in 1962. He pushed the jazz idiom to its absolute limits, and many of his compositions bear little resemblance to jazz of the past. Ayler's musical language focused on the possibilities of microtonal improvisation and extended saxophone technique, creating squawks and honks with his instrument to achieve multiphonic effects. Yet amidst Ayler's progressive techniques, he shows an attachment for simple, rounded melodies reminiscent of folk music, which he explores via his more avant-garde style. [10] :795–796

One of Ayler's key free jazz recordings is Spiritual Unity , including his often recorded and most famous composition, Ghosts, in which a simple spiritual-like melody is gradually shifted and distorted through Ayler's unique improvisatory interpretation. Ultimately, Ayler serves as an important example of many ways which free jazz could be interpreted, as he often strays into more tonal areas and melodies while exploring the timbral and textural possibilities within his melodies. In this way, his free jazz is built upon both a progressive attitude towards melody and timbre as well as a desire to examine and recontextualize the music of the past. [12]

In a 1963 interview with Jazz Magazine, Coltrane said he felt indebted to Coleman. [13] While Coltrane's desire to explore the limits of solo improvisation and the possibilities of innovative form and structure was evident in records like A Love Supreme , his work owed more to the tradition of modal jazz and post-bop. But with the recording of Ascension in 1965, Coltrane demonstrated his appreciation for the new wave of free jazz innovators. [9] :114 On Ascension Coltrane augmenting his quartet with six horn players, including Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. [7] :322 The composition includes free-form solo improvisation interspersed with sections of collective improvisation reminiscent of Coleman's Free Jazz. The piece sees Coltrane exploring the timbral possibilities of his instrument, using over-blowing to achieve multiphonic tones. Coltrane continued to explore the avant-garde in his following compositions, including such albums as Om, Kulu Se Mama , and Meditations, as well as collaborating with John Tchicai. [7] :322 [10] :797

Much of Sun Ra's music could be classified as free jazz, especially his work from the 1960s, although Sun Ra said repeatedly that his music was written and boasted that what he wrote sounded more free than what "the freedom boys" played. [14] The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (1965) was steeped in what could be referred to as a new black mysticism. [3] But Sun Ra's penchant for nonconformity aside, he was along with Coleman and Taylor an integral voice to the formation of new jazz styles during the 1960s. As evidenced by his compositions on the 1956 record Sounds of Joy , Sun Ra's early work employed a typical bop style. But he soon foreshadowed the free jazz movements with compositions like "A Call for All Demons" off of the 1955–57 record Angels and Demons at Play , which combines atonal improvisation with Latin-inspired mambo percussion. His period of fully realized free jazz experimentation began in 1965, with the release of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra and The Magic City. These records placed a musical emphasis on timbre and texture over meter and harmony, employing a wide variety of electronic instruments and innovative percussion instruments, including the electric celeste, Hammond B-3, bass marimba, harp, and timpani. As result, Sun Ra proved to be one of the first jazz musicians to explore electronic instrumentation, as well as displaying an interest in timbral possibilities through his use of progressive and unconventional instrumentation in his compositions. [15]

The title song of Charles Mingus' Pithecanthropus Erectus contained one improvised section in a style unrelated to the song's melody or chord structure. His contributions were primarily in his efforts to bring back collective improvisation in a music scene that had become dominated by solo improvisation as a result of big bands. [3]

By the 1970s, the setting for avant-garde jazz was shifting to New York City. Arrivals included Arthur Blythe, James Newton, and Mark Dresser, beginning the period of New York loft jazz. As the name may imply, musicians during this time would perform in private homes and other unconventional spaces. The status of free jazz became more complex, as many musicians sought to bring in different genres into their works. Free jazz no longer necessarily indicated the rejection of tonal melody, overarching harmonic structure, or metrical divide, as laid out by Coleman, Coltrane, and Taylor. Instead, the free jazz that developed in the 1960s became one of many influences, including pop music and world music. [16]

Paul Tanner, Maurice Gerow, and David Megill have suggested,

the freer aspects of jazz, at least, have reduced the freedom acquired in the sixties. Most successful recording artists today construct their works in this way: beginning with a strain with which listeners can relate, following with an entirely free portion, and then returning to the recognizable strain. The pattern may occur several times in a long selection, giving listeners pivotal points to cling to. At this time, listeners accept this – they can recognize the selection while also appreciating the freedom of the player in other portions. Players, meanwhile, are tending toward retaining a key center for the seemingly free parts. It is as if the musician has learned that entire freedom is not an answer to expression, that the player needs boundaries, bases, from which to explore. [17]

Tanner, Gerow and Megill name Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, John Klemmer, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Alice Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, and Sun Ra as musicians who have employed this approach. [17]

Other media

Canadian artist Stan Douglas uses free jazz as a direct response to complex attitudes towards African-American music. Exhibited at documenta 9 in 1992, his video installation Hors-champs (meaning "off-screen") addresses the political context of free jazz in the 1960s, as an extension of black consciousness [18] and is one of his few works to directly address race. [19] Four American musicians, George Lewis (trombone), Douglas Ewart (saxophone), Kent Carter (bass) and Oliver Johnson (drums) who lived in France during the free jazz period in the 1960s, improvise Albert Ayler's 1965 composition "Spirits Rejoice." [20]

New York Eye and Ear Control is Canadian artist Michael Snow's 1964 film with a soundtrack of group improvisations recorded by an augmented version of Albert Ayler's group and released as the album New York Eye and Ear Control . [21] Critics have compared the album with the key free jazz recordings: Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation and John Coltrane's Ascension. John Litweiler regards it favourably in comparison because of its "free motion of tempo (often slow, usually fast); of ensemble density (players enter and depart at will); of linear movement". [22] Ekkehard Jost places it in the same company and comments on "extraordinarily intensive give-and-take by the musicians" and "a breadth of variation and differentiation on all musical levels". [23]

French artist Jean-Max Albert, as trumpet player [24] [25] of Henri Texier's first quintet, participated in the 60s in one of the very first expressions of free jazz in France. As a painter, he then experimented plastic transpositions of Ornette Coleman's approach. Free jazz, painted in 1973, used architectural structures in correspondence to the classical chords of standard harmonies confronted with an unrestrained all over painted improvisation. [26] Jean-Max Albert still explores the free jazz lessons, collaborating with pianist François Tusques in experimental films : Birth of Free Jazz, Don Cherry... these topics considered through a pleasant and poetic way. [27]

In the world

Dollar Brand Abdullah Ibrahim 06N4688.jpg
Dollar Brand
Tomasz Stanko Tomasz Stanko.jpg
Tomasz Stańko

Outside of North America, free jazz scenes have become established in Europe and Japan. Alongside the aforementioned Joe Harriott, saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, trombonist Conny Bauer, guitarist Derek Bailey, pianist Fred Van Hove, drummer Han Bennink, saxophonist and bass clarinetist Willem Breuker, and pianist Misha Mengelberg were among the most well-known early European free jazz performers. European free jazz can generally be seen as approaching free improvisation, with an ever more distant relationship to jazz tradition. Specifically Brötzmann has had a significant impact on the free jazz players of the United States.

A relatively active free jazz scene behind the iron curtain produced musicians like Janusz Muniak, Tomasz Stańko, Zbigniew Seifert, Vyacheslav Ganelin and Vladimir Tarasov. Japanese guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi and saxophonist Kaoru Abe, among others, took free jazz in another direction, approaching the energy levels of noise. Some international jazz musicians have come to North America and become immersed in free jazz, most notably Ivo Perelman from Brazil and Gato Barbieri of Argentina (this influence is more evident in Barbieri's early work).

South African artists, including early Dollar Brand, Zim Ngqawana, Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo, and Dudu Pukwana experimented with a form of free jazz (and often big-band free jazz) that fused experimental improvisation with African rhythms and melodies. American musicians like Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Milford Graves, and Pharoah Sanders integrated elements of the music of Africa, India, and the Middle East for world-influenced free jazz.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its roots in blues and ragtime. Since the 1920s Jazz Age, it has been recognized as a major form of musical expression in traditional and popular music, linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions.

Bebop style of jazz

Bebop or bop is a style of jazz developed in the early to mid-1940s in the United States, which features compositions characterized by a fast tempo, complex chord progressions with rapid chord changes and numerous changes of key, instrumental virtuosity, and improvisation based on a combination of harmonic structure, the use of scales and occasional references to the melody.

John Coltrane American jazz saxophonist

John William Coltrane was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Working in the bebop and hard bop idioms early in his career, Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes and was at the forefront of free jazz. He led at least fifty recording sessions and appeared on many albums by other musicians, including trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk. Over the course of his career, Coltrane's music took on an increasingly spiritual dimension. He remains one of the most influential saxophonists in music history. He received numerous posthumous awards, including canonization by the African Orthodox Church and a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. His second wife was pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane. The couple had three children: John Jr. (1964–1982), a bassist; Ravi, a saxophonist; and Oran, also a saxophonist.

Free improvisation or free music is improvised music without any rules beyond the logic or inclination of the musician(s) involved. The term can refer to both a technique and as a recognizable genre in its own right.

Ornette Coleman American jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter, and composer

Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was an American jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter, and composer. In the 1960s, he was one of the founders of free jazz, a term he invented for his album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. His "Broadway Blues" and "Lonely Woman" have become standards and are cited as important early works in free jazz. His album Sound Grammar received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Albert Ayler American jazz saxophonist

Albert Ayler was an American avant-garde jazz saxophonist, singer and composer.

Cecil Taylor American jazz pianist and poet

Cecil Percival Taylor was an American pianist and poet.

Don Cherry (trumpeter) American jazz trumpeter

Donald Eugene Cherry was an American jazz trumpeter. Cherry had a long association with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, which began in the late 1950s. Cherry was also a pioneer in world fusion music in the 1960s and 1970s.

Avant-garde jazz is a style of music and improvisation that combines avant-garde art music and composition with jazz. It originated in the 1950s and developed through the 1960s. Originally synonymous with free jazz, much avant-garde jazz was distinct from that style.

Avant-garde music is music that is considered to be at the forefront of innovation in its field, with the term "avant-garde" implying a critique of existing aesthetic conventions, rejection of the status quo in favor of unique or original elements, and the idea of deliberately challenging or alienating audiences. Avant-garde music may be distinguished from experimental music by the way it adopts an extreme position within a certain tradition, whereas experimental music lies outside tradition.

Archie Shepp American jazz musician

Archie Vernon Shepp is an American jazz saxophonist, educator and playwright who since the 1960s has played a central part in the development of avant-garde jazz.

Pharoah Sanders American jazz saxophonist

Pharoah Sanders is an American jazz saxophonist. A member of John Coltrane's groups of the mid-1960s, Sanders is known for his overblowing, harmonic, and multiphonic techniques on the saxophone, as well as his use of "sheets of sound". He has released over 30 albums as a leader and has collaborated extensively with Leon Thomas, Alice Coltrane and Tisziji Muñoz, among others. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman described him as "probably the best tenor player in the world".

Ronald Shannon Jackson American drummer

Ronald Shannon Jackson was an American jazz drummer and composer from Fort Worth, Texas. A pioneer of avant-garde jazz, free funk, and jazz fusion, he appeared on over 50 albums as a bandleader, sideman, arranger, and producer. Jackson and bassist Sirone are the only musicians to have performed and recorded with the three prime shapers of free jazz: pianist Cecil Taylor, and saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.

Charlie Haden American bassist

Charles Edward Haden was an American jazz double bass player, bandleader, composer and educator whose career spanned more than fifty years. In the late 1950s, Haden was an original member of the ground-breaking Ornette Coleman Quartet.

<i>The Shape of Jazz to Come</i> 1959 studio album by Ornette Coleman

The Shape of Jazz to Come is the third album by jazz musician Ornette Coleman. Although Coleman initially wished for the album to be titled Focus on Sanity, after one of the songs on the album, it was ultimately titled The Shape of Jazz to Come at the urging of Atlantic producer Nesuhi Ertegun, who felt that the title would give consumers "an idea about the uniqueness of the LP." Released on Atlantic Records in 1959, it was his debut on the label and his first album featuring his working quartet including himself, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins. The recording session for the album took place on May 22, 1959, at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, California. Two outtakes from the session, "Monk and the Nun" and "Just for You", would later be released respectively on the 1970s compilations Twins and The Art of the Improvisers. In 2012, the Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry.

European free jazz music genre

European free jazz is a part of the global free jazz scene with its own development and characteristics. It is hard to establish who are the founders of European free jazz because of the different developments in different European countries. One can, however, be certain that European free jazz took its development from American free jazz, where musicians such as Ornette Coleman revolutionised the way of playing.

Post-bop is a genre of small-combo jazz that evolved in the early to mid-1960s.

<i>The Avant-Garde</i> (album) 1966 studio album by John Coltrane and Don Cherry

The Avant-Garde is an album credited to jazz musicians John Coltrane and Don Cherry that was released in 1966 by Atlantic Records. It features Coltrane playing several compositions by Ornette Coleman accompanied by the members of Coleman's quartet: Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell. The album was assembled from two unissued recording sessions at Atlantic Studios in New York City in 1960.

<i>Coltrane "Live" at the Village Vanguard</i> 1962 live album by John Coltrane

Coltrane "Live" at the Village Vanguard is the tenth album by jazz musician John Coltrane and his first live album, released in February 1962 on Impulse Records, catalogue A-10. It is the first album to feature the members of the classic quartet of himself with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones. In contrast to his previous album for Impulse!, this one generated much turmoil among both critics and audience alike with its challenging music.

Loft jazz was a cultural phenomenon that occurred in New York City during the mid-1970s. Gary Giddins described it as follows: "[A] new coterie of avant-garde musicians took much of the jazz world by surprise... [T]hey interpreted the idea of freedom as the capacity to choose between all the realms of jazz, mixing and matching them not only with each other, but with old and new pop, r&b and rock, classical music and world music... [S]eemingly overnight new venues - in many instances, apartments or lofts - opened shop to present their wares." According to Michael Heller, "lofts were not an organization, nor a movement, nor an ideology, nor a genre, nor a neighborhood, nor a lineage of individuals. They were, instead, a meeting point, a locus for interaction." Heller stated that "loft practices came to be defined by a number of key characteristics, including (1) low admission charges or suggested donations, (2) casual atmospheres that blurred the distinction between performer and audience, (3) ownership / administration by musicians, and (4) mixed-use spaces that combined both private living areas and public presentation space." Regarding the music played in these venues, Michael J. Agovino wrote: "This was community music. Part of the point was that, free of the strictures of clubs, the music could be anything, go anywhere, go on for as long as it wanted." David Such stated that "the cutting contests, personality cults, and vices that characterized the jazz scene of the 1940s and 1950s were mostly missing." The scene was reviewed and documented by Giddins, Peter Occhiogrosso of the SoHo Weekly News, Leroi Jones, Robert Palmer, and Stanley Crouch.


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