Jazz 101: Free Jazz

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Today we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look at a new form of jazz that popped up in the 1960s. This was the era of “Free Jazz”, and with it came a lot of different opinions on what exactly that meant.

Last time, we talked about the multiple revolutions in jazz that popped up around 1959. Methods of improvisation were changing up until this point, and became a breeding ground for experimentation. After 1959, diversity in jazz exploded, and it ceased to follow a predictable evolutionary path.

Now we’ll try and make sense of the wide variety of jazz that came about in the 1960s. It was an intense period of creativity, that turned out to be relatively short-lived.

Free Jazz

By the 1960s, jazz had reached a certain level of comfort. There were informal rules as to what was generally acceptable, as well as objective standards of success. While there was some disruption from the wave of bebop, the listeners of jazz where overall left comfortable in their expectations.

The era of free jazz in the 1960s began on the margins. Musicians began occupying bars and coffeehouses, turning them into their own jazz havens. New amateur musicians suddenly had access to more venues, and could even make their own. This only contributed to the explosion of diversity in sound. “There was a great variety of music in free jazz: it could be loud and insistent, ready to contend with newly amplified rock music, but also exceptionally soft, unamplified, and chamberlike” (p. 225).

But as we’ve seen in past eras, the label of the time often didn’t entirely capture the music being played. The label did capture the spirit of the movement, as well as the politics of liberation at the time. But to some, the label was irksome. “From the beginning, many musicians disliked the label free jazz, sometimes because it made the music sound too easy, too ‘natural’ to reflect the thought and preparation that went into it” (p.226).

Free jazz brought a load of new changes to the sonic landscape. But a good deal of these changes were also homages to older forms of jazz, re-purposed in a new context. Many played their instruments with the vocalized flavor of early New Orleans jazz. Multi-instrumentalists became valued, and physicality was brought into performances.

An Abrupt End

But the change and the label didn’t last for long. “As quickly as if someone flipped a switch, free jazz was persona non grata in the jazz world” (p. 230). Free jazz disappeared almost overnight, and was wiped out of festivals and clubs.

“On the horizon, instead, was the promise of the eclecticism of minimalism, the cool surfaces of electronics, the open-ended structure of repetition in disco, and the somebody-else’s emotion of reggae, Afro-pop, and salsa” (p. 231).

Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler was a curious figure during the era of free jazz. His methods and compositions had many scratching their heads, wondering if he was an amateur, a genius, or simply insane. His music went where most western music was afraid to go. In his pieces you can hear traces of circus music, polka, folk, bebop, blues, hymns, dirges, and more.

“Ayler’s was a music that rattled the cage, splitting all those who heard it into permanently armed camps…People now spend more time trying to explain him away as an aberration of the times than answering his challenge” (p.234).

Sun Ra

When it comes to musicians who defy categorization, Albert Ayler doesn’t stand alone. Sun Ra was another who thrived on paradox, making contradiction a part of his art. His work went well beyond music, into the realms of art, film, and poetry. All of his work encouraged rethinking assumptions and affirming life over death.

“Sun Ra was jazz’s great Romantic, who, like the great Romantics who preceded him in European music, understood that music could symbolize the unity in diversity that makes up the cosmos” (p. 237).

Final Thoughts

Free jazz may have been the most explosively creative and experimental era throughout the entire history of jazz. It certainly ruffled the most feathers among, listeners and musicians alike. And with the influences of great minds like Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, free jazz brought with it a puzzling quality.

After the disappearance of free jazz, there was no clear direction for new jazzers to go. Jazz had been splintered through experimentation. We’ll see how this affected the era of the 1970s in our discussion next week.

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