FREE JAZZ – A BRIEF INVOCATION
“Is jazz dead? Well, I guess that all depends on what you know.”
“Free jazz reaches back to what jazz was originally, rebelling against the ultra-sophisticated art form it has become.”
“I go out onstage, and my intention is to make the first four rows bleed from their ears.”
Free jazz—a place of outsize personalities, outrageous stories, and uncompromising music. There’s the performer who plays so hard that keys fly off the piano. A bandleader who claims to be from Saturn and outfits his 20-piece orchestra in space gear. The saxophonist whose ragtag gospel marches were cited by Paul McCartney as a major influence on Sgt. Pepper’s. The world traveler who finds a common ground between the music of Marrakech and Brooklyn. The pianist who creates spectacular glissandi by dragging his knuckles across the keyboard, playing until his hands bleed. The musician whose ear-shattering shows often end in fist fights with the audience. The avant gardist whose recital moved President Jimmy Carter to tears at a White House Jazz Festival. The player many believe was killed by the CIA. The group that dons tribal gear and lab coats, performing music that swings between vaudeville and African chants. And the free jazz legend whose music touched so many lives that a church was founded in his name and uses his music as liturgy.
A FEW COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FREE JAZZ
(aka Avant Garde Jazz aka Out Jazz aka That Horrible Racket)
1. IT’S ALL JUST CACOPHONOUS NOISE.
Well yeah, some of it is really noisy. That’s the strain of the music that’s influenced folks such as Sonic Youth, Black Dice, The Boredoms, Wolf Eyes, The Stooges, Lightning Bolt, MC5, and the like. Think of it as ecstatic freak-out music. The sort of thing that will peel back the lid of your skull and rearrange your atoms.
But that’s only one small part of the music. Free Jazz spans 50 years and numerous countries and includes music that’s so delicate it’s practically ambient as well as tunes with a funk beat strong enough to shake the dance floor. Not to mention the pieces that showcase echoes of melodic folk music, Indian rhythms, minimalist repetitions, gutbucket blues, Hendrixian squalls, orchestral grandeur, big band exotica, electronic beats, proto-punk swagger, and much more. It’s an entire continent of sound represented by tens of thousands of albums and approaches. Once you start digging, you’ll be amazed by the sheer variety and vitality. There’s something for just about every taste – all you need is a slightly open mind.
2. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LISTEN TO FREE JAZZ.
OR: HOW DO YOU TELL THE GOOD STUFF FROM THE BAD?
Relax and trust your instincts. Most people automatically assume that there’s something in Free Jazz they’re not getting. Like you need conservatory training to appreciate what the musicians are doing. Or that there’s some secret content you’re not privy to. Nonsense. It’s just sound. Sometimes complex and abrasive, sometimes funky and buoyant. There’s no code to be broken. Don’t worry. As Gertrude Stein once said: “There’s no there there.”
A newcomer listening to Free Jazz isn’t substantially different than someone who’s just discovering indie rock or electronica or reggae or whatever. The more you listen, the more you explore, the more you expose yourself to different facets of the music, the more likely you are to find what you turns you on. Maybe Ornette Coleman grates on your ears. Fine. Be honest with yourself and keep looking, because maybe Sun Ra or Matthew Shipp will excite you. Ask friends. See what trustworthy critics are recommending. All that.
If you can, try to see some Free Jazz live. Pieces that may demand a fair amount of concentration when they’re coming out of your speakers often seem effortlessly absorbing in person. You may rush to turn off a Cecil Taylor album the first time you hear it, but live you won’t be able to take your eyes off the man. In performance, the passion and exuberance of the music is impossible to miss.
3. IT’S TOO OUT THERE FOR ME.
Maybe. But if you’re already listening to some pretty out shit like Radiohead, Xiu Xiu, Deerhoof, Sonic Youth, Mouse on Mars, Aphex Twin, ambient-era Brian Eno, TV on the Radio, and even some parts of Yo La Tengo, then you’re ready. Without knowing it, you’ve already been listening to Free Jazz filtered through other sensibilities. Some of the classic Free Jazz recordings might even sound too tame!
LISTENING TO FREE JAZZ: WHERE TO START
Just follow the link to Destination: Out. We’ve got a selection of Free Jazz’s “greatest hits” for you to sample on MP3. For free. Don’t be shy.
The tracks at Destination: Out offer 10 starting points, depending on your tastes. There are songs for those who like heavy funk. Pieces with propulsive electronic grooves. Tunes with a Kraut Rock drone vibe. Haunted ambient soundscapes. Trippy freak-folk workouts. Songs with screaming electric guitars. Gentle Indian-inflected trance music. Proto-punk noise with breakbeats. Pissed-off bluesy torch songs. Etcetera.
Destination: Out is a site I run with a friend that offers rare and out-of-print Free Jazz tracks. If you like what you hear from the “greatest hits,” scroll down and check out the other songs we’re currently hosting: African-jazz by The Brotherhood of Breath, eccentric world-music mash-ups by Don Cherry, heavy metal dirges by Last Exit, pure shredding noise by Japanese speedfreak saxophonist Kaoru Abe, and Julian Priester’s amazing disco-meets-La Dusseldorf space grooves.
Starting next Monday, we’ll return to our usual schedule of posting new tracks twice a week. So there’s plenty more to come. We also have links to other Free Jazz blogs, musician sites, and information about labels, stores, and radio stations.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago:
Sonny Rollins sporting a Mohawk during his Free period:
Ornette Coleman “Shape of Jazz to Come” album cover:
Alice Coltrane “World Galaxy” album cover:
Andrew Hill “Compulsion” album cover:
Pharoah Sanders “Thembi” album cover:
Cecil Taylor “Dark to Themselves” album cover:
Jackie McLean “Destination: Out” album cover:
Sonny Sharrock “Black Woman” album cover:
Dave Burrell “Echo” album cover:
John Coltrane “Ascension” album cover:
Herbie Hancock “Sextant” album cover:
Albert Ayler “Spiritual Unity” album cover:
FREE JAZZ LINKS AND RESOURCES:
Thurston Moore’s Top 10 from the Free Jazz Underground
(originally appeared in Grand Royal magazine). A passionate list and lots more:
The Real Godfathers of Punk – Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler. What? You thought maybe it was Iggy?:
Gary Giddins Roadmap to Post-War Jazz. An entertaining history of the music, using one track to represent each year. Gives a good sense of how Free Jazz fits into the so-called tradition:
The definitive Kozmigroov Index –aka good jazz fusion. “Kozmigroov is a transgressive improvisational music which combines elements of psychedelia, spirituality, jazz, rock, soul, funk, and African, Latin, Brazilian, Indian and Asian influences culminating into an all encompassing cosmic groove.” Righteous:
The European Free Improvisation Pages picks up the story of Free Jazz as it heads across the Atlantic:
The Restructures page has links to interviews and discographies of just about every Free Jazz musician you can name:
A FEW ESSENTIAL BOOKS AND DVDS:
FOUR LIVES IN THE BEBOP BUSINESS
by A.B. Spellman
Forget the Bebop in the title –this book contains long and insightful profiles of Free Jazz luminaries Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. It also has sections on Jackie McLean, who was doing adventurous work at the time, and neglected genius Herbie Nichols. One of Lester Bangs’ favorite books. Essential reading.
by Amiri Baraka
Written when he was still LeRoi Jones, Black Music is an on-the-scene report from the front lines of Free Jazz during the 1960s. It brilliantly highlights the radical politics and racial issues that were often at the core of the music.
AS SERIOUS AS YOUR LIFE: The Story of the New Jazz
by Valerie Wilmer
Written in the late 1970s, both as Free Jazz was coming into its own and as the musicians were facing increasingly harsh economic struggles. A nice overview of the music and a bristling advocacy of the avant garde aesthetic.
For updates on where the music went from there, see the later half of Gary Giddins’s encyclopedic Visions of Jazz.
NEW YORK IS NOW!
By Phil Freeman
A fresco of the New York Downtown scene circa the late 1990s. Provides useful and occasionally pointed information about key musicians such as Matthew Shipp, Davis S. Ware, William Parker, and Charles Gayle.
MADE IN AMERICA: A Portrait of Ornette Coleman by Shirley Clarke
This great documentary by legendary underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke is long out of print. However, Downtown Music Gallery in NYC has DVD copies for sale straight from Clarke herself. Run, don’t walk:
ALL THE NOTES: Cecil Taylor
Rather than a conventional overview of Taylor’s life, this quirky doc allows you to hang out with Cecil as he rehearses his big band, listens to music in clubs, and talks at home about his influences and artistic theories. A charming and intimate portrait of a genius.
THE CRY OF JAZZ
Filmed in Chicago in 1959, The Cry of Jazz is an essay on the politics of music and race. It predicted the civil unrest of subsequent decades and features rare footage of visionary pianist Sun Ra from his Chicago period.
YOU TUBE: CLIPS OF THE GODS
Witness the incredibly surreal spectacle of Ornette Coleman and Prime Time on SNL – introduced by Milton Berle. Did this really air? Weird and incredibly funky.
A solo performance by piano god Cecil Taylor from Imagine the Sound doc. It starts slow and lyrical then whips into a firestorm. See if you can keep up with his hands.
Miles Davis and his crack electric band performing at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. More of a slow simmer than a full-on bitches brew, but still gives an idea of the man’s power.
Lastly, here’s a series of brief minute-long palette cleaners from John Zorn’s amazing Naked City band, featuring Eye from the Boredoms. Live thrash mayhem from the recent MacArthur “genius” grant recipient. Yes, this is jazz!
p.s. Hey. ** Dominik, Hi, D! You’re first! My fingers are strangled and glued together into a gnarly abstract sculpture on Anita’s behalf re: that gaming gig. Yeah, video games extremely appeal to me for some reason, and I feel like I learn a lot about how to fuck up and advance my writing from playing/ studying them, I’m not sure why. I do know and of course really like Arca’s music, and there’s a new one, I think, right? I need to get that. I’m trying to see if I can restore that Kaulitz post. It’s kind of wild, and its code got fucked in the Google murder and data transfer, but I think I maybe can. This week is mostly getting the Derek McCormack conversation/afterword finished and some stuff I have to do for Manifesta around the films ‘cos they want a bunch of stuff for their publicity and some random things I should do and hopefully will. And you? It used to be that as long as you were kind of cute and young and could kind of sing in tune you could be a briefly big teen idol/pop star. I think all those terrible shows like The Voice and American Idol and whatever introduced the idea that you actually have to be able to sing well technically to qualify as a pop star, which is really tragic, I think, because I don’t think kids actually care how well their teen idols sing, they just want to gawk at them and have personalised merchandise. I somehow had never heard of the “Larry Stylinson” thing and the conspiracy theory, etc. It’s nice. I’ll go hunt the histories. Love like a magical hidden camera that you can plant anywhere in the world you want by osmosis. ** Misanthrope, Yeah, you’ve made me want to hunt down ancient pix of my friends or family and little me at long defunct amusement parks because as a kid I pretty much demanded to be taken to every single thing that even hinted that it might be an amusement park. Coincidences like the Alan Burns thing are as close as we adults get to the sparkle in kids’ brains when they watch ‘Frozen’. Nice. ** David Ehrenstein, I do love me some verbal dexterity, so I will indeed educate myself, thank you. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, T. I totally agree about The Review of Contemporary Fiction. I used to wait with veritable bated breath for each new issue. No, it’s long gone. Dalkey Archive has become the merest shadow of what it was even a few years ago. I don’t know what happened. It’s really sad. Someone who used to be an editor there told me that, for whatever reason, they basically have started publishing only books in translation that their original publishers pay Dalkey to translate/publish, and, if you look at their list of recent and upcoming books, it’s just an endless field of books by writers you’ve never heard of and which, by their descriptions, sound quite dishwater dull. I really hope they pull themselves out of this phase because Dalkey was hands down the best publisher in the US for forever by my reckoning. Burns is very, very worth reading, yes. ** Sypha, That one note/turgid thing worked really well and much better live. Philip has any number of very strange tastes that seem like things he claims to like to be provocative, but I don’t know. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Yes, indeed, that John Foxx song comes from that Burns novel. Or at least the title does. Nice track. Cool video. ** chris dankland, Hi, Chris! I’ve only read two of Burns’s books. Mm, I don’t know … his writing is very sharp and adventurous, and it just excites me. I’m a sucker for daring/ adventuring skilled prose. There is cut up in his work, but that excerpt was the only thing I could find online to share, so that’s what ended up there. If you look at the pix of some of his other books, you’ll see they can get much more typographically wild and choppy. The two writers that first spring to my mind who use cut-up are Kathy Acker and Robert Gluck, but they use it in a more intuitive way and less mechanically by-the-book than Burroughs. I think they’re both as good as Burroughs. I really like a certain period of Burroughs — ‘Naked Lunch’ -> ‘Wild Boys’ — but I don’t think he’s a god. Brion Gysin, who also did cut-up and supposedly invented it, is a terrible writer in my opinion. Excellent painter though. For the thematic posts, it’s a combination of artists/works I already know and then, yeah, using google search. Basically searching using ‘contemporary art’ or ‘gallery’ or ‘museum’ or words like that in combination with various words that match the theme I’m looking for. It’s laborious, but I seem to find the searching fun or something. I read about the big Covid spike in Arizona. Man, I’m so sorry. The US — aka Trump and his state-based mind slaves — has fucked up dealing with the virus so badly. It’s hard to watch. I hope your governor gets it under control ASAP. Ugh. My morning has started well, and I hope yours will too when it starts, which is now, I guess, when you read this, but is still hours from now as I type this. ** politekid, Hey! I thought you might show up here given that it was you who got me off my ass to spotlight Burns. You got ‘Dreamerika’! Whoa, cool. I still have a bunch of him to catch up on. I’ve only read two so far. He’s not an easy author to collect at the moment. Ooh, ‘The Void’ looks good! And I can play it right here on my Mac. Excellent. I’ll get it. Thank you, buddy. Wow, ‘Pathologic’ sounds completely like a must. Okay, two-fer. I’m good. I feel bad talking about how nice it is here, but you guys’ll be ‘here’, albeit via an unnecessarily much rockier, lengthier road, soon, I have no doubt. Well, I don’t know if this is anything to go by, but the museums that have opened here so far have pretty decent sized attendance. I mean not packed hordes or anything, but they’re not in any way deserted, so hopefully the big T will need you. You would have needed a dedicated actress in any case, right? So hopefully she’ll see the length as an exciting challenge. Probably, yeah, right, about the feelers? The cafes are doing well, full of drinkers at slightly enhanced distances. And almost all galleries are open now. You have just have to wear masks in them, no big deal. It really does feel almost normal here. It’s weird. Best of the best of all days to you and your today! Thanks a lot again, and it’s always a super treat to get to see you. ** cal, Hi. I’m all for cutting to ribbons. I would just save the cut stuff in a doc just in case you end up wanting to slide a little bit of it back in. Happy that the spotlights have seemed well trained to you. I like martial art films, sure, but I’m not an aficionado. I think I more like films that kind of use martial arts in a melded-in way like early John Woo, etc. I was at one time, and may still be, a gigantic fans of Jackie Chan films. I even stood in line for three+ hours at a bookstore to get him to sign my copy of his autobiography. I’ll find ‘Shadow.’ Do you like Stephen Chow’s films? I have kind of a soft spot for them. Thanks, pal. ** Thomas Moore, Hey, Thomas! Burns is strangely forgotten/ overlooked even in the UK. Due and probably destined for a big rediscovery. It’s out! Everyone, We will be celebrating the birth/publication of Thomas Moore’s sublime new novel ‘Alone’ here on the blog in a couple of days but, if you can’t wait, you can score it right now and here. ** Bill, Hi. Well, I played it. Maybe it was a bootleg or something? I played it online, not via download. I don’t remember where I did that. I’ll try to see if I can hunt down the location again. The Burns is good, man, yep. ** Corey Heiferman, Hi, Corey. Burns knew his shit. I’ve always dreamt of living as if life was a Bresson film. It’s not easy. I think one would need to have pretty advanced physical training. And be in a very extended gloomy mood. Which is not me, unfortunately. You’re blogging! Did I know you were blogging? I don’t think so. Looks sharp and suave at first glance. Bookmarked. Everyone, Mr. Corey Heiferman is blogging and with great seeming finesse and visual acuity under the rubric BABBLENTERTAIN, so go here to check the place out and then maybe bookmark it? I did. Luck re: the application. I’m spending my days right now finessing a convo. between Zac and me that will become the afterword of Derek McCormack’s new novel and also this and that. Big up! ** Okay. Here’s a post from the somewhat distant past that needed to be alive again. Enjoy its world, and thank you again from the future for doing it, Mr. Jackson. See you tomorrow.