Free Jazz & Modern Jazz

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Regrettably, free jazz doesn't mean that you don't have to pay to hire one of our jazz bands! (Sorry, I couldn't resist that). Still viewed in some quarters today as an annihilation of universally accepted musical values, avant-garde jazz often appears to pose more artistic questions than it answers. Blind pianist Lennie Tristano (1919-78) had experimented with spon­taneous collective improvisation in his recordings entitled Intuition and Digression in 1949.The concept was developed by Charles Mingus (1922—79), who formed the Jazz Composers 'Workshop in New York in 1953. In 1956, Mingus's quartet recorded the album Pithecanthropus Erectus, which broke new ground in its free ensemble improvisation and looked ahead to the reduced importance of conventional harmonic progressions in later jazz. In many respects avant-garde jazz was typical of its era, mirroring developments in other areas of the arts. By the 19608, when avant-garde techniques had reached their peak (or nadir, depending upon the critic's sympathies) in classical music, jazz no longer lagged behind experimental concert music in terms of either technical sophistication or artistic daring. However, the absence of tonality, thematic coherence, comprehensible structure and clear rhythmic control produced depressingly uniform results from both jazz combo and symphony orchestra: sometimes only the presence of a drummer gave an indication that a work was in the jazz idiom. Even the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz notes that free jazz is 'best defined by its negative features'.

Although avant-garde jazz was musically radical, its artistic spirit remained true to the ideals of earlier generations of black musicians. Jazz had, in effect, returned to the preoccupations of its early days.

The leading light of the early avant-garde was saxophonist Ornette Coleman (b. 1930), whose recording Free Jazz christened the incipient movement in 1960. Free Jazz combined a second quartet excluding piano, with Coleman's original ensemble to create an octet, the additional personnel com­prising trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bass clarinettist Eric Dolphy (1928—64), bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Ed Blackwell (b. 1929). The avant-garde movement was branded an 'anti-jazz' clique by critics such as Leonard Feather, for whom bop remained the central style.

One of the most prolific and critically acclaimed composers in the free-jazz idiom has been saxophonist Anthony Braxton (b. 1945), who recorded an unaccompanied double album in 1968, entitled For Alto Saxophone. It was typical of several musicians' co-operatives set up in the 19605 to promote free jazz, a style that was destined to remain a minor­ity interest: similar groups were formed on the West Coast (Underground Musicians Artists Association, 1965), in New York (Jazz Composers' Orchestra Association, 1966), and in St Louis (Black Artists' Group, 1968). Chicago became the centre of the free-jazz movement, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago was established in 1969.

Eager to break away from earlier American styles, many European musicians adopted avant-garde techniques with alacrity. West Germany was an important centre for the European avant-garde. By the time these musicians were established in the 19708, the ECM record label had begun to define its own peculiarly European brand of free jazz, which blended folk music, jazz-rock and the avant-garde.

Extreme modernism is unpopular enough even in the classical concert hall, and in emulating this trend in the field of jazz many avant-garde musicians alienated themselves (sometimes deliberately and irrevocably) from a potential mass audience. The most outspoken and articulate proponent of a new jazz aesthetic arising from the free jazz of the 19605 has perhaps been saxophonist Archie Shepp (b. 1937), a protégé of Coltrane's who participated in Ascension, and whose octet album Mama Too Tight (1967) revealed his desire to work with a kaleid­oscopic compendium of Afro-American musical idioms.

In jazz, these tendencies burgeoned at an unfortunate moment, just as rock music threatened to steal away an entire generation of younger listen­ers.