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Spooky Action At A Distance

Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the '60s

By Robert Levin

Revised and expanded here, this piece originated as an "oral essay" for the Cosmoetica Omniversica Interview Series

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More or less officially unveiled with the first New York appearance of the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot Café in the fall of 1959, free jazz (or new black music, space music, new thing, anti-jazz or abstract jazz as it would variously be labeled), gave new dimension to the perennial "where's the melody?" complaint against jazz.

For most of the uninitiated, what the Coleman group presented on its opening night was in fact sheer cacophony.

Four musicians (a saxophonist, trumpeter, bassist and drummer) abruptly began to play - with an apoplectic intensity and at a bone-rattling volume - four simultaneous solos that had no perceptible shared references or point of departure. Even unto themselves the solos, to the extent that they could be isolated as such in the density of sound that was being produced, were without any fixed melodic or rhythmic structure. Consisting, by turns, of short, jagged bursts and long meandering lines unmindful of bar divisions and chorus measures they were, moreover, laced with squeaks, squeals, bleats and strident honks. A number ended and another began - or was it the same one again? How were you to tell? No. No way this madness could possibly have a method.

But umbilically connected to the emergent black cultural nationalism movement, the madness did indeed have a method. The avowed objective of the dramatic innovations that musicians like Ornette, Cecil Taylor - and, in their footsteps, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler, Jimmy Lyons, Eric Dolphy and (the later period) John Coltrane, among hundreds of others - initiated and practiced from the late '50s into the early '70s, was to restore black music to its original identity as a medium of spiritual utility. When these men abandoned an adherence to chord progressions, the 32-bar song form, the fixed beat and the soloist/accompanist format, and began to employ, among other things, simultaneous improvisations, fragmented tempos and voice-like timbres, they were very deliberately replacing, with ancient black methodologies, those Western concepts and systems that had, by their lights, worked to subvert and reduce black music in America to either a pop music or (for many of them no less a corruption of what black music was supposed to be) an art form.

Alan Silva, a one-time bassist with Cecil Taylor and then the leader of his own thirteen-piece orchestra, made the point in an interview I did with him for Rolling Stone.

"I don't want to make music that sounds nice," Silva told me. "I want to make music that opens the possibility of real spiritual communion between people. There's a flow coming from every individual, a continuous flow of energy coming from the subconscious level. The idea is to tap that energy through the medium of improvised sound. I do supply the band with notes, motifs and sounds to give it a lift-off point. I also direct the band, though not in any conventional way - like I might suddenly say 'CHORD!' But essentially I'm dealing with improvisation as the prime force, not the tune. The thing is, if you put thirteen musicians together and they all play at once, eventually a cohesion, an order, will be reached, and it will be on a transcendent plane."

(I commented in the interview that "Silva says his band wants to commune with the spirit world and you aren't sure that it doesn't. With thirteen musicians soloing at the same time, at extraordinary decibel levels, astonishingly rapid speeds and with complete emotional abandon for more than an hour, the band arrives not only at moments of excruciating beauty, but at sounds that rising in ecstatic rushes and waves and becoming almost visible in the mesmerizing intensity, weight and force of their vibrations, do for sure seem to be flushing weird, spectral things from the walls, from the ceiling, from your head.")

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Of course not all of these musicians shared Silva's position entirely. Some saw the music as an intimidating political weapon in the battle for civil rights and exploited it as such. Others, like Taylor, did and quite emphatically, regard themselves as artists. For Taylor, a pianist and composer who took what he needed not just from Ellington and Monk, but from Stravinsky, Ives and Bartok, it wasn't about jettisoning Western influences on jazz, but about absorbing them into a specifically BLACK esthetic.

For the most part, however, disparities among the younger musicians of the period amounted to dialects of the same language. All of them shared the "new black consciousness" - a new pride in being black - and their reconstruction of jazz, their purging of its Western elements, or their assertion of black authority over those elements, was, to one degree or another, intended to revive and reinstate the music's first purpose.

Silva saw broad extra-musical ramifications in his procedures. He believed that by rejecting all externally imposed constraints the inherent goodness in men would surface and enable them to function in absolute harmony with both nature and each other. "Man," he said to me once, coming off an especially vigorous set. "In another ten years we won't even need traffic lights we're gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another."

And I have to say that I agreed with him.

This was, after all, a period in history when "restrictions" of every conceivable kind, from binding social and sexual mores to (with the moon shot) the very law of gravity, were successfully being challenged. If you were regularly visiting Timothy Leary's "atomic" level of consciousness, and if you could call a girl you'd been set up with on a blind date and she might say, "Let's 'ball' first and then I'll see if I want to have dinner with you," you could be forgiven your certainty that nothing short of a revolution in human nature itself was taking place.

And some of us who regarded Western values as both the cause of all ill (had they not brought us to the brink of annihilation with the hydrogen bomb?), and the principle impediment to such a transformation, saw the new black music as leading the way, as the veritable embodiment of what Herbert Marcuse called "the revolution of unrepression."

In so heady a time, earnest unself-conscious debates about the relative revolutionary merits of free jazz and rock - the other musical phenomenon of the period - were not uncommon.

I remember a conversation I had with John Sinclair, the Michigan activist, poet and author of "Guitar Army."

John took the position that rock was the true "music of the revolution."

No, I argued, rock did stand against the technocratic, Faustian western sensibility. It did, and unabashedly, celebrate the sensual and the mystical. But in these respects it only caught up to where jazz had always been. In contrast to what some of the younger black musicians were up to - the purging of white elements African music had picked up in America - rock was simply the first hip white popular music.

Rock, it was my point, never got beyond expressing the sentiment of revolution while free jazz, by breaking with formal Western disciplines - by going "outside," as the musicians termed it, of Western procedures and methods and letting the music find its own natural order and form - got to an actualization of what true revolution would be. Rock's lyrics, I said, promoted, in many instances, the idea of a spiritual revolution, but musically rock remained bound to the very traditions and conventions that its lyrics railed against and the audience never got a demonstration or the experience of authentic spiritual communion. Rock's lyrics were undermined and attenuated in the very act of their expression by the system used to express them. The new jazz, on the other hand, achieved freedom not just from the purely formal structures of western musical systems, but, implicitly, from the emotional and social ethos in which those structures originated.

As I say, it was a heady time.

Now, of course, free jazz, in anything resembling a pristine form just barely exists, and obviously it has ceased to exist altogether as a revolutionary movement. Like other emblematic movements of the epoch with which it shared the faith that a new kind of human being would surface once all structure and authority that wasn’t internal in origin was rejected, free jazz was ultimately ambushed by its naiveté.

But on purely musical terms free jazz has not been without an ongoing impact. If it never achieved what Alan Silva expected it to, it did (however contrary to its original ambition), expand the vocabulary and the field of options available to mainstream jazz musicians. And while they function today in what are essentially universes of their own, Taylor, Coleman, Murray, Cyrille, Shepp and Dixon are still very much around and continuing to discover surprise and the marvelous.

Indeed, stripped though they may be of their mystique as harbingers of an imminent utopia, these extraordinary musicians continue to produce musical miracles as a matter of course. For an especially vivid demonstration, try to catch Cecil in one of his live performances - what he would call "exchanges of energy" - with drummers like Tony Oxley.

In a bad time in every department of the culture, a time of rampant - often willful - mediocrity, I could name no better tonic.

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