Rewriting the Dictionary: On Free Jazz

Browse By

But what about the word [jazz]?

You’re speaking like Webster’s or the Oxford dictionary or like something commercial. What do you call those people who feel they have control and who put that word on the music? There can be so many different qualities in our music…

–trumpeter Don Cherry, in an interview with Art Taylor (Notes and Tones)

* * *

Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent the last several months reading and writing about the rigorously structured and formalized work of the French literary group OuLiPo that my music listening (much of which happens, in fact, while I write) has tended more and more toward the highly open and improvisational species of jazz often called “free” or “out.” Funny, at least at a glance, that two art movements sharing the “avant-garde” label and developing simultaneously in the 1960s should approach the question of form so differently. Whereas members of the OuLiPo actively seek out restrictions and preconceived structures like lipograms and villanelles to help shape their writing, free jazz musicians deliberately shed, to varying degrees, the formal elements that characterize conventional jazz—its melodies and chord sequences, its 12- and 32-bar arrangements, its reliable meters and tempi, and in many cases its instrumentation. Thus the dilemma inherent in the name “free jazz”: “jazz” that’s “free” of what supposedly makes jazz jazz.

David G. Such, Avant-garde Jazz Musicians Funny too that these opposing approaches to structure should yield work that is typically considered difficult or inaccessible. Unlike standard jazz—whatever that is, “jazz” itself being an imperfect term used to cover a whole tangle of related but individual styles like swing, bebop, and hard bop—free jazz is seldom the kind of music you will find yourself singing along with or even tapping your feet to. In the wrong mood, I can attest, it can make your head ache. “Out jazz, with its rapidly played flurries of tones, squeaks and squawks, collective improvisation, variable rhythms, and so forth, aggressively challenges most listeners’ expectations and can burden them with too many complex bits of information,” writes David G. Such in Avant-garde Jazz Musicians: Performing “Out There. Or, as legendary hard bop drummer Art Blakey puts it in an interview with Arthur Taylor: “The average man doesn’t want to have to use his brain when he listens to music. Music should wash away the dust of his everyday life. He doesn’t want to figure out what the musicians are doing. He’s been figuring things out all day. He wants to get away from that and be taken out of this world. Music is entertainment.”  

“Freedom is wonderful,” Blakey says too, “but freedom without some discipline is chaos.” Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie echoes this sentiment: “I go for freedom, but freedom without organization is chaos.”

Art Blakey

Art Blakey

I don’t think it quite fair to criticize the conservative skepticism Blakey and Gillespie express here—they were put to the question of judging “freedom music” (as Taylor calls it in his interviews) at a time when the style was still evolving, and at a point in that evolution where experimental, “chaotic” free improvisation was perhaps at its most novel and liberating. What’s understandable if unfortunate, too, is the hostility with which some veteran players regarded the up-and-comers interested in playing “out.” Sure, it was OK to play free jazz if you were John Coltrane, who had already proved himself as a bop saxophonist in the ’fifties. But otherwise, if you were just arriving on the scene, you might be denigrated as a “kid” by Blakey, or as a “bag carrier,” drummer Philly Joe Jones’s name for musicians who’ve “been carrying their horn around for maybe a year. Soon as they get an opportunity, if somebody will allow them to get on the bandstand, they jump on and don’t know anything about the horn and just make a bunch of noises.” Critics were no less harsh: “Jazz had never produced a music,” says John McDonough, quoted in Avant-garde, “in which fakes could move so easily and undetected among real musicians.”

But is “free” jazz really just a refuge of noise and chaos for posers? Throughout his book, Such insists on preferring the term “out” jazz and even devotes a section of one chapter to discussing the ways in which the label “free” is inadequate and misleading, calling to mind as it does the totally free-form group improvisations that actually comprise only a fraction of the genre’s offerings. Indeed, a quick survey of the titles of some of the “free” jazz in my iTunes library shows an overt concern for form and structure. Yes, there’s Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound, but some of its pieces, like “Ornette” and “The Little Suite,” render that title more ironic or playful than it may seem at first (remember that “sound” can also mean “competent,” “sensible,” and “valid”!), as they unmistakably exhibit a devotion to their own structures, which become more recognizable with each listening. Then there’s Anthony Braxton’s 3 Compositions of New Jazz or Giuseppi Logan’s “Tabla Suite,” “Dialogue,” and “Bleeker Partita.” Compositions, suites, dialogues, partitas—eh? How faithfully (or: predictably) these pieces live up to their names is for the listener to decide; perhaps what’s so discomforting or frightening about this music is that it threatens to tamper with such labels, to rewrite the dictionary that defines them.

Ayler, Spiritual UnityLike Blakey and Gillespie above, pianist Errol Garner cautions that “the freedom has got to come together. That’s what’s going to make the world in the future—freedom and coming together. People can’t be free and going off in opposite directions or else there won’t be any foundation.” See Albert Ayler or William Parker, whose album titles like Spiritual Unity and Sound Unity suggest a conscious rejection of the idea of chaos, a conscious embrace of both “freedom” and “coming together,” even if their vision of “unity” would be unfamiliar or unexpected to Garner. As for Garner’s emphasis on “foundation?” Again from Such, here quoting saxophonist Charles Tyler: “I use definite melody lines or story lines. But after that I let the musicians go for themselves as long as they don’t drift too far away…. The improvisation is not structured as long as no one gets too far away from the general idea.”

But where do unity and foundation come from in free jazz? In the introduction to his study, Such outlines the concept of “functional tonality” crucial to traditional Western music, in which the relationships between notes—in a given key’s scale, say—are hierarchically arranged around a tonal center. This system allows musicians to exploit listeners’ senses of expectation, anticipation, and resolution, all of which are informed by that center, that foundation. Free jazz, however, derives its “togetherness” from other relationships, critic Eric Salzman says, like those “among individual tones and elements, including texture, dynamics, and mode of playing (attack and vibrato) which Western classical composers traditionally regard as secondary to functional tonality.”

William Parker

William Parker

Last week, when the great bassist William Parker, mentioned above, came to Ann Arbor as part of an annual celebration of avant-garde music called Edgefest, I had the very good fortune to see these kinds of unifying relationships in person—first in a duo performance with keyboardist Kenn Thomas at my favorite local record store and then the next night with his “Raining on the Moon Quintet” on stage at the Kerrytown Concert House (featuring Parker on bass and sorna, Hamid Drake on drums, Rob Brown on alto sax, Lewis Barnes on trumpet, and Eri Yamamoto on piano). In this second outing especially—where compositions like “Soledad,” “Hawaii,” and “James Baldwin to the Rescue” vacillated between tight order and stretching “out,” bleeding into one another over the continuous forty-minute first set—I was struck by how nakedly human and personal the interplay between the musicians was. For most of the performance, whether they were trading solo licks or improvising harmonies, Brown and Barnes stood facing each other, not the audience, watching and listening for subtle cues. Because the improvisation of its players can be so independent and unfettered, I think, free jazz depends on and benefits from this kind of communal sensitivity more so than any other form of jazz. No surprise, then, that during the set break Parker told us that he’d like to take us all to the football stadium (he didn’t call it the Big House) for a huge picnic—“maybe play music, maybe not, but really just to talk.”

* * *

For lists of free jazz albums worth checking out, see here, here, and here.

Photo credits:,,,,

%d bloggers like this: