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Calculated Dissonance: Avant-Garde Jazz in the 1960s-1970s (Part One)

By Brian L. Knight

Since the end of World War II, the term avant-garde has permeated our culture. During this period, there was a developing dissatisfaction with society and a subsequent desire to rebel. While this social unrest took somewhat a more violent approach in the form of Civil Rights protests and anti-war rallies, the arts community voiced their disapproval through their artistic mediums. From architecture to poetry, artists developed non-conformist techniques. In many cases, these techniques were innovative yet disruptive to the mainstream. They were trying to find an alternative to society and also provide some input for change. >From the mid 1950s onward, the avant-garde was infiltrating every available art form. Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol were both changing the face of art in their own ways while the Velvet Underground were taking new steps in rock and roll. The poetry of Lawrence Ferlingetti and Allen Ginsburg defeated the traditional prose techniques and the architecture of Frank Gehry was defying basic design principles.

In jazz circles, the avant-garde achieved the biggest impact. Although the avant-garde made the limelight during the early-mid 1960s, it was being practiced much earlier. Musicians such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor were making brave and exciting experiments as early as 1954 when bop and cool jazz were still remaining supreme. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, musicians were elaborating on the foundations of Coltrane, Taylor and Coleman. These avant-gardists built upon the soloing of the bop sound by taking a tune beyond the melody and completely deconstructing a song’s structure. The end results were tunes that possessed minimal melodic construction and were characterized by cacophony. This music also was known as free jazz or "energy" music.

In the next three issues, we are going to cover much of the creative music that was produced during the peak of the avant-garde era. First we will cover the groundbreakers and leaders of the avant-garde sound such as pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. In the next issue, we will visit a string of saxophonists who simultaneously emulated the sounds and technique of Coltrane and Coleman – Sam Rivers, Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, Dewey Redman and Albert Ayler. Finally, we will journey over to Chicago and visit the Windy City’s contribution to the avant-garde – The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra.

The most controversial of the avant gardist was Fort Worth’s Ornette Coleman. Coleman was a self taught saxophone player who had a very difficult rise to prominence. To some degree, it was a struggle for Coleman right from the beginning for he taught himself the musical scales in the wrong order. Even after he jumped these hurdles, his playing was too revolutionary for his peers. On many instances, Coleman’s stage partners abandoned him or kicked him off the stage. In one instance, Coleman was beaten up because of his non-conformist playing. For coming from a state that was known for the blues, Coleman went in the opposite direction. As the blues relied on a 12 bar structure, Coleman used structures that carried over 50 bars and only an intense concentration could identify a pattern in Coleman’s tunes. This was exemplified on his 1960 album, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (Atlantic Records) which was the pinnacle of avant -garde jazz movement. The album contained a group of eight musicians, a 40-minute continuous extended jam and the artwork of the avant-garde painter, Jackson Pollock, on its cover.

Many of the musicians to follow in Coleman’s steps became known as part of "The New Thing in Jazz." As the name implies, these musicians were taking stark departures from the music of the mainstream and providing a fresh take on an old genre. Many of these new musicians flocked to New York City where they found strength in numbers. Although there were like-minded musicians, it was still difficult for them to receive praise and attention, as the music was difficult to comprehend. How can music that sounds like "a traffic jam during rush hour" be appealing to the ear? This was a common questions raised by the people that comprised the mainstream. Slowly but surely, some musicians’ work were beginning to be accepted by the populace. Thanks to the fact that the counterculture was a rave in all other aspects of American society (anti-war, drug use, and sexual liberation), in hindsight, it seems rather apropos that the counter-jazz movement was slowly embraced during the late 1960s and early 1970s. People wanted to be different and they wanted to embrace non-conformity. New York City’s Impulse Records was one of the first record labels to recognize the slow surge in interest in the avant-garde and signed many of the players who had come to the Big Apple or played elsewhere. In 1998, Impulse Records has re-celebrated this bold period in jazz by re-releasing some avant-garde classics from its vaults. Similarly, Koch International, Atlantic Records and Evidence Records have both taken steps in releasing the free jazz that was coming out of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia during the same period.

One of the veterans of Coleman’s Free Jazz was trumpeter Don Cherry. In the same year as Coleman’s Free Jazz, Cherry recorded with John Coltrane and released the aptly titled Avant-Garde (Atlantic Records) which contained three Coleman tunes. While Don Cherry and Coleman broke down the songs to a free for all jam session, Coltrane managed to maintain some structure in his tunes. After the Don Cherry session, Coltrane formed perhaps one of jazz’s most famous quartets consisting of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. There is no better way to explore the music of John Coltrane then by listening to the new box set John Coltrane: The Classic Quartet (Impulse Records). Although the compilation does not cover the free jazz stages of Coltrane, the set provides an excellent look into the evolution of one’s music from standard jazz to the avant-garde. The set begins with Coltrane’s first work after he left the Miles Davis Quintet which contains waltzes, ballads and blues and show hints of Coltrane’s improvisational technique. By the end of the box set, Coltrane’s musical transition becomes evident as his music becomes atonal (without key). The earlier recordings featured modal explorations (playing music within a preset scale of notes) , which eventually evolved into more free form approaches. On the album Meditations (Impulse), Coltrane employed both his traditional band of Garrison, Tyner and Jones but also recruited saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali. This album exemplified the transformation of Coltrane’s transformation to the avant-garde and by 1965’s Ascension (Impulse Records), Coltrane formed a new band with Ali, Sanders and his wife Alice on piano and harp. The album signified a new direction in Coltrane’s music as it assumed the cacophonous chaos similar to Ornette Coleman. It was through this new lineup that the music of Coltrane altered from a modal bop sound to a full-blown avant -garde romp.

In 1966, Alice Coltrane replaced McCoy Tyner as Coltrane’s pianist. The two had met in 1963, married in 1966 and had three children together. To some, the replacement of Tyner with Alice was a controversial step as cries of romantic favoritism were yelled out. To others, it simply marked a new direction in Coltrane’s music and Alice was not the only lineup change that occurred. Alice McLeod Coltrane was a talented piano and harp player who grew up in a musical family for her father played with people like Stan Getz, Yusef Lateef and Terry Gibbs. During the year following her husband’s death, Alice Coltrane held numerous recording studios in her husband’s studio in Dix Hills, New York; recruited many of Coltrane’s band mates such as Pharaoh Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, and released A Monastic Trio (Impulse Records) in 1968. The work of Alice Coltrane was a logical extension of her husband’s final albums as she simultaneously attempted to capture his spirituality and break down the mainstream’s view of music. In the liner notes of A Monastic Trio, Alice Coltrane discussed her approach; "He (John Coltrane) always felt that sound was the first manifestation in creation before music. I would like to play music according to the ideals set forth by John and continue to let a cosmic principle of the aspect of spirituality be the underlying reality behind the music as he did." Like all of the free jazz musicians, Alice and John Coltrane felt that music was merely organized sound and the two were simply structuring their sound in a remarkably different manner.

Besides John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, pianist Cecil Taylor was an additional early innovator who helped define the avant-garde era. During the 1950s, when bop was reigning supreme, it was the visionary playing of Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane that alerted the world that music had the potential to head into uncharted territory. Along with Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, Taylor’s piano playing was a stark contrast to the playing styles of mainstream jazz. Traditionally, the piano was a missing element from avant-garde jazz bands for the piano is primarily responsible for creating chord sequences and it was the absence of these chord sequences that defined the free-jazz sound. Taylor’s pioneering approach was based on using the piano as a percussion instrument and less as a tool for melody and harmony. One of Taylor’s more memorable recordings was 1961’s Mixed (Impulse Records) which was recorded with the Roswell Rudd Sextet. Like so many of the other artists in this article, the music of Cecil Taylor appears to be lacking all structure and form but it was far actually quite the contrary. Taylor studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and based many of his compositions on European classical music. Taylor’s music represented one of the biggest debates in free jazz: his music was not even close to being loose and it was extremely complex. His music may have sounded dissonant and atonal, but he meant it that way. When listening to Taylor, one had to abandon their notions of traditional musical techniques such as meter and repetitive chord sequences in order to hear the tune’s true essence. Like Luke Skywalker learning the force from Obi Wan Kenobi, fans of Cecil Taylor and other avant-gardists had to "let go" in order to hear the true music.

In the next issue, we will visit some additional artists who played along Coleman, Coltrane and Taylor and elaborated upon the foundations that these three artists so boldly created. Many of these artists were considered part of Impulse’s New Thing and the New York City scene, while others pushed on in other cities and with other labels. In the next issue, we will visit the work of five saxophonists, Pharoah Sanders, Dewey Redman, Sam Rivers, Albert Ayler, and Archie Shepp, who carried the free jazz tradition onward. Then we will visit Chicago’s contribution to the avant garde through the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Sun Ra Arkestra.

Go to Part II