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

By Brian L. Knight

In the last two issues, the Vermont Review covered the avant-garde musicians who comprised the "New Thing" in jazz – John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and many more. While many of these New Thing musicians made New York City their home, Chicago also made incredible contributions to the development of the avant-garde. The Windy City had already been a significant contributor to the development of earlier jazz styles so it seemed appropriate that Chicago would wield its influence on the development of free jazz. In Chicago, the movement was led by the innovations of the Sun Ra Orchestra and the creation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Sun Ra, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, first honed his skills while living in Chicago. A tremendous fan of the non-traditional compositions of early 20th century bandleader Fletcher Henderson, Sun Ra took the Big Band beyond its traditional limits and through the Arkestra, made bold experiments with free jazz. When Sun Ra was in New York City during the 1960s, he connected to the New Thing when he signed on with Cecil Taylor’s Jazz Composer’s Guild which was a loose organization for the avant-garde. In the Spring of 1965, the Jazz Composer’s Guild sponsored a Sun Ra Arkestra performance in which Sun Ra teamed up with other "New Thingers" mentioned in these pages such as Marion Brown, Roswell Rudd and Pharoah Sanders. This was as close as the space jazz of Sun Ra came to the New Thing of New York. Although his freest compositions were held in New York City, Philadelphia, Europe and Egypt, Sun Ra’s early days in Chicago were very interesting and groundbreaking.

While Sun Ra’s later work sounded completely unstructured and free, he actually put an incredible amount of time and energy into the composition of a song. Although his music seemed rootless, Sun Ra fed upon many of music’s existing forms to develop his free sound. His Chicago era especially showed his ties to more traditional music forms such as do-wop, swing, be-bop and the blues. On Sun Ra-The Singles (Evidence Records), Sun Ra’s entire career is covered. It seems kind of strange for a jazz musician to release singles as it was a maneuver practiced more often by pop musicians; but Sun Ra was never really known for his normal behavior. The two-CD set starts from Sun Ra’s do-wop days in the mid 1950s all the way through space-jazz of the 1980s and 1990s. For more accurate snapshot into a particular stage of Sun Ra’s musical development, 1958’s Jazz in Silhouette (Evidence Records) depicts Sun Ra during his bop stage while 1963’s Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy (Evidence Records) and 1972’s Space Is The Place (Evidence Records) are an excellent look into his free jazz explorations. The latter two albums are almost psychedelic in nature as the music is broken down and allows for complete mental introspection. Sun Ra, who claimed his hometown as Saturn, was infatuated space. He was fascinated by the endless possibilities of the cosmos and their subsequent spirituality, but he was also captivated by the space within a song. To Sun Ra, music was an infinite space with no boundaries for his musicians. On the aforementioned albums and others such as We Travel The Spaceways (Evidence Records), Sun Ra pushed a song’s space to its outermost limits.

Regardless of the type of the music, Sun Ra always had an unconventional approach through his music. In his earlier days, his unorthodox arrangements caught many people off guard while his later craziness downright dumbfounded people. In addition to the music, there was also Sun Ra’s stage production which featured elaborate costumes, dancers, artists and light shows. A Sun Ra performance was much more than a simple audio experience and his concerts dared to enrich all of the senses.

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which first began in 1965, holds a unique position in musical history as it was a non-profit organization whose mission to provide musical opportunities for country’s Afro-American youth. Coinciding with the AACM was the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which consisted of AACM members and was the logical musical extension of the organization. The Art Ensemble of Chicago consisted of Lester Bowie (trumpet), Roscoe Mitchell (saxophone), Joseph Jarman (saxophone), Malachi Flavors (bass) and Don Moye (drummer). In 1969, the Art Ensemble of Chicago went to Paris to explore their music and during their few years in Europe, the group gained popular and critical acclaim as the recorded many albums, scored soundtracks and played at numerous festivals. It wasn’t until 1972, that the United States had a chance to see the incredible matured sounds of the Ensemble. On of their first appearances was at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival which was captured on the album Bap-Tizum (Koch International). The album consists of 6 originals with titles such as "Immm", "Unanka" and "Oouffnoon". As one can ascertain from both the name of the songs and the music itself, the Art Ensemble of Chicago took a highly spiritual approach to their music in which they credited both the African homeland and higher spirits as their musical guidance. This concert had a very loose feel to it in which the music ranged from all out percussion jams to intense free soling duels. The Art Ensemble of Chicago differed from other avant-garde artists for the maintained a high level of rhythm in their music. Instead of completely breaking a tune down, they soloed freely on top of a tight rhythmic groove. Like their fellow Chicago-ite, Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago also liked to dress in elaborate costumes and makeup. Although they both claimed Chicago as their hometown, the worlds of Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago didn’t collide until Sun Ra’s toured through Europe. In some sort of crazy reversal, it was the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s work in Paris during the late 1960s that actually laid a foundation for Sun Ra. Back in Chicago, the Ensemble owed a debt of gratitude to Sun Ra for his earlier innovations. A later recording, Fanfare for the Warriors (Koch International), took a different approach from their live performances, for there was much more intensity to the sound. Just as the AACM proclaimed the mutual acceptance of all art and music forms, so did Fanfare for the Warriors. The album consisted of a touch of the blues, a touch of classical music, a bit of the Caribbean and a little sampling of swing. The Art Ensemble of Chicago labeled their music "Great Black Music" and that it is exactly what it was. Their music consisted of every musical form that was practiced by African-American musicians. As it would turn, this 1974 album would serve as a temporary swan song as the Art Ensemble of Chicago would not enter the recording studio for another five years.

The Chicago avant-garde was somewhat different than the numerous recordings and sessions that were occurring in New York. Unlike their contemporaries who were recording for Impulse Records, The Art Ensemble of Chicago focussed on a gentler approach to their music. While musicians like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler were creating high paced chaotic sounds, the Art Ensemble of Chicago were experimenting with the use of silence and in general, softer sounds. As for Sun Ra, his fascination with the cosmos and his practice of creating "space music" was unlike any other music that has ever been created. Both Sun Ra and The Art Ensemble of Chicago differed from the East Coast sound for the made their concerts a multimedia event rather than simply a musical concert.

Free and avant-garde jazz is still alive and well in 1998, although it is far from attaining the popularity of the 1960s and 1970s. The jazz mainstream seems to dominated by Wynton Marsalis and the music of New York City’s Lincoln Center, while the avant-gardists of today remain in relative obscurity. Throughout the primal years of the avant-garde, the music was incredibly original and song styles rarely resembled each other. Since the music seemed to be based on loose, unstructured cacophonous themes, it was virtually impossible for free jazz to share common musical themes. Even the extended structured tunes were far too complex for a resemblance to occur.

Although there were differences in the produced music, there were many similarities on cultural level. The most dominant factor was that free jazz was primarily played by Afro-Americans. The freedom of their music directly coinciding with the 1960s civil rights movements and Afro-Americans were expressing themselves through their music. There push for societal freedom and liberty was reflected through the freedom and liberty in their music.

This relationship with Africa was also carried over on a musical level. In general, the music of the avant-garde jazz era was a rejection of European classical music themes such as chord sequences and a basic harmony. Instead, the avant-gardists embraced the music of other world cultures such as Africa, India and the Middle East. Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago continuously practiced the music of the African content and in many cases, donned native garb. Coltrane was well known for his spiritual and musical embracing of Far Eastern culture. This fascination with other cultures was reflected in Rock & Roll circles when the Beatles shocked the world with the use of the sitar on their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about free jazz is that there is absolutely nothing free about it. In all of the artists, from Coltrane to Sun Ra, there music was completely and absolutely premeditated and calculated. The artists would labor and practice hours in order to create a sound the sound they desired. What was free about the music was the musicians’ ability to stretch their music beyond the existing boundaries. Their music was not free from structure, just free from rules.

This fact leads to another common ground which was that free jazz lacked popular appeal. This directly translated to a deficiency of recording deals and nightclub gigs. In addition to a lack of popular appeal, free jazz has also continuously experienced sharp remarks from the critics. Since the music of free jazz was such a blatant disavowal of the traditional musical norms, the critics were quick to make fun of the new art form. This was an experience that was shared by Dizzy Gillepsie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker when they introduced their new approaches to music as well. The critics were soon to eat their words as these musicians helped transform the sound of jazz. History will give the avant-gardists the same break. The final common denominator of all the avant-gardists was the musician’s shared spiritually. By breaking down all pre-conceived notions of music and playing from their soul, the musicians were not only playing their music freely, but they were playing tunes that were reflections of their true nature. Their music was not dictated by those who came before them or what was selling in the record stores, it was coming from their inner being. As a result the music was genuine and that is what kept them playing the music regardless of poverty or popularity.