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

By Brian L. Knight

In our last issue, the Vermont Review visited some of the artists who were primarily responsible for the surge of avant-garde jazz - Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane. Although these three were the premier musicians of the avant-garde/free form era, there were numerous players who were influenced by their innovations. In particular, there were an abundance of saxophonists who played with Coltrane, Coleman and Taylor and used their bands as a forum for their own playing. These players were Pharoah Sanders, Dewey Redman, Albert Ayler, Sam Rivers and Archie Shepp.

In addition to these great soloists, we will also take a journey to Chicago and discover the Windy City’s contribution to free-jazz. Simultaneous to the journeys of Taylor, Coleman and Coltrane was the innovation of the Sun Ra Arkestra and following closely behind Sun Ra was the extremely talented Art Ensemble of Chicago.

After the untimely death of John Coltrane in 1967, his musicians continued to record afterwards and carry on his spirit. Pharaoh Sanders was one musician who obviously shared the same musical vision as John Coltrane. During the summer of 1970, Sanders recruited longtime mate organist Lonnie Liston Smith as well as newcomer trumpeter Woody Shaw, saxophonist Gary Bartz (who would later join the Miles Davis fusion groups of 1970-1), bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Clifford Jarvis, and percussionists Nathaniel Bettis and Anthony Wiles. Together, they recorded Summun, Bukmon, Umyun (Impulse Records). The term Summun, Bukmon, Umyun means death, dumb and blind and is taken from a chapter of the Holy Koran. The terms do not refer to physical handicap but rather spiritual inability. Summun, Bukmon, Umyun is also the 21 + minute opening track and the only other tune is the 17+ Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord. As the titles and the lengths of the songs may imply, the tunes are long and spiritual. Both of the songs are characterized by incredible polyrhythms with extensive, soft solos laid on top.

Albert Ayler was one musician who had who had strong ties to the music of John Coltrane and the two were in musical debt to each other. It was Coltrane’s early compositions that opened up the doors for free jazz. While Coltrane played with Tyner, Garrison and Jones, his music still retained glimpses of form and structure yet it was Coltrane’s inventive soloing within the framework or mode of the tune that expressed free form playing. Ayler expanded upon the idea by completely breaking the song down in structure, harmony and beat. Coltrane listened to Ayler’s approach and employed the same dissonant approach in his later albums such as Ascension and Meditations. Coltrane would often attend an Ayler show to take in this revolutionary approach. One of these shows can be found on Ayler’s Live In Greenwich Village-The Complete Impulse Recordings. These recordings, available for the first time ever, were recorded between 1965 and 1967 in various Greenwich Village jazz clubs such as the Village Vanguard, the Village Theater and the Village Gate. During all of the dates, Ayler was joined by his brother Don who played the trumpet with same organized dissonance as Albert. Ayler paid homage to Coltrane during the performances of February 26, 1967 with the tune For John Coltrane. Three months after Ayler’s tribute, John Coltrane died in New York City. Along with Ornette Coleman’s band, Albert Ayler played at Coltrane’s funeral. In the album’s liner notes, Ayler spoke of Coltrane: " Like Coltrane, I’m playing about the beauty that is to come after all the tensions and anxieties." The two artists felt their music was a step ahead of the conventional music of their era. By breaking music tradition through the exploration of new tonalities, Ayler and Coltrane offered an avenue of enlightenment through their music. Unfortunately for the avant-garde arena, Albert Ayler died in 1971 – he was found floating in New York City’s East River. .

Six years later after Albert Ayler’s New York City concerts, Sam Rivers, a veteran of Cecil Taylor’s bands, expanded upon Ayler’s non-conventions. Unlike Ayler, Rivers was a virtuoso who went through his career virtually unheralded. Ayler was a less skilled player who made bold statements through his compositions; while Rivers possessed excellent skills yet his compositions were unknown. In addition to the tenor saxophone; Rivers was also adept with the soprano saxophone and flute. Along with Henry Threadgill and Dave Liebman, Rivers helped enter the flute into the realm of the avant-garde. The sessions for the album, Live (Impulse Records) were recorded at Yale University and Norway’s Molde Jazz Festival in 1973. River’s live sets were very loose and his song titles reflected the lack of formal structure. The Yale performance featured three tunes titled Hues of Melanin. Each version had a different focus – soprano saxophone, piano and tenor saxophone. Similarly, the Norway concerts had only two tunes – Suite for Molde Part I and II. Once again, the tune was broken into different solo sections for each instrument.

Like Albert Ayler, saxophonist Archie Shepp gained exposure to the avant-garde by playing with one of the style’s innovators. Shepp grew up in Philadelphia where he met John Coltrane and began his foundations for free jazz. The two would collaborate many times over the years, most notably the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival where Shepp joined up with Coltrane and the classic quartet for a rendition of "My Favorite Things". Appropriately, an album from the concert was released and it was called New Thing At Newport (Impulse Records). Archie Shepp graduated from Vermont’s Goddard College in 1959 with a degree in dramatic literature and would never abandon his schooling, as he was an equally prolific playwright and musical composer. Like earlier Coltrane, Shepp kept his music a little more on the mainstream side of the avant-garde. On his 1968 album, The Way Ahead (Impulse Records), Shepp tinkers with Duke Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady" in which he transforms a classic big band recording into a free-for-all frenzy. It was also through the music of Shepp, along with many of his colleagues, that free jazz began to be criticized by fellow jazz musicians. In his autobiography, Miles Davis spoke of his drummer, Tony Williams, and also displayed his opinions about free jazz: "I think Tony was the one who brought Archie Shepp to the Vanguard (nightclub) one night to sit in, and he was so awful that I just walked off the bandstand. He couldn’t play and I wasn’t going to stand up there with a no-playing mother$%*." It was through quotes like these that prevented the ascent of free jazz. The critics initially supported it, but once the public showed their disdain, then the critics dropped their support. With other jazz musicians like Miles Davis providing criticisms, the free jazz circles quickly closed in.

Ornette Coleman was not the only Texan to explore the avant-garde. Dewey Redman grew up with Ornette Coleman and they played in the same high school band together. The two re-united in San Francisco when Redman joined Coleman’s band in 1961 and it was also during his time in San Francisco that Redman played with John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. Unlike Coleman, Redman preferred to tinker with many different jazz styles and give them a free-form flare. This is easily displayed on his 1973 album The Ear of the Behearer (Impulse Records) which contains a bit of blues, swing and bop. As the name of the album suggests, Dewey Redman felt that music was open to interpretation. Through his free jazz explorations, a listener could discover his/her own themes within the music. This was a basic tenet that guided free jazz – there are no pre-conceived notions of how music should sound. Music is simply collection of different noises that is open for judgement and admiration. Just as the music of free jazz artists came from their soul so did its appreciation.

Despite the obvious hurdles and roadblocks created by critics, fans and musicians alike, the free jazzers kept on playing. These musicians felt that their music was coming from deep in their soul and that any doubters failed to see and hear what was truly occurring. This sentiment was shared by saxophonist Marion Brown who was closely associated with John Coltrane and Archie Shepp. Brown had played on Shepp’s 1965 album, Fire In Music(Impulse Records), and Shepp turned Brown onto the Impulse label. After playing with Shepp, Brown went onto play on Coltrane’s Ascensions album and he also played with great free formers such as Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. Despite all of this professional exposure, Marion Brown felt that he owed a debt of gratitude to the man who got him first involved, which is why he called his 1966 recording Three For Shepp (Impulse Records). The interesting thing is that Archie Shepp recorded an album in 1964 called Four for Trane(Impulse Records). In a similar tribute, Shepp played Coltrane tunes such as Naima and Cousin Mary. Brown’s album could also been called Three for Me as the first three songs are written by Brown himself.

Next issue, lets got to the Windy City to visit the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Sun Ra Orchestra – the Midwest’s two contributions to the avant-garde. Then we will wrap things up.

Go To Part III