One Step Beyond: Sammy Stein on the development for free jazz

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When I approached my contacts in the music industry with the idea of a series of articles attempting to look at the development of free jazz, many jumped at the chance to offer their thoughts and ideas.

I have been inspired by the openness of players and venue managers alike. A few said I was bonkers and that it was too big a task because influences have come from so many other genres, locations and cultures but most offered encouragement, direction and readily gave their thoughts. It is apparent that many musicians dislike being neatly slotted into a genre, preferring audiences to hear all sides of their playing, many play free at times as well as regularly going back to familiar ground, some only play free but classification is something players balk at because it limits them, in audiences’ eyes, and maybe in their own expression.

The general attitude can be summed up by Mats Gustafsson, a free-playing saxophonist who, in response to my suggestion replied: “Yeah, of course: a pleasure. Fuck yeah, I’ll try to help out in any way possible. I hope I can be of any assistance. Sounds really good what you are doing. I’m all with you on this.” So how could I not be inspired? …

The free jazz scene has been created by the constant emergence of new talent and ideas. There have been surges of interest at times, as well as periods when audiences fell away but there was a huge resurgence in the 1990s. The free jazz scene is diverse and the many centers of the world have vibrant scenes. Yet, the free jazz scene would not have developed without influences from all over the world and some difficult times had to be got through before it became accepted. Changing social-political situations have led to the creation of unique and varied music arenas and, although these changes seemed monumental at the time each, in its own way, contributed to creating new challenges and opportunities, leading to a scene which continues to attract new players and inspire established ones.

One important area today for free players is the UK and it deserves a special mention. Here, free jazz has a devoted following and is where musicians say they want to play because venues encourage both new and established players. Many players find UK audiences willing to give them a chance. Venues range from small clubs like the Californian Jazz Club in Ipswich and the Victoria in Bristol, to larger established ones like Cafe Oto and the Vortex and even concert halls like Snape Maltings in Suffolk — home to the world-renowned Snape Proms, which have free jazz in their programs so there is the chance for players just starting out as well as those who can fill a large venue to play regularly.

Conversely, in Europe, players may now have to travel hundreds of miles between sporadic gigs whilst the UK still supports players in local scenes. Saxophone player Peter Brotzmann recently told me that once he could be on the road for two week or more, turning up at small venues and getting gigs. Now, small venues are few and far between and a musician has to be willing to travel. European free players like Brotzmann and Gustafsson regularly play Cafe Oto and the Vortex in London, venues which also showcase home grown British players like sax player Evan Parker.

Gustafsson says of the UK: It is “a very welcoming place.” Perhaps that’s because the British remain quirky, willing to listen to new sounds, give people a chance and it still has small venues. Clarinet, flute and sax player Gilad Atzmon recently said he enjoys small clubs, perhaps because small venues offer musicians the chance to play up close and personal — giving direct and immediate feedback to a player who can look the listener straight in the eye.

However, whilst UK audiences undoubtedly benefit from having such variety on their doorstep, the development of free jazz across the world is by no means complete. It is important to state what is blatantly obvious: that to try to unravel the history of free jazz is a difficult thing to do. That is why I have had help — willingly given but even from musicians, ideas vary and some of the help has been confusing, some helpful. The very term free jazz is hard to define because it draws on and references so many other genres. It has become encompassed with avante garde and improvisation and the lines drawn are vague. Is improvisation the playing around and development of a familiar tune whilst the tune remains discernible or playing completely without form and structure? Some would argue this is true improvisation, others call it free form.

The very tags like “free form,” “free improvisation” or “free jazz” mean different things to different people. Free jazz is used to define everything from Ornette Coleman’s music of the early 196Os to the music of Parker, Brotzmann and others in the present day — almost 60 years of varied activity by artists all over the globe. If jazz started in the 1920s, then free jazz has been around for more than half that time and probably longer because it stretches across the entire jazz spectrum. In every era, within each genre there were always players who stretched the limitations beyond what was perceived to be indicative of the era and style. Besides, the free scene has changed and many free players of the late ’60s seem tame by today’s standards, especially when compared to the anarchic avante garde musicians of the early 1970s. Yet, they are all grouped under the same term of free jazz.

Jazz, by its nature, involves improvisation — it is part of what makes, jazz, well … jazz. Does “free” imply freedom from any structure or the replacement of one kind of structure with another? Music is by its nature structured noise, otherwise, it is just that — noise.

The free jazz scene of today has come about due to a number of influences and events on different shores but mainly those of the UK and the U.S. Developments in the U.S., bans on players and the sheer tenacity of certain key players in developing the free jazz scene have all affected its development.

Multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee says: “Jazz has developed or evolved before and after 1950 as only it could, as a living art form in the process of becoming. Like freedom, jazz is a work in progress but I don’t much care for the term ‘free jazz’ which generally refers to a style or period. Flux and change is the name of the game.”

Pianist Matthew Bourne says: “Perhaps it is freedom that should be emphasized — irrespective of genre. I would hope that many (musicians) would willingly forego the space after free, and the word ‘jazz’ to insert ‘dom’ after the word ‘free.’ After all, there will be many musicians around the world who have not been free enough to express themselves at all. … It’s a tough question.”

Matthew is not wrong.

When reading about the lives, playing and experimentation of jazz players, it is evident that the “new thing” as it was termed when musicians first began to play free, was never “new” — because it had there as part of the scene for so long.

Before 1950, elements of free jazz had been around for a long time. American audiences were more than ready for the arrival of a different way of playing and players had forged bridges and paths between genres which helped the acceptance of the “New Thing.” These paths had started to converge and began to creating pressure at the edges of perceived boundaries.

To understand where free jazz came from it is important to set the background and see how world events had a profound effect on the scene. In a utopian world society, there would have been a historical free exchange of jazz developments from the early 20th century in America, Europe and the UK but there were complications. Some of these led to frustration and a stalling of development in some areas whilst in other ways they contributed both to the development of very distinctive jazz scenes in different parts of the world and a political attachment to the music which maybe would not have been there had it not been for societal constraints.

In a very small nutshell — and who could even begin to try to crystallize the development of jazz up until the late 1950s without missing huge chunks of great importance? — jazz had largely developed in America from a multi-cultural input. America had (and still has) a diverse population and musical influences came from French, Caribbean, African, Eastern European and Arabic sources. The idea that it developed solely from African roots is a myth, because the population was made up of so much more than that. Jazz developed from dances, calls, funeral dirges and a host of other sources but was distinguishable as a separate genre as early as the first decade of the 20th century.

In the U.S., New Orleans was the capital of jazz up to the 1920s but scenes set up in Chicago and New York soon after. New Orleans remained largely traditional jazz — the music based around funeral marches with a marching section, a quieter interlude and finally a celebratory explosion as the newly deceased was carried off to the Promised Land. The scenes in Chicago and New York developed along different paths, largely due to the distances between them but also due to the nature of their inhabitants.

By the time Ornette Coleman opened with his quartet at the Five Spot Jazz Club, New York, shortly after recording the seminal album The Shape Of Jazz To Come (Atlantic 1959), the gig which is often cited as introducing U.S. audiences to free jazz, America had been prepared. Coleman was the alchemist who managed to bring together elements which had been around for some time, place them in the right place with the right musicians and light the touch paper. He was the front man of a burgeoning movement. Many jazz players in the mid-to-late 1950s were already pushing the boundaries of performing set patterns, rhythms and tonal scales — in other words, tunes — and had already begun to explore the limits of their instruments’ abilities.

Let’s face it, give an accomplished musician an instrument which has a perceived range in which it is normally played, yet which is also capable, with the right technique, of playing outside that range and expect him to limit the music only to what is written, what do you expect? Jazz has always provided the arena in which musicians could push the limits without losing their job.

Coleman may have been the one who showcased the first publicly acknowledged free playing concert but the scene had been set by some players who had built bridges between genres, preparing audiences in readiness and making the acceptance of free playing far more likely.

By the 1950s, audiences appreciated the improvisational experimentation which crept and then stormed into jazz. There was still, of course, room for traditional and straight jazz but free jazz began gaining audiences.

Coleman was in the right place, with the right chutzpah and the right musicians around him. He had, in his band, bassist Charlie Haden and trumpet player Don Cherry, both of whom were important for Coleman to be able to achieve the free style he wanted because they were adaptable and had no set ideas about what or how they would play. Coleman was the one who pushed the door ajar and he was quickly followed by the likes of Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler who not only pushed the door wide open but blew it off its hinges, relishing the opportunity now offered to experiment with limitations. American audiences were lucky enough to be witnesses to the birth of free jazz after a difficult and prolonged labor.

However, there can really be said to be was no one moment when free jazz arrived and no one person with whom free jazz originated. When it comes to improvised music, improvisation is so much part of jazz that it would be ridiculous to suggest musicians were not already accomplished in that area.
While acknowledging that free playing was taking place in other places and other cultures at the same time, looking at the American scene helps understand how influential musicians paved the way for free jazz, not only in the US but also across the pond in the UK and ultimately the world.

A good place to start is with Lennie Tristano. The pianist was blind, gifted and, though based in Chicago until the age of 27, resided after 1946 in New York when the pull of jazz music led him to the city. As far back as 1949 (when he was 30) he had developed spontaneous solos in his compositions as well as improvising over standards. With saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh he recorded “Digression” and “Intuition” two improvised pieces, later released as part of the compilation CD Intuition in 1996 by the Blue Note label Capitol Jazz. Both pieces were completely improvised, with no prearranged melody, harmony or rhythm.

These two songs are often cited as the first recorded examples of free jazz, though he did not release them at the time. Tristano had been involved in the cool and bebop scenes and he had an innate ability to improvise around standards whilst keeping them recognizable. His music had a frenetic energy, built around a core of complex rhythms which appealed to bebop and cool jazz fans and those seeking more improvisation and anarchy in jazz music.

Tristano acknowledged Charlie Parker as one of his influences but he himself also influenced some of the later improvisational players like pianist Cecil Taylor. Tristano played with Dizzy Gillespie and Parker. He taught music and his students included tenor saxophonist Marsh. Tristano used Marsh, guitarist Billy Bauer, Konitz, bass layer Arnold Fishkin and two drummers, Harold Granowsky and Denzil Best to create his sextet. Together they recorded “Crosscurrents” in 1949 ( Capitol). Late in 1949, after a session the sextet did for Capitol, Tristano asked the band to continue recording with no pre-established plan, rhythms, melody, key changes or chords. This recording was to be completely improvised. They did so and recorded the session but later Konitz is reported to have commented that they had no idea of what they had achieved.

In 1953, he recorded “Descent into Maelstrom” using overdubbing of several pianos, creating intense atonal sounds. It was not released unto 1978 as part of a compilation album by Inner City Records. As well as overdubbing, Tristano experimented with altering tape speeds. He is often cited as the first musician to record completely improvised music. He used counterpoint rhythms and often repeated the bass line with his left hand. He multiplied and divided the beat and used atonal lines to create change.

Tristano found little recognition at the time but since his death he has become acknowledged as a key innovator who helped create the free jazz scene. He continued to teach until his death in 1978, and many musicians continue to play in Tristano’s style including pianist Connie Crothers, saxophonist Lennie Popkin and his daughter, the drummer Carol Tristano.

Tristano was linked early in his career to cool, bebop and avant garde but really he was perhaps one of the first musicians who proved very difficult to put into a set genre — maybe the first truly free jazz player and maybe also the first to define free jazz players as players who defy categorization.

An earlier but important influence was guitarist Charlie Christian who played with Benny Goodman’s band. Initially, he was important in the development of the bebop and cool jazz scenes. Though he died at the age of 25, Christian’s single-string guitar style (he said he wanted it to sound like a tenor sax) was so original at the time, he influenced Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and sax player Don Byas. Trumpet player Miles Davis said Christian was a major influence and his “new” way of playing. He had a huge effect on the development of jazz style in the U.S. Given that he was only 25 in 1942 when he died from tuberculosis, Christian remains a phenomenon of early bebop and free jazz playing.

In the UK, meanwhile, things were not progressing so well. In the late 1950s, around the time of Coleman’s sea-changing concert, London was a dark and dreary place. Austerity still ruled — a hangover from the war. Money was tight and dance halls and small music venues were run down, shady places. Some became notorious as pick-up places for prostitutes and public dancing was frowned upon by the middle classes unless it was a chaperoned event.

However, there was a determined cohort of young musicians and socialites who gathered in Soho, frequenting late night clubs and disreputable underground drinking holes. They began their own movement, introducing changes to straight ahead jazz. Many of the dance halls had notices up saying “no jiving,” but these young people ignored society’s inhibitions.They danced, jived, flirted and drank their way to oblivion most nights. The “in” crowd included George Melly and one Ronnie Scott. The streets of Soho were where musicians gathered daily seeking work.

Producers and club owners knew where to go to hire players and it was around this area that underground clubs and illicit drinking holes proliferated. Cellars became first drinking dives and then music venues. This meant musicians could mix and play live without constraint and these underground venues proved influential in the development of the London scene. Here, musicians found more freedom in the music they played. Sax player and host Scott was a bebop player but he encouraged players of many styles.

At the time, people had to be content with a handful of well-worn 78rpm records and a few American players jamming alongside UK musicians at bottle parties — gatherings in unlicensed premises where people brought their own liquor — because there were embedded disputes going on between the musician unions in the UK and America. These dated from as far back as 1932. The bans — which worked both ways — prevented foreign musicians from working in the UK, with only classical music and vocalists being exempt. It effectively isolated the UK from New York’s post-war modern jazz revolution. What was going on the America was effectively stopped from reaching the UK and changing its jazz scene.

In 1949, attempts to bring Benny Goodman to play the London Palladium as part of a variety show were thwarted by the Musicians’ Union who insisted that the Goodman’s American musicians were replaced by the Palladium’s resident players. Even Nat King Cole found union rules insurmountable when he came to perform at the Palladium because the union refused to allow British musicians to accompany him due to the presence of three American musicians in his support. The union also banned clarinet player Sidney Bechet and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins from coming to play in the UK. The blanket ban was ignored by some promoters and guest musicians from abroad appeared on stage with no announcement. The promoters duly received fines under the 1920 Alien Act.

As recorded music became increasingly available and its availability hard to control, the Public Performance Licensing Agency were concerned about venues replacing live musicians and licenses were refused to venues where a band or orchestra “would normally and reasonably be employed.” The in-fighting drew in the musicians’ unions of the UK, U.S. and Australia. U.S. musicians — which included many jazz greats — were barred from playing in the UK. The only option for people determined to bring different music to the UK was to go the U.S. and hear the music for themselves.

In 1947, Scott, frustrated at the complexities of bringing U.S. musicians to the UK and aware of changes going on in music, blew his savings on a trip by ocean liner to America. He realized the energy of live performances experienced in the U.S. night clubs were unlike anything he had could get in London in small backrooms of pubs, semi-legal cellars and tacky dance halls. He determined to bring the energy created to the UK and for a few years Scott and others regularly found work on liners, playing background dance music jazz for clients on transatlantic crossings. When they docked in the U.S., they headed for the clubs to experience as much music as they could in a short turnaround.

Stan Tracey, later to become Scott’s in-house pianist 1960-67, spent six months working the boats in the early 1950s. The pay was dire and the music banal but it meant that he could sit in the famed Birdland, soaking up the music of Parker, Gillespie and other greats.

Both sides of the Atlantic suffered. The American Federation of Musicians placed a ban on recording by its members from 1942-44 which led to a decline in creativity in the newly emerged bebop scene. Centered in Harlem, New York, bebop had changed how people viewed jazz but unless you lived around Harlem, the chances of hearing it were limited.

Back in London, Scott decided enough was enough. When his band were playing at the Windmill Theatre one evening in the mid 1950s, the spotlight was directed at the audience where it fell upon Bechet — who was playing Paris on a visit from the US and had been smuggled over to London. Fortuitously, he had his clarinet with him and he played with Scott’s band, effectively defying the ban.

Eventually, but not until 1958, the UK union finally relaxed its embargo at concert level. American jazz musicians were allowed to perform in the UK — provided British musicians played reciprocal gigs in America. Tracey was a part of the early exchanges. So, as Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton headlined concerts in the UK, Tracey got a week’s residency in a New York jazz club, where he was ordered to start his one-hour set at 8 p.m. What they failed to tell him in advance was that the doors didn’t open till 9 p.m. Eventually, good sense prevailed and the UK enjoyed visits from Louis Armstrong and others who brought American jazz to the UK.

Scott and his business partner Pete King began to seriously discuss opening a club in London specifically for jazz music and in 1959 Scott was offered a lease on a tiny place in Gerrard Street, Soho. This first Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club had room for just 90 people and no drinks license. It soon became clear to Scott that the only way to survive as a jazz venue would be to get around the musicians’ union ban, which still applied to clubs like Ronnie’s. King famously brokered a deal and in October 1961, the British saxophonist Tubby Hayes went to New York’s Half Note for a month’s residency and American saxophonist Zoot Sims played at Ronnie Scott’s.

Officially, it was the first time an American jazz musician had played in a British jazz club for almost 30 years — though of course, some had played unofficially.

Scott rode the momentum once the embargo was relaxed and presented a steady stream of top U.S. musicians in his club, supported by Tracey’s house rhythm section. Residencies could last four weeks and the music carried on into the night, long after the pubs closed. Whilst most audiences enjoyed the new forms of jazz coming from the U.S., things were not always immediate and on one performance at the Finsbury Park Astoria drummer Art Blakey played with pianist Paul Bley — Bley was booed off. His playing just a touch too “free” for British tastes – yet!

That promoters in the UK like Scott circumvented the regulations successfully was testimony to their determination to dismantle barriers to music and their disregard for regulations which appeared to stand in the way of progress.

[ONE STEP BEYOND, PART 2: Despite an embargo, the UK develops a more anarchic take on jazz; meanwhile, some were questioning Ornette Coleman’s sanity.]

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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Sammy Stein
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