One Step Beyond, Part 2: Sammy Stein on the development of free jazz

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This is part two of Sammy Stein’s comprehensive look into the genesis of the rangy improvisational genre of music that eventually became known as free jazz. [Click here for Part 1.]:

One of the few good things to emerge from the embargo era was the development of a quintessential British jazz scene. Creative people will create music and entertainment and, whilst America went its way, the UK developed a more anarchic take on jazz.

White middle class young people initially took over the music — it was they who had access to the drinking cellars and clubs of Soho. People like George Melly sang alongside musicians in big bands, small groups — anywhere he could — and developed his own lascivious style. Soho became the natural center in London, due to established presence of musicians, clubs and theaters. Melly, and his cohorts’ consistency in finding new venues to drink, play jazz music and arrange concerts was key to the continuation of a jazz scene which, though underground and secretive in essence at the beginning, was very much hidden in plain sight.

You could, apparently, simply ask anywhere in Soho where the venues were and be shown to a small cellar or back room where jazz would be playing. These young, well heeled people loved the music and became “cool.” Though some of the people involved might not be considered rebels today, they were practically anarchistic at the time. Trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton, trombonist Chris Barber and Scott himself all contributed to the establishment of venues which allowed free players the stage to play to a small but committed audience.

Now, with opportunities increasing in the UK, and musical changes afoot, some musicians sought out jazz in its original form, wanting to preserve original music before it became too changed and also the types of jazz which were emerging in different parts of the U.S. Rumors of new and freer jazz scenes had reached UK shores but more traditional musicians like trumpeter Ken Colyer wanted to provide audiences with “pure” jazz and he was inspired to go to New Orleans in search of musicians who had stayed there, playing original New Orleans jazz and who had not migrated to the growing scenes of New York and Chicago. He joined a steamer bound for America and once there, jumped ship to seek out jazz clubs. He soon found himself in a U.S. jail with visa problems, but was undeterred. He wanted to hear “real” New Orleans musicians.

In New Orleans, jazz was not so much music of ethnic groups but of class — the working class. It developed from the influences of many immigrant populations including the Caribbean, France, Ireland and Italy. These groups merged with existing American inhabitants in areas like the French Quarter of the city. New Orleans jazz was a mix of ragtime and spirituals as well as Bible Belt hymns, marches, dances and African drumming. It had a distinctive rhythm and sound.

In the UK and France in the early 1940s, there had been enthusiasm for what was called “contemporary” New Orleans jazz, which meant the jazz that was still played in the city, as opposed to the 1920s recordings of New Orleans musicians in Chicago and New York. However, by the early 1940s, audiences were attracted away by new forms of jazz emerging from New York and Chicago. Many musicians adhering to traditional New Orleans jazz found audiences disappearing, seeking the new forms of jazz which were emerging. Only a few like Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong survived, largely by compromising their playing styles to appeal to a wider audience. A few, however, never left New Orleans for the bright lights and big dollars of the north, never compromised, and maintained the authentic New Orleans sound Colyer was after.

Colyer instigated a revivalist movement which gained new audiences. Players were “rediscovered: Jelly Roll Morton was found playing in Washington D.C. and trombonist and bandleader Kid Ory (who would later mentor Charlie Mingus and had Bechet in his band) and trumpeter Bunk Johnson were brought to new audiences. The crucial difference between revivalist music and the original New Orleans sound was that, though the original music relied on improvised playing, the revivalist movement used ensembles of musicians improvising with no written arrangements. This added a new dimension and appeal to the music. The collective improvisation was an important stepping stone to the development of a different style of jazz and eventually to free jazz.

In the U.S., not only did union interference and recording bans hold up progress but, color bars added more problems. However, Italians, unaffected by the color bars, made up many jazz bands. They proved key in bringing New Orleans jazz to a wider audience in cities like Chicago and also in river boat bands — where they stopped at major cities like Davenport. In the 1930s, from this scene had emerged stars like pianist Morton, clarinetist Albert Nicholls, Bechet, and trumpet player Armstrong. Band leaders like clarinetist Joe Marsala recruited black musicians, effectively defying racial prejudice.

The UK jazz scene at the time was, to put it mildly, in a bit of a mess. There were three main movements. The New Orleans revivalists led by Lyttleton, Barber and Colyer; modern jazz (influenced by bebop and led by musicians like saxophone and clarinet player Johnny Dankworth and Scott) and the Chicago school represented by trumpeter Freddie Randall. Barber and Lyttleton didn’t just play trad standards, but also Duke Ellington tunes, and often had guest artists join their bands from the bop side of the spectrum such as Scott and saxophonist Joe Harriot, who later would become an exceptional free player.

Other genres were also developing free playing as acceptable inclusions. In the 1950s, the bass player, composer and bandleader Mingus regularly asked players in his jazz workshop to improvise on his music, often referencing the political changes of the time. Titles such as Pithencanthropos Erectus (Atlantic, 1956) , included a completely improvised section in the title track and Prayer for Passive Resistance (Mercury Records, 1960) pushed beyond bebop’s boundaries — incorporating Mingus’ improvisations with sudden changes of tempo, rhythm, gaps in the music and volume variations. Political instability, not only in the U.S. but many places like Vietnam, and social unrest on a wide scale led to a fertile environment for music which kicked the ass of accepted, limited genres and paved the way for free players. Like composer Thelonious Monk, Mingus’ players often had to play with no notations or guidelines.

Monk, a jazz pianist who had worked with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, began to use improvisation which included gaps in the music, repetition of phrases in different formats and using the keyboard to introduce disharmonic chords. Though grounded in gospel, Monk began experimenting and introducing his own improvised sections in pieces. Though not recognized as a free jazz player, Monk undoubtedly had an influence on jazz musicians who followed, like pianist Bud Powell, inspiring them to improvise and play according to their heart. Mingus and Monk helped forge links between bop, hardbop and free jazz.

Early free jazz was introduced by players normally associated with other genres like bebop and cool jazz. It could be argued a number of factors came together in the early 50s to pave the way.

Lennie Tristano and Charlie Christian had introduced new ideas and Coleman Hawkins, though mostly associated with bebop in the late 1940s, was the musician who gave the tenor saxophone its rightful place as a solo jazz instrument — rather than simply being part of the woodwind section of a big band. Now in place were a greater range of instruments, more influences from all over the globe plus a growing acceptance of audiences to accept variations on their preconceptions about genres and players.

Concerts would then feature a section of improvisation or completely free playing after which the musicians returned to familiar ground. So, the actual point of conception of free jazz is difficult to define because, for some, it was part of the routine from an early point in their career, though few played free all the time. To try and pinpoint the start of free playing is nonsense. Even in the courts of Europe, musicians would have played free at times on their lutes, lyres and drums.

It is natural to assume that given an instrument and a musician with talent, free playing will emerge in some form or another because the constraints of playing always what another has written are too much for creative minds.

Free playing musicians also found a powerful ally in the record label Blue Note which was willing to take a risk. Established in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis, with Francis Wolff coming on board around 1941, Blue Note was originally interested in recording traditional jazz musicians but from 1947 the label included modern jazz. The label made recordings of Monk, trumpet player Fats Navarro and Bud Powell and was instrumental in getting free players more widely recognized. Many artists, especially hard bop style players, benefitted from their support.

Musicians like Art Blakey, sax player Lou Donaldson and pianist Horace Silver found a recording outlet for their music and Blue Note developed a reputation for supporting musicians who played outside perceived boundaries of genre and those who pushed boundaries to their limits. Sax players Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, trombonist Graham Moncur III and Davis all recorded for Blue Note. Hard bop, with its harsh, atonal portions, provided the ideal breeding ground for free players and formidable talent emerged from the scene.

Sax player Tina Brooks, one of the original Jazz Messengers, recorded True Blue (Blue Note, 1960) which, though ostensibly hard bop, also gave Brooks the chance to record some numbers which had free elements.

So, when the Ornette Coleman Quintet opened at the Five Spot Cafe, with four musicians playing unconnected solos, each solo appearing to be improvised, free jazz had found a stage but in hindsight, this proved to be only a testing of the waters. Coleman would go on to push the boundaries as far as any listener would accept and create music which bordered on the unlistenable and completely unfathomable.

The reaction of the audience in New York was not wholly appreciative either. Many listeners were simply not ready for free jazz — yet. Many musicians already knew Coleman as a player who would push his musical limits but this? This was perhaps too much too soon.

In Down Beat magazine, shortly after the gig, George Hoefer described the reactions of the audience: “Some walked in and out before they could finish a drink, some sat mesmerized by the sound, others talked constantly to their neighbors at the table or argued with drink in hand at the bar.”

Musicians questioned his musical ability, some even questioned Coleman’s sanity. Today it is hard to believe that the industry was split so evenly between those who welcomed the new style or those who hated it. But in amongst the hoo-ha, Coleman’s musicianship was largely overlooked.

Coleman played (and still plays) with astute awareness of the music: He adds subtleties and inflections and his phrasing is matched by none. He presented music with renewed complexity and largely ignored the rules by which most jazz players at the time were bound. He used rhythms as the melody, or chord sequences as just one option for advancing a solo. He often hit notes slightly flat on purpose which alarmed musicians for whom accuracy was all.

That ability to hit notes just a quarter-tone sharp or flat is, in fact, something which needs a lot of practice.

Yet, Coleman was not the first. Years earlier John Coltrane, Davis, Sonny Rollins and Monk were looking outside harmonic orders to discover less limited styles of playing. Many had introduced improvised sections in pieces yet it was Coleman who defied the all-important performance expectations and played completely free. For many, he was the answer to a prayer. He set the stage which allowed even less bound and fettered players to play in the style they wanted. Coltrane, Rollins, and saxophonist Jackie McLean were soon playing free in performances.

Coleman, disregarding any critics, kept pushing. One of his recordings Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (Atlantic, 1960) involved two quartets, one channelled to the left speaker and one to the right with each quartet playing unrelated free improvisation. From the left channel come Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Billy Higgins and from the right the bass clarinet of Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums.

It is difficult to listen to for the full 37:09 minutes even for the diehard free playing devotee, because your brain begins to follow one strong riff only to have that riff usurped by another and another — until you give up trying to listen to any one player and it all merges into a completely free descent into something close to musical anarchy. It does, however, remain hugely influential and a pointer for anyone wishing to experiment in free playing. This is Coleman to a tee and is the kind of music he was ever pushing towards, where musicians play completely free.

Coleman planted the seed for the free jazz movement of the 1960s, which in turn gave rise to a school of European improvisers like guitarist Derek Bailey.

McLean recorded albums which, although recognizably based on hard bop, also gave clear signs that free playing was part and parcel of his repertoire. His albums Freedom Ring (Blue Note, 1962), One Step Beyond (Blue Note, 1963) and Destination Out (Blue Note, 1963) make it clear where McLean wanted to take his music. Free jazz compositions were interwoven on the album with the audience introduced to a freer form of playing.

Free jazz was now part of the repertoire and later became part of most players’ compositions. Standards were improvised, compositions recorded which gave the players freedom to experiment and push the boundaries. Coleman had been very astute in judging the time was right for him to showcase free jazz in a performance and he also helped pave the way for free playing to become part of the accepted jazz scene. Those who had played free before had introduced free playing as sections, snippets amongst what was perceived at the limits of a genre — but with Coleman the flood gates were opened.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: In Part 1 of this in-depth study on the development of free jazz, Sammy Stein highlights the key role that Lennie Tristano played.]

In the late 1960s, free music scenes really developed, partly due to political changes and social issues. Events like the civil rights riots in the 1960s and changes in European thinking led to people seeking new ways of expressing themselves and using music as a medium under which to do so.
A new spiritualism worked its way into the music, allowing musicians to plumb the depths of their heart, break bonds and explore the limits of their instrument and art. Monk played with riffs, bridges and sometimes whole tunes leading to a freer style.

A fortuitous meeting with John Coltrane led to fusion of two contrasting yet perfectly balanced musical minds. Monk played with complexity, each phrase measured, often repeated, carefully placed whilst Coltrane played with an enthusiasm and unfettered improvisation centered on Monk’s music. Coltrane did not take the time Monk took to evolve out of one style into another: He played free from the start. In the 1960s, Monk became established as an improviser and remained essentially bebop — yet at the same time developed the music into something else. Free jazz as the norm was almost creeping up on people.

Ian Storer, host at the Victoria Jazz Club in Bristol comments: “For me, free jazz (or avant garde) is improvised music with little preconceived form. It’s tagged under the umbrella of the broad jazz church, in the open music style it has always been. With jazz, it was Mingus and pianist George Russell taking an extension to bebop as a development from Gillespie, Parker and most importantly, Monk.”

Both Monk and Mingus helped push jazz to new limits and subtly, changes were happening. Long before Coleman, the stage was set, after Coleman the door was pushed open and since then free jazz has developed beyond some listeners’ wildest dreams or, as some traditionalist would say, developed into their worst nightmares.

In the late 1960s, the scene was once again divided and there came about a unique combination of circumstances which led to an accelerated period of explosive creativity and the evolution of free jazz. Interest in bebop was declining and jazz was losing many listeners to the seductive tones of rock, pop, soul and fusion which sought to link genres. This meant that a section of jazz players sought something different. The world was ready for free jazz and now, far from being subtly introduced under the umbrella of other genres, it found its own identity and was born as an accepted and distinct genre.

Yet, the development was far from over.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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Sammy Stein
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