that set jazz -- and its fans -- free
If art is the expression of individual vision
-- and that's as good a definition as any -- then it stands to reason that consumers of
art must be willing to open to their minds to possibility in order to appreciate the
In music, this means that, in some sense, musicians have to educate their listeners to
hear in unaccustomed ways. Reciprocally, the listener who aspires to an understanding and
accompanying appreciation of the music must be willing to hear the contents of performance
for what it is instead of damning it for what it is not.
Jazz periodically goes through upheavals that leave its fans bewildered, often to the
detriment of the genre itself. Listeners, after all, are likely to abandon that which they
don't understand, retreating to the comfort of the familiar -- and thus standing still in
any meaningful quest for understanding -- or switching allegiance to another genre
altogether and forgoing the opportunity to learn.
From blues, to the early days of traditional New Orleans jazz, on to the Big Band Era,
bebop, smooth, electronic, funk and beyond, loyal jazz fans are well acquainted with the
occasional eruption of tinkering with the structure of composition. Often these attempts
are fruitless and the attempts die out just short of establishing a sub-genre.
But occasionally, musicians find a vein to mine unheralded, and their persistence can
result in a change of perception among listeners that is no less galvanic for its being
gradual. It is as if we all were to wake up one day with a sudden craving for the sounds
of the theremin without quite knowing quite how we acquired it.
The early free jazz movement always has seemed to me to be a perfect example of the slow
and subtle shifts over time that, despite the sub-genre's initial reception by reactionary
critics and fans, has served jazz well for more than four decades. And Ornette Coleman,
Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor stand as its most important purveyors.
It is now nearly a half-century since Ornette Coleman splashed his way onto the Los
Angeles and then New York jazz scenes, packing a plastic alto saxophone and enough
temerity to try his hand, untrained, at the trumpet and violin, a boldness that did not
endear him to the West Coast hipsters and the established boppers of the Big Apple. Miles
Davis, for example, was offended and disparaging of Coleman's boldness and, being Miles,
wasn't shy about offering his opinions on the subject.
Nevertheless, the meaning of Coleman's gaudy crash into the limelight has more to do with
advancing the cause and changing the ears of jazz fans than with shock for the sake of
shock. Miles Davis is rightly considered to have been ahead of his time almost every step
of the way in a long and valuable career. It is ironic that Coleman, whose experiments
were founded on his firm notion of "harmolodics" -- a system of group harmonic
and melodic improvisation that admitted of all tones, pitches, timbres -- has not been
accorded the same level of respect.
I submit that it is his due, and wish that jazz fans who wrote him off during the 1960s
would go back and give another listen to the tracks from "Shape Of Jazz To Come"
[Atlantic, 1959] or "Free Jazz" [Atlantic, 1960]. They will hear in a different
way, as Coleman's influence, through the intervening years of psychedelic rock, fusion
jazz and, yes, even the current hip-hop culture, folds back on itself. What was once
unlistenable to some has become mainstream, a beneficent peculiarity of jazz.
On "Free Jazz" we also find the contributions of Eric Dolphy, a versatile reed
man who brought the bass clarinet over from the classical stage and smack into the middle
of Coleman's malleable experiments. Dolphy's early death at 36 in 1964 closed the book on
his multi-instrumental muse.
But the avant-garde that he represented and helped nurture gave us such of his
associations as those with Booker Little, Gunther Schuller, George Russell, Charlie Haden,
Chico Hamilton, Freddie Hubbard, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins ... and the list goes on.
His was a mission to explore the possibilities -- and, if possible, to expand them -- of
the alto sax, the flute and the bass clarinet. The latter hasn't made an appearance of any
real significance in jazz since Dolphy's time, but his influence, and that of James Moody,
has made the flute a commonplace presence on the jazz bandstand.
The classic Dolphy recording, by consensus, is "Out To Lunch" [Blue Note, 1964],
but others bear checking out for a quick glimpse of the importance of his influence. I
recommend "Candid Dolphy" [Candid, 1961], which features Kenny Dorham, Ted
Curson and Abbey Lincoln; "Eric Dolphy And Booker Little" [Prestige, 1961] and,
finally, "Last Date" [PolyGram] just to get you started.
The third, and perhaps the most problematic, of our free jazz triumvirate is pianist Cecil
Taylor, who has endured decades of abuse from the closed-minded, yet who is now in his
sixth decade as a performer who has not surrendered his vision.
One of the eternal debates surrounding Taylor's work is where he fits into the jazz canon.
On the surface, his improvisational abilities are enough to qualify him, but there is
something of the concert pianist in his work. In one sense, he is neither fish nor fowl.
In another, he is as free as jazz gets. In the words of jazz historian Gary Giddens, he
fills a "holy role as the eternal curve of the avant-garde, [and] it isn't his
function to make things easy."
If it's ease you seek, give Taylor a wide berth. But never, ever, write him off.
For a taste of Taylor in a solo context, give a listen to "Fly, Fly, Fly, Fly,
Fly" [MPS, 1981].
Taylor's method always has been cerebral, bold and unapologetic. He does not suit every
taste, but, then, what artist does? What he represents is the everlasting search for the
new and a constant awareness of possibility that produces all relevant art. The approach
has been novel for more than a half-century. That is quite an achievement.
And when the talents of these three innovators are considered together, they represent a
turning point in the very way we hear jazz. And that achievement has made accessible as
art an entire field of music that once was merely curiosity.