Free jazz

Free jazz is an approach to jazz that developed in the 1960s when musicians attempted to change or break down jazz conventions, such as regular tempos, tones, and chord changes. Musicians during this period believed that the bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz that had been played before them was too limiting. They became preoccupied with creating something new. Free jazz has often been combined with or substituted for the term "avant-garde jazz". Europeans tend to favor the term "free improvisation". Others have used "modern jazz", "creative music", and "art music".

The ambiguity of free jazz presents problems of definition. Although it is usually played by small groups or individuals, free jazz big bands have existed. Although musicians and critics claim it is innovative and forward looking, it draws on early styles of jazz and has been described as an attempt to return to primitive, often religious, roots. Although jazz is an American invention, free jazz musicians drew heavily from world music and ethnic music traditions from around the world. Sometimes they played foreign instruments, unusual instruments, or invented their own. They emphasized emotional intensity and sound for its own sake.


Ornette Coleman
Pharoah Sanders

Some jazz musicians resist any attempt at classification. One difficulty is that most jazz has an element of improvisation. Many musicians draw on free jazz concepts and idioms, and free jazz was never entirely distinct from other genres. But free jazz does have its own characteristics. Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane used harsh overblowing or other extended techniques to elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments. Like other forms of jazz it places an aesthetic premium on expressing the "voice" or "sound" of the musician, as opposed to the classical tradition in which the performer is seen more as expressing the thoughts of the composer.

Earlier jazz styles typically were built on a framework of song forms, such as twelve-bar blues or the 32-bar AABA popular song form with chord changes. In free jazz, the dependence on a fixed and pre-established form is eliminated, and the role of improvisation is correspondingly increased.

Other forms of jazz use regular meters and pulsed rhythms, usually in 4/4 or (less often) 3/4. Free jazz retains pulsation and sometimes swings but without regular meter. Frequent Accelerando and ritardando give an impression of rhythm that moves like a wave.[1]

Previous jazz forms used harmonic structures, usually cycles of diatonic chords. When improvisation occurred, it was founded on the notes in the chords. Free jazz almost by definition is free of such structures, but also by definition (it is, after all, "jazz" as much as it is "free") it retains much of the language of earlier jazz playing. It is therefore very common to hear diatonic, altered dominant and blues phrases in this music.

Guitarist Marc Ribot commented that Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler "although they were freeing up certain strictures of bebop, were in fact each developing new structures of composition." [2] Some forms use composed melodies as the basis for group performance and improvisation. Free jazz practitioners sometimes use such material. Other compositional structures are employed, some detailed and complex.[1]:276

The breakdown of form and rhythmic structure has been seen by some critics to coincide with jazz musicians' exposure to and use of elements from non-Western music, especially African, Arabic, and Indian. The atonality of free jazz is often credited by historians and jazz performers to a return to non-tonal music of the nineteenth century, including field hollers, street cries, and jubilees (part of the "return to the roots" element of free jazz). This suggests that perhaps the movement away from tonality was not a conscious effort to devise a formal atonal system, but rather a reflection of the concepts surrounding free jazz. Jazz became "free" by removing dependence on chord progressions and instead using polytempic and polyrhythmic structures.[3]

Rejection of the bop aesthetic was combined with a fascination with earlier styles of jazz, such as dixieland with its collective improvisation, as well as African music. Interest in ethnic music resulted in the use of instruments from around the world, such as Ed Blackwell's West African talking drum, and Leon Thomas's interpretation of pygmy yodeling.[4] Ideas and inspiration were found in the music of John Cage, Musica Elettronica Viva, and the Fluxus movement.[5]

Many critics, particularly at the music's inception, suspected that abandonment of familiar elements of jazz pointed to a lack of technique on the part of the musicians. Today such views are more marginal, and the music has built a body of critical writing.[6]

Many critics have drawn connections between the term "free jazz" and the American social setting during the late 1950s and 1960s, especially the emerging social tensions of racial integration and the civil rights movement. Many argue those recent phenomena such as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the emergence of the "Freedom Riders" in 1961, the 1963 Freedom Summer of activist-supported black voter registration, and the free alternative black Freedom Schools demonstrate the political implications of the word "free" in context of free jazz. Thus many consider free jazz to be not only a rejection of certain musical credos and ideas, but a musical reaction to the oppression and experience of black Americans.[7]

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