III :: Free Jazz and Free Improvisation
By Mark Abraham | 5 October 2006
So, Retconning is late this month, for which I apologize, but I was in Chicago doing research. And since Chicago has such a vibrant free jazz history, maybe delaying it until after the trip was a good thing—morning walks between Dom’s apartment and the Gerber/Hart GLBT historical archives near Granville station allowed me to listen to the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s work in the spindly concrete environment that inspired it, which got me thinking about what free jazz means. Because, like, every turn in Chicago has a dead end, which means there is no climax—only brilliant sights along the way. I got into one of my whole internal turn-it-inside-out-athons and ran back at five to tell Dom, but he wasn’t home yet. I tried to talk about it with Edgar, but he just slumped off in a huff. I tried to tell the dog, but my apparently puppy-hating heart scared it off. It was very anticlimactic; I had my own dead-end; that’s how this stuff gets you.
But you can’t really just understand what free jazz is purely in terms of how it sounds. It’s political, because even if the more powerful image of the New Left and countercultural zeitgeist in the ’60s and early ’70s is that of the youth of America and Europe coming together to rebel against oppression and inequality, we sometimes forget that older activists and fringe artists experienced that sea change too. For jazz, free jazz was the result, and the process is fascinating: attack political and social concepts of order by replacing the structure of the dominant order—which limited bodies by the imperatives of suburban geographies, workplace and wage, gendered expectations, and familial obligations—with traditional jazz concepts of ordered musical structure. In other words, every toot and squeal is a lecture on oppression, every swoop and swerve a demand for reform, and every nutso drum fill a cultural cluster of angst fueled by Vietnam, race riots, military response to student activism, Stalinism, and sheer anger.
But it’s schizophrenic too. For African Americans, each victory of Civil Rights post-Brown v. The Board of Education—the Freedom Rides, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Loving v. Virginia—was tempered by an obvious increase in urban racial segregation and economic disparity, the consequent race riots, and an increasing number of dead Civil Rights leaders. Early free jazz was as much about Black Power as it was about widespread liberal dissent, because it was about reclaiming the black musicians place in the world—bebop got popular with white audiences, who weren’t really helping with black problems, so fuck bebop. For Europeans, who would join the free jazz experiment in the late ‘60s, the music dealt with the decreased presence of the European community in a bipolar American/Soviet axis, and criticism of that axis, whether it be the mire of Vietnam and global capitalism or the constricted world behind Breznev’s Iron Curtain. Either route resulted in some of the wildest protest music ever, and by the time the genre moved towards free improvisation in the late ’60s, jazz in the post-Woodstock world was the most angry music you could find (yes—angrier than Iggy). And yet beauty always exists in that anger (perhaps unlike Iggy), because this music is all about hope, celebration, and resistance—in the long sixties, it was looking to a future where capitalism, communism, and racism might not exist, and even if all three still do, these albums stand as powerful reminders of the way art can be incredibly political.
Free jazz lost momentum with jazz in general as prog and other more rock-orientated concepts of fusion began to capture the minds of an audience interested in improv. But the ideas have stayed alive. The Boredoms began as a noise-art punk combo, but they’re playing off free improv concepts. John Zorn and many of the original free jazz musicians have had a solid grip on the radical music scene in New York since the eighties (although that hold has lessened). Bailey was releasing fabulous albums right up to his death (check Ballads from 2002, where he attacks and deconstructs standards beautifully). In Europe, labels like Rune Grammofon have been releasing wonderful free jazz experiments in the last few years (including moHa!‘s Raus Aus Stavanger and Humcrush’s
But the real effect of free jazz on music in general is the way it allowed musics to see what happened when you opened up structure itself as an idea to toy with. Fundamentally important albums in the sixties that set new directions for rock (like the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! ) adopted both the style and the concept of space that free jazz artists were so fascinated with. As folk rock erupted into full on psychedelia, the basic tenents of free jazz became part of rock culture. So, yeah, it’s important, but mostly I just love free jazz and free improv because nothing is more insanely and conflictedly beautiful than something at odds with itself. And that makes it incredibly real.