June 20, 2015


Torrential, Gut-Bucket Jazz (Geoff Dyer, 6/20/15, NY Review of Books)

One of the things that the most extreme first-generation of free players such as Ayler and Pharoah Sanders shared with Ornette was the experience of playing R&B in their journeyman years. The open-throated, gutbucket sound came as readily to them as breathing. This was every bit as important--and as present in their playing--as the tradition-shattering qualities that provoked such fierce hostility or reverence. Their musical apprenticeship earthed them and explains why free jazz was able to take root. Which makes it extraordinary that Charles Mingus--to say nothing of Roy Eldridge and Miles Davis--refused to hear what seems now to be a defining aspect of Ornette's sound. Surely Mingus, of all people, should have responded to the honk and holler, the cry and call. Miles's hostility was probably due, in some measure, to his highly developed sense of rivalry or threat. Unblemished by any such feelings, Coltrane was an immediate convert and an eager pupil.

Another irony about the way R&B underpinned such radical experimentation is that R&B has since become the blandest musical pap on the planet. Listening to contemporary R&B is about as challenging as listening to the Eagles. Ornette's early recordings for Atlantic (collected in the indispensable box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing), on the other hand, still sound far-out--and as drenched in blues and roots as a Mingus album.

Ah, but how old it's become, this still new-sounding music! In March I went to see Oliver Lake (seventy-two), Andrew Cyrille (seventy-five), and Reggie Workman (seventy-seven) at the Village Vanguard in New York--a legendary venue that has not been at the vanguard of anything for at least thirty years. With the best will in the world you couldn't say it was a great gig, though it's wonderful, of course, that Workman (who played with Coltrane) is still a working man. But you can't play their kind of music without taking the roof off the place. That's what Ornette's quartet did when they came east, to New York, in 1959. They didn't just take the roof off the 5 Spot; they took the roof off the idea of the roof and, as a result, left jazz exposed to the elements. In the following decade jazz became torrential.

As with so many revolutionary happenings this one began with a small cabal of initiates bonding together while the soon-to-be-shaken world looked and listened elsewhere. I find it incredibly moving to think of Cherry, Haden, and Blackwell (or Higgins) gathering at Ornette's place in Los Angeles to immerse themselves in his musical philosophy, playing a new kind of music in which the song's form could be dictated by collectively improvised melodic lines, rather than harmonic progressions. They're all dead now. Ornette outlived everyone in Old and New Dreams, the band of his alumni (including Dewey Redman on tenor) devoted to exploring his music, its legacy and potential.

It hardly needs emphasizing that the desire for freedom in jazz is bound up with the larger dreams of freedom itself. This, obviously, is a vast topic, one that cries out for treatment in a full-scale documentary film (especially since the relevant episode from Ken Burns's otherwise magnificent series was so cursory). To simplify things let's stick to a few obvious examples.

Sonny Rollins's Freedom Suite (1958) was a pre-Coleman declaration of musical and political liberation--but there was no explicit statement of this conflation on the album. And the music on offer was still sufficiently conservative for a cover version of a Noel Coward tune to sit happily alongside the ambitious title piece. Recorded two years later, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite by Max Roach (who played drums on the Rollins album) was explicitly interventionist, with its cover featuring a news photograph of a lunch counter sit-in. Even after the smaller-scale detonations of Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Change of the Century (1960), his album Free Jazz (1961) was a musically incendiary event, but Ornette tended to play down the connection between his musical project and the larger social turbulence of which it might have seemed a product and expression. Hereafter, however, "free" playing became so ideologically freighted that the struggle to gain acceptance for this music--the purpose and attraction of which lay, to a considerable degree, in the way that it was audibly unacceptable to a significant portion of the population--became part of a larger struggle.

The problem, of course, is that freedom for the sake of freedom is a worthless thing.  Freedom is important only when it is a means to an end, rather than the end in itself.  When jazz freed itself of even the necessity that the music be beautiful it distanced itself from the population and headed down the same dead end as modern art, architecture and literature. As Mr. Dyer accidentally suggests, it appeals to us only to the extent it references traditional R&B.

Posted by at June 20, 2015 11:56 AM

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