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Both Directions at Once: Free Jazz’s Dual Ventures into Musical Experimentation and Political Involvement

By Evan Ruderman | Position Paper

On August 23rd, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech widely regarded as one of the most powerful in American history. Over a quarter million people listened eagerly to King’s urgent words of hope and desire, entranced by his dream of liberation and fellowship. Without gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s urging call to “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin,” King may not have improvised the memorable second half of his address, including the famous phrase “I have a dream” for which the speech is known today (Crockett). Among his aspiring words, he desperately called out for unity, imploring that “with this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” (King).

Two and a half years before King’s landmark speech, eight musicians gathered in New York City under the leadership of renowned jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman to record the groundbreaking album “Free Jazz,” which established the birth of a subgenre that flourished in the subculture of African-American America throughout the extent of the 1960s (“A Reasoned Cacophony”). Free jazz, characterized by an utter lack of formal structure and strange, avant-garde melodies and noise, has been debated since its creation regarding the true nature of its intent and inspiration. As slave spirituals from the 1800s cried out using lyrics longing for freedom from subjugation, did free jazz represent a similar musical voice of rebellion in the turbulent 1960s?

In this paper, I will argue that the dream of King and multitudes of African-Americans in the 1960s for a more perfect union through kinship and equality was captured in the microcosm of this “redemptive community,” namely Coleman’s double quartet and the successive free jazz ensembles in years to come (Meier). Through the creation of free jazz, each band functioned as an idealistic society in which each member has equal representation in the piece performed and no restraints. I begin with a survey of the history and development of jazz to contextualize and highlight its continual relationship with social reform. I offer evidence throughout in the forms of analysis of direct sources of musicians, landmark musical works, and contemporary history to illuminate the unbreakable ties between politics, civil rights, and free jazz. Finally, I will discuss an overview of the late 1960s and how cynicism, built up over years of protest with no positive outcome, resulted in an eventual shift from idealism to pragmatism, causing free jazz to ultimately pursue a representation of the solidarity of the Black Power movement. In the process, I hope to present free jazz as one example of an art movement whose development flourished in significance due to its unbreakable ties to the culture and politics of the time in which it was popularized. By recognizing this as a valid perspective through which more knowledge and context of the art can be gained, it can be utilized throughout different mediums and time periods to solidify a nuanced understanding of both the art itself and the zeitgeist of the era in which it appears.

African-American music derived its roots in rebellion and hopeful idealism from the time of antebellum America, and it has flourished to a more prolific height in the decades since. Worked to the bone day in and day out, many slaves only found solace through belief in a higher power, a joyful afterlife, and a coming day of redemption and liberation. As such, many of the first slave songs were rife with intensely Biblical lyrics. “No more shall they in bondage toil,” one spiritual cried out, hoping that liberation would come for American slaves just as Moses freed the Israelites. (Armstrong)

Decades later, the birth and development of a new genre of music, jazz, found just as many composers, instrumentalists, and singers alike using the platform of music to express distaste with the state of America and a desire for equality. The legendary Duke Ellington claimed that “the characteristic, melancholic music of my race has been forged from the very white heat of our sorrows,” and famous dirges such as “Strange Fruit” sung by Billie Holiday of black lynchings in the South only further strengthen the ties of their music to their political and social struggles as African Americans in the early 1900s (Tucker 49) (Lynskey). Meanwhile, jazz itself was becoming more and more of a counterculture phenomenon, transforming from popular dance music to the more contemplative bebop style in which musicians hoped to gain respect for the artistic qualities of their performance.

As such, the eventual birth of free jazz found itself at a crossroads of both musical and social development, the perfect combination to enact a memorable artistic movement in the riot and tumble of the early 1960s. This was recognized by critics and the public alike, as Eric Drott explains in his analysis of free jazz’s popularity in France. Due to the rise of radical political expression and student protests in France during the 1960s, Drott illustrates that this fostered a context that generated interest in the genre as an ideal to attain, whose “practitioners were viewed as having struck a near-perfect balance between aesthetic transgression and political expression” (546). Recognizing the source of its popularity in a politically turbulent nature helps highlight how it could become just as much phenomenon in the USA, but restricted to those communities in which protest thrived. As free jazz saxophonist John Coltrane claimed to “start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once,” free jazz rebelled and evolved in a multifaceted way, both politically and musically (Havers).

Scholar Mark Gridley contests this by asserting that “using jazz as a tool of personal protest toward social injustice” is largely a fabrication by the media of the time to sow unrest in listeners and unethically garner support for their personal agendas (Gridley, 139). A previous paper of his similarly concluded that Coltrane solos considered “angry” sounding by the media were only considered as such by the public when the individual polled already had an angry temperament (Gridley and Hoff, 153). He concludes that free jazz was not at all influenced by politics of the time, and developed in a fully separate manner (Gridley, 145). Indeed, as Catherine Kodat notes, free jazz is even largely brushed off as a legitimate form of expression at all, instead often considered “a largely mistaken side trip in the smoothly progressive, historicist model of the jazz ‘tradition’” determined by academics attempting to solidify a “jazz canon” (9).

Gridley’s claim is supported by the existence of relatively dramatic reports by media on jazz and its relations to politics, such as Frank Kovsky, who Gridley claims unsuccessfully attempted to “graft his own political agenda” onto saxophonist Albert Ayler by unsuccessfully “coaxing Ayler to endorse Black anger as a root of Ayler's music” (145). Claims that a specific Coltrane solo was purposefully meant to convey anger when Coltrane himself never attested to this fact, and Gridley’s study proved conclusively that this is not perceived to be the case by many also strengthen his argument. However, I believe that it is reductive and disingenuous to claim that free jazz and politics were entirely detached from the other. When considering the ample evidence of direct quotes from jazz musicians such as Archie Shepp, who claimed that the purpose of African-American jazz artists “ought to be to liberate America aesthetically and socially from its inhumanity,” and even entire jazz suites such as Max Roach’s album “Freedom Now” explicitly pursuing political motives in music, it is particularly difficult to argue otherwise, especially to the drastic extent that Gridley pursues (Kofsky, 9) (Monson). Gridley rests an inordinate amount of his argument on the case that the “true” originators of free jazz pursued the music for only experimental reasons and not political. However, as Brian Harker notes, Gridley’s explanation that free jazz was not birthed directly as a result of politics is a strawman fallacy, as no scholar argues that this is the case (Harker 157). The argument instead is that involvement of politics and music is a considerably nuanced engagement in which neither directly caused the other, but instead built off of each other throughout the decade. As Harker says, a subgenre such as free jazz that so distinctly embraces pillars of freedom and self-expression even in its very name implies that “the simultaneous reinforcement of these values in black politics might represent a bridge between the two realms” (158). It is then clear that the subgenre holds both artistic merit of its own in addition to expressing social commentary, and to claim otherwise would not be truly painting a full picture of the importance and context of free jazz in 1960s America.

In its initial foray into the musical world, free jazz was found in a unique situation of not only recognizing and protesting the problem at hand, regarding the treatment and inequality of African-Americans, but also offering a solution to the political issue similar to the ideals voiced by King in many of his writings and speeches. In one, King wrote of a “redemptive community” of brotherhood in which each member of society gains individuality through their entrance into the community instead of sacrificing part of themselves for the greater good of the nation (Meier). The landmark album that established free jazz, Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz,” protests the current state of America by embodying an example of King’s redemptive community throughout the album. Eight musicians perform entirely improvised music for upwards of half an hour with no restraints set forth by musical key or rhythm- instead, each musician is encouraged to develop their own unique melodies that layer and conversate in a complex and fascinating manner. Seen through the lens of self-expression and individualism within a group context, as academic Charles Hersch said, it becomes easier to see “free jazz performances as a musical enactment of the ideas of freedom put forward in the growing civil rights movement” (Hersch 114). It may sound discordant at first, but Coleman’s album essentially produced a model for an ideal America, a “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” that King strived for represented entirely through music.

Other scholars, who agree that free jazz’s political influences are extensive, also seek to locate the specific nature and function of free jazz on the continuum of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of representing a model community like those spoken of by King, John Baskerville claims that free jazz has a closer association with Black Power, an ideology characterized by the rejection of “white” ideas and prioritizing liberation over nonviolence, epitomized in such famous phrases as Malcolm X’s “any means necessary” (Baskerville 485) (X). Unlike King, who theorized a harmonious alliance between all races, Black Power decreed solidarity for the African-American race, even if it meant seclusion from the others. Baskerville lists several examples of actions taken by African-American free jazz musicians to illuminate this connection, including the extended lengths of musical performances to rebel against white jazz club owners who profited off of shorter sets, and musicians who decided to ignore the system entirely and perform out of their own lofts (488-489). Not only did rebellion persist in these physical examples but also in the music itself. Baskerville adds that free jazz musicians quickly adopted “the rejection of White-imposed identifications,” and this could easily be argued to be apparent in the rejection of traditional Western harmonic and melodic content in free jazz of the time. He further refers to some examples of this type of music being called “antijazz” due to its drastic musical differences, which is a clear sign of the success of the rebellion to be so drastically disowned by the genre of music from which it hoped to seek liberation (487).

I counter that the association between free jazz and Black Power did not truly develop until the latter half of the 1960s. As discussed previously, an analysis of the album “Free Jazz” shows an idealistic optimism, but, as is self-evident by a cursory view of American history, this model nation set forth in music did not ever come to light. As such, the hopes and dreams of King, Coleman and the like faltered as the injustices of the decade dragged on and on. Hersch notes that “the tremendous white resistance to change became apparent” soon after 1960, and with that came shattered idealism (115). Music that once represented a generation’s desire for peace and fraternity came to represent a new set of morals, those of the Black Power movement. Before music and society could build a better world, “African Americans first had to consolidate their own ranks” (116). As will be seen, this consolidation is not only apparent through a shift in the intent behind the art, but in the content of the music itself.

The differences between the idealistic free jazz of 1960 and the pragmatic free jazz of the mid and late 1960s become stark when two of the most well known albums of the subgenre are compared- the aforementioned “Free Jazz,” and John Coltrane’s masterpiece, “Ascension.” Recorded five years after “Free Jazz,” Coltrane’s ensemble of eleven musicians retains the most common characteristics of free jazz, namely the unrestrained nature of each player, and the complete lack of any previously devised meter, form, or melodies. However, the listening experience for each is entirely unique for several distinct reasons. “Ascension” prioritizes texture and noise over the individual melodies constructed by each musician, where in “Free Jazz,” each musician can be heard as a distinct voice in the piece. This extends to the point where some sections cannot even be classified as traditional melody- instead, the instruments are used to create squeals and honks personifying the primal passion and protest inherent in the piece. Hersch encapsulates the differences as conversation in “Free Jazz” compared to a ritual in “Ascension,” or “an act of transcendence rather than of liberation” (Hersch, 116). The pure energy and emotion found in Coltrane’s album does not serve each individual in a liberating community that King envisioned, but instead contributes only to the collective, in this case, the Black Power movement.

This representative of the shattered idealism of the late 1960s through music seems natural considering the extent of heartbreaking events to supporters of the Civil Rights Movement during these years. Protests ending in the deaths of loved ones, slow adoption of any sort of relief on a national scale, and the assassinations of public figures who proclaimed peace, change, and equality, including King himself, all contributed to the pessimism that permeated the era. When viewed from this perspective, Gridley’s previous claims that politics did not influence free jazz do not hold up under examination, even later in the decade. Many musicians pursued political goals, and Harker notes that even those who did not explicitly must still have been affected by the intensity of the movement. He claims that Gridley “assumes that progressive artists can choose to work independently of the biggest ideas saturating their culture,” which demonstrates the contradictory nature of Gridley’s belief (Harker, 158). Any progressive musician in turn must draw directly or indirectly some level of influence from contemporary events, here being the civil rights movement as a whole.

Although King’s vision of an ideal community of empathy, conversation, and individual importance did not come into being on a large scale in the United States, the significance of Coleman and other’s recreations of such a collective through representation in music remains an interesting experiment and hallmark in the history of jazz. A subgenre defined by its inability to function as easy listening or even discredited by jazz historians as being significant at all contains a surprising wealth of intent and expression beneath the surface. After all, it is a brilliant subversion of King’s famous quote- outwardly, it seems to be nothing but dissonance and chaos, but at least for a few short years before the reality of the 1960s set in, it successfully endeavored to embody the Georgian minister’s “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” (King).


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