The Innovators

'Jazz' Part 2: The Avant-Garde

Avant Titans (clockwise): Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman
Avant Titans (clockwise): Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman (By Robert Davies)

During the debate that took place regarding the merits of Ken Burns' PBS miniseries Jazz, it was pointed out that the filmmaker all but ignored new developments that took place in the music after 1960. Burns defended himself by claiming that he was a historian, not a journalist, and that historians had to wait decades before judging artists and their accomplishments.

Frankly, that sounds like a cop-out that Burns came up with after some writers started criticizing him about the incompleteness of his work. According to his logic, historians would have had to wait until about 1960 to render judgments about the efforts of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, musicians who were pretty much regarded as seminal innovators by their peers in 1935, if not earlier.

I think the reason Burns didn't deal with innovators like Albert Ayler, Joe Maneri, and Anthony Braxton had to do with their being less well known than Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and therefore less likely to draw viewers. Many musicians, critics, and historians consider Ayler, Maneri, and Braxton major innovators already, and Burns was wrong not to have acknowledged this.

The late Fifties might be a good place to begin dealing with the gaps in Jazz. Momentous changes were occurring within the modern jazz community, and a revolution was about to take place. At that time, jazz improvisation was almost always based on the foundation of the piece being played, that is, its chord progression. Since at least the early Thirties, however, when Art Tatum was already using substitute chords, jazz musicians took liberties with chord progressions.

In 1937, guitarist Django Reinhardt made what was, to my knowledge, the first free jazz recording, "Improvisation." It took place at the end of a session when the producer asked Reinhardt to cut an unaccompanied solo to fill the studio time. The Gypsy jazz king could've played blues or a standard, but instead, he did some stream-of-consciousness improving not based on a pre-set structure. "Improvisation" is an amazing performance, but at that time, no one -- not even Reinhardt -- realized that it would be a harbinger of things to come.

Through the Forties and Fifties, jazz artists continued to take liberties with chord progressions, reharmonizing pieces and playing notes not contained in the progressions they used. In 1949, pianist Lennie Tristano's band cut the first free jazz group recordings, "Intuition" and "Digression," for Capitol. A few more followed, including "Abstract No. 1," contained on a 1954 Shelly Manne trio selection on Contemporary, and "Free Form," cut in 1955 by Chico Hamilton's group for Pacific.

The Innovators

It was also during the Fifties that various jazz practitioners began thinking that the complex, tightly packed chord structures used in the bop and post-bop eras didn't allow improvisers enough time to think and make the best choice of notes. As a result, Miles Davis and Bill Evans began experimenting with modal improvising, during which the improvisers perform on a foundation that contains fewer components, theoretically allowing them to play more melodically. Modal jazz at its best can be heard on Davis' groundbreaking Kind of Blue album.

Simultaneously, Ornette Coleman appeared on the scene with Something Else and The Shape of Jazz to Come. Coleman didn't invent free jazz, but he was the first to perform it regularly; it was only a matter of time before someone took this inevitable step, and the Fort Worth saxophonist exerted a genre-wide influence within a couple of years. Actually, Coleman and another Fort Worth free jazzman, Prince Lasha, claim to have been influenced by local saxman Red Conner.

Another development that happened in the Sixties, but to my knowledge had gone unnoticed until I wrote about it 1974, was the movement of jazz improvisers away from swing. Swing had long been among jazz's defining characteristics, despite the fact that the buoyant rhythmic feeling known as swing was not present during the earliest days of jazz.

The first two musicians to swing emphatically on record were Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet in 1923. Their playing, while powerful, was also far more relaxed than the work of predecessors like Freddie Keppard and Kid Ory. Swing replaced ragtime rhythms in jazz. Indeed, Armstrong is sometimes given credit for inventing swing, although Bechet was right there with him. Swing proved to be very popular, and by the late Thirties, was commonly heard in pop as well as jazz recordings.

In the bebop era, musicians including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie swung not only with enormous power, but also with great rhythmic complexity. They developed swing about as far as it could go. There were a number of outstanding swingers among the next generation of jazzmen, the post-boppers, but generally speaking, there was a movement away from swing during the Fifties. The boppers slurred a great deal, while the post-boppers played in more angular, staccato style.

Ornette Coleman was, from a rhythmic standpoint, a transition figure who played syncopated, swinging figures sometimes, but also used wild flurries of notes that were not intended to swing. Even more radical and unorthodox rhythmically was pianist Cecil Taylor. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartok influenced Taylor, and even when he worked off chord progressions during his earliest recordings, he didn't seem interested in swinging.

Taylor's main jazz influence was Thelonious Monk, who didn't emphasize swing either, although his improvising was rhythmically fascinating, as was Taylor's. Swing has been equated with good music by many jazz fans, but that's not necessarily the case. I'd rather hear a musician play with rhythmic creativity and not swing, than swing using 40- and 50-year-old rhythmic clichés, ô la Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, James Carter, and Roy Hargrove.

It's fine for repertoire players like them to re-create music that was being played before they were born, just like it's okay for classical musicians to interpret 200-year-old compositions, but the greatest artists are the creators, not the re-creators.

The Innovators

So, is it correct to call music jazz if it doesn't swing? Well, you can categorize anything any way you want to, but pigeonholing music as swinging or non-swinging doesn't increase or decrease its merit. Since you've asked, though, if the unswinging music of pre-Armstrong jazz musicians like Ory and Keppard can be labeled jazz, so can the unswinging music of Ayler and Taylor. The latter's music draws obviously on Monk and Ellington, while Ayler works off of Coleman and Coltrane. It's in the jazz tradition.

Although a lot of free jazz recordings didn't swing, it should be pointed out that some did. Joe Henderson swung his tail off on his Milestone free recordings, as did Herbie Hancock on some of his Blue Note free selections. Parker-influenced free jazz altoist Joe Harriott swung at times. Miles Davis' 1965-67 band with Hancock and Wayne Shorter was all about swing.

Some of the most interesting early free recordings were by guys, including clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and pianist Paul Bley, who were fine bop and post-bop players. Giuffre's trio with Bley and bassist Steve Swallow indicated that free jazz could be lyrical and introspective. On the other hand, three very prominent free tenor saxmen, Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, and Archie Shepp, were extroverted to say the least, but when it came to playing straight-ahead jazz, technically limited, although Sanders later improved quite a bit.

With the coming of free jazz, bassists' and drummers' roles expanded. Increasingly they abandoned their timekeeping tasks in favor of being colorists, and sometimes moved into the front line with the hornmen during collectively improvised passages. With Coltrane, Elvin Jones implied but didn't state the beat, whereas Sonny Murray and Milford Graves didn't even imply it; they played counter rhythms.

There were a couple of prominent streams of bass playing. One involved economical, percussive playing and the use of double stops (playing two or more notes simultaneously). Wilbur Ware, who worked with post-boppers, could be considered the architect of this approach, influencing among others Charlie Haden, Coleman's bassist, who extended what Ware had done.

Scott LaFaro was another bass virtuoso, in the tradition of Charlie Mingus. He played relatively complex lines and used the upper register often. With the Bill Evans trio, LaFaro played counter lines rather than walking all of the time. Evans obligingly opened his solos with rests, allowing LaFaro's work to be heard. The two men engaged in stimulating dialogues until LaFaro died in a 1961 auto accident.

Many bassists drew ideas from both the LaFaro and Haden schools, an example being Barre Phillips, who frequently played arco and did a great deal of experimenting with extended techniques. Phillips' role as an innovator is not sufficiently appreciated in the States, as he's been an expatriate in Europe since the late Sixties. Nevertheless, he can be seen as a link between Haden and LaFaro and current experimenters such as Mark Dresser.

The Innovators

During the Sixties, collective improvisation became widely practiced, partly as a result of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz album on Atlantic, with music by a double quartet, including two trumpeters, two drummers, two bassists, Coleman on alto, and Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet. It was a controversial effort, causing an uproar in the jazz realm, but Coleman's concepts prevailed and are influential to this day.

The free jazz concept went about as far as it could in that all pre-set foundations for improvisation were dropped. It's hard to generalize the results of this concept, as each free jazzman brought different virtues and shortcomings to the table. Some came well-equipped.

They had broad and deep musical educations, plenty of resources derived from their knowledge of jazz and classical forms. If pre-set structures were eliminated, they could still come up with a way to organize their solos. Their heads were full of memorized phrases, and they knew how to put them together. They could also use composed themes, which free jazzmen still used to open performances, as points of departure for improvisation.

It's possible to improvise on a theme, to suggest it and retain some of its shape and mood, without staying within the confines of its chord structure. Examples of this practice include Coleman's version of "Embraceable You" on Atlantic and Joe Maneri's "Tenderly" on ECM. Free jazz wasn't really free, in that improvisers already had memorized licks, musical devices, and techniques that were brought into play during so-called free performances.

At the other end of the spectrum from the already accomplished and knowledgeable free improvisers were free players that had little training or practical experience, but didn't care because they could still express their emotions. Unfortunately their music was often boring; it didn't even the playing field for poorly trained and technically limited artists.

No matter who you are, technical limitations limit your ability to express yourself, to communicate. Nowhere is it written that free music should be performed at a particular volume, but in fact, much early free jazz was loud and aggressive. A lot was monotonous too, as many free jazzmen tended to stay on one chord or in one mode for long periods of time because they didn't know where to go from there.

By the end of the Sixties, there were a number of free jazzmen, Sanders, Frank Lowe, Frank Wright, playing harmonically static music as high, loud, and fast as possible. They'd developed in certain directions about as far as they could. There was only one way for jazz to evolve, and that was back to structures. But what sorts of structures would these be, old or new?

The Innovators

Over the next few decades, certain young jazz artists such as Marsalis and the young lions went backward, and their efforts were applauded by the mass media, but they contributed virtually nothing that was new to jazz's vocabulary. Others attempted to move the boundaries of jazz forward. These included the members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music) in Chicago, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (with Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Lester Bowie), and Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Henry Threadgill. Bowie was also affiliated with a similar group in St. Louis, BAG (Black Artists Group) containing Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett.

Much of their work, which involved both the use of free jazz improvisation and ingenious arrangements, was anticipated by Sun Ra, born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Ala., 1914. Sun Ra took ideas from everywhere and synthesized them as no one had before. His arranging, influenced by Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Tadd Dameron, was modern and timeless.

He pioneered the possibilities of electronic keyboard instruments. He added auxiliary percussion (e.g. tympani) to his rhythm section. He used instruments associated with classical music (e.g. piccolo and oboe). He and his band members invented or modified instruments such as the Neptunian libflecto, a bassoon with either a French horn or alto sax mouthpiece. He did multimedia programs that included light shows, dance, and drama. He claimed he was born on Saturn and had been an Egyptian pharaoh.

Sun Ra also put together unique instrumental combinations that varied widely in size and makeup. His sidemen did a lot of doubling, producing a wide variety of tone colors and textures. Together, the Sun Ra Arkestra made many recordings, many on his Saturn label, which were poorly distributed. Some of the best of these are currently available on the Evidence imprint, including The Magic City, an amazing work.

From the late Sixties to the present, some avant-garde musicians have experimented with improvisation based on pre-set foundations other than the types of chord progressions used by boppers. These include tone centers (reaching toward one given pitch) and tone rows (a series of pitches from the chromatic scale providing the basic structure for a given composition). In other words, throughout the Seventies, the avant-garde wasn't about just no-holds-barred free improvisation.

Until the Eighties, most of the major innovators in jazz were African-American, while most of the retro musicians, Dixieland and swing revivalists, were white. During the Reagan era, a role reversal took place. Led by Wynton Marsalis, young African-American traditionalists were hailed by Time and PBS as jazz's saviors. At the same time, whites were becoming increasingly involved in the jazz avant-garde, although Marsalis denied that what they were playing was jazz, because they didn't emphasize swinging or bluesiness enough. Actually he took a dim view of free jazz.

Alto saxman/composer Tim Berne, a student and admirer of Julius Hemphill, was among the major musicians to emerge during this era. Another altoist, John Zorn, was also in the thick of this, as a composer, leader, and one-man avant-garde. His quartet Masada demonstrated a klezmer influence, while his bands Painkiller and Naked City were rooted partly in rock. Zorn also experimented with game pieces such as Cobra, in which a band leader communicates with his group via hand signals in the process of creating music.

One Zorn sideman, trumpeter Dave Douglas, demonstrated the influence of composers such as Stravinsky and Webern in his work for trumpet and strings, Parallel Worlds (Soul Note). Having played with Zorn's Masada ensemble, Douglas brought an Eastern European (Hungarian, Bulgarian) influence into the music of his Tiny Bell Trio. Other musicians who've blended Eastern European music, with its odd meters and modal improvisation, and jazz include reedmen Matt Darriau and Chris Speed, and guitarist Brad Shepik. Drummer Jim Black has also played in various contexts with Speed and Douglas, and ranks with Joey Baron, Randy Peterson, and Michael Sarin among the finest avant-garde percussionists.

Arguably the most impressive improviser to emerge in the new music scene of the Nineties was saxophonist, clarinetist, pianist Joe Maneri, who was born in 1927, but was so far out during the Sixties that no one knew what to make of him. Private tapes of Maneri's, some of which have been issued on Paniot's Nine (Avant), demonstrate that he was playing free jazz in the Fifties and Sixties. Since 1970, Maneri has taught at the New England Conservatory of Music, and all of his albums on Avant, ECM, Hatology, and Leo are well worth checking out.

Due to improvements in transportation, communication, and education, many young musicians currently have a working knowledge of several genres from which they can choose and blend elements. Douglas made this comment about genre synthesizing:

"All forms are compatible. It's all one continuum, but there are separate areas and people develop expertise in different areas. That's what makes New York great. You can find experts in any genre or field there if you want to. If someone were to learn in depth the traditions of several genres their unique music would just happen naturally; it would be an organic process. There are infinite degrees along the scale of blending."

Currently, it seems that musicians from all over the world are listening to and being influenced by each other. Genres are bleeding into one another, and new ones are being created. Jazz is one of the strongest elements in this international mix, as the work of the artists discussed above illustrate. Musicians like Marsalis who want to preserve the music of the past serve a valuable purpose, but keep what they do in perspective. It's the innovators who keep the arts alive and growing. end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Harvey Pekar
Hey, Emily
Hey, Emily

Aug. 8, 2008

Better Git It in Your Soul
Better Git It in Your Soul
Charles Mingus Among Us

June 16, 2006


Ken Burns, Jazz, avant-garde

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle