Styles & Forms | Free Jazz

Free jazz is seen by many as an avant-garde art form rather than a type of jazz, with its unpredictable rhythm and chord progressions. Evolving out of bebop in the 1940s and 1950s the exponents of free jazz abandoned traditional forms to expand the music’s creative possibilities, challenging mainstream listeners and players alike.

The first documented free jazz recordings were made by the pianist Lennie Tristano and his band for Capitol Records in 1949. He asked the other players to ignore keys, chord structures, time signatures and melodies for the sessions, and just focus on ‘reading into each others’ minds’. Capitol were not exactly happy about this, but they released the sessions as Crosscurrents (1949). Tristano was a pioneer; his unique contrapuntal and improvisational ideas inspired other bebop musicians to try expanding the boundaries of jazz.

Coleman And Taylor

Although Tristano and his fellow musicians had been indulging in free jazz improvisation in the 1940s, the term free jazz was not used in earnest until the saxophonist Ornette Coleman released his first album in 1958. Coleman started out by playing Charlie Parker-style alto sax in Fort Worth, Texas, during the 1940s, before he moved to Los Angeles in 1950. He worked there as a lift operator, studied music theory and developed some radical ideas about jazz composition. Although these ideas were initially rejected by most of LA’s jazz elite, Coleman eventually found enough allies to form a band: Don Cherry (trumpet), Don Payne (bass), Walter Norris (piano) and Billy Higgins (drums). They recorded Something Else!!!! (1958), an original collection of atonal jazz compositions, for Contemporary Records, and it took the jazz world by storm. Coleman’s next record, The Shape Of Jazz To Come (1959), featured himself, Cherry and Higgins with bassist Charlie Haden. This trimmed-down band line-up showed more focus and a better realization of Coleman’s vision. The next offering, Free Jazz (1960), was the album that gave the style its name, although Coleman denied later that he had any intention of naming the new type of music he had been developing.

Coleman’s music was nothing short of revolutionary. He used traditional instrumentation and his music swung in a relatively conventional way, but the manner in which he dealt with tonality was extremely unusual. His tunes were based around quirky bebop motifs, and he would use the overall tonality of these to create space for unusually free and expressive solos. Traditional jazz critics initially dismissed this music as ‘anti-jazz’ because it did not fit in with their conceptions of what jazz should sound like. Nowadays, though, Coleman is seen as a true jazz pioneer, on a par with the likes of Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.

A seminal figure in the free jazz movement was Cecil Taylor who was inspired by Fats Waller’s single-note melodies and Dave Brubeck’s chord clusters, and went on to develop what many critics consider to...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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