Monday, February 4, 2008

Looking Beyond Conservative Jazz To The Outside

Free jazz. The New Thing. Abstract jazz. The Outside. Anti-jazz.

It's been called many things, by many people.

It would probably be more accurate to define this
free jazz as the music played by Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and the later Coltrane, amongst others. It doesn't really answer to any of those labels, for it wasn't entirely free of the classical chord progressions of early jazz, neither was it new rooted as it was in the blues, it wasn't anti-jazz and whatever else it was, it wasn't abstract.

[An aside: Something really creepy happened now, as I was typing this out: The strains of really strained reed instrument sounded outside my door. It reminded me of Ornette Coleman's saxophone. Half-convinced I was losing it, finally, and about time, I went outside. Turned out it was the familiar bull-and-shehnai begging ensemble. Phew. His playing, with its clinical progressions,
does remind me of Coleman, and that's exactly why I prefer Dolphy to Coleman, but more on that outside the parenthesis.]

Eric Dolphy (image left) was the towering figure, in my opinion, in the free jazz movement. While Coleman's contributions are beyond question, it is Dolphy who makes his overstrained saxophone sound like a bluesman's song. His music could be described as being pushed to its limits, in the act of playing, of performance, not in composition. And although his compositions are exceptional, it is

Dolphy's playing that stretched the limits of his instrument, not conceptually, in abstract terms,
but in praxis, in concrete terms. Dolphy's overstrained playing reminds me of the blues, not the thump-and-grind affair it became later, but of Robert Johnson's (image right) plaintive keening. And this applies to all free jazz musicians, even Coleman. And it is in act of pushing the performance to its limits during the moment of unfolding that free jazz recalls the great theatre theorist Antonin Artaud whose term cruelty described exactly that. [Ironically for someone who valued praxis above all else, translating Artaud's ideas entirely is close to impossible. But more on that some other time.]

Free jazz has faced a lot of flak, mostly for its perceived lack of harmony and structure. I tend to think this reaction is directly related to issues of race. The structural complexities of jazz make it easier to forget that it was ultimately an assertion of racial identity in the face of brutal oppression. The call-and-response, the improvisation, the more-or-less democratic ensemble playing of free jazz (even more than in bebop earlier) seem to suggest a political statement that went far beyond merely protesting against oppression. It was an identity that went above and beyond the protest. When compared to earlier jazz forms such as the sanitized compositions of the swing era - where even someone as conservative as Sinatra was a leading jazz singer - free jazz is nothing less than radically subversive.

And it is perhaps exactly this that makes conservatives in jazz revile fiery free jazz, an ever-evolving, living art form, while elevating staid swing era to classical status bestowing on it the sanitizing greatness of the canon.