Jazz from its inception has been the voice of freedom. The particular natures of that freedom changed through time, but freedom it is every step of the way, the constant thread that stitches the notes together as they sing toward the liberation of the human spirit.
Perhaps the first freedom in the early days was to escape the tyranny of the printed page, to return music to the ear and the beating heart and the dancing feet, to play what you feel and feel what you play. Note the word tyranny. It is the flip side of the coin of freedom, for what begins in freedom can start to cage us in, what initially opens worlds can start to feel narrow and closed and hemmed in. Written music is a kind of freedom, opening worlds simply by decoding symbols and releasing glorious sounds we don’t wholly understand or even feel yet, but can come to know through repeated practice. But if we feel a need to play music and don’t have our “music” (ie, a printed score) with us, we’re not free to play. Or if we need some notes that no one else has written down or if we want to converse musically with someone else that doesn’t have a part written out, we’re at the mercy of others and not free to express ourselves.
Jazz helped change all that, led us into the open field of freewheelin’ New Orleans-style collective conversation, gave us a chance to solo to say what we want to say, allowed us to play soft or loud or to bend or slide or growl pitches without simply obeying some marks like ff or pp or dolce or smorzando that someone has written on paper.
Jazz also was a liberation into the body, breaking open the stiff repression of Victorian culture and inviting our feet to dance and our hips to shake and our backbone slip, awakening all the frozen parts of our bodies that had been stuffed into corsets and straightjacketed in tight suits. And a liberation into sorrow and grief and hard times, unthawing our stiff upper lips and letting the blues wail out from our belly, adding weight and texture and chest to our thin pipey polite voices. “An aged man is but a paltry thing… unless Soul claps its hands and sing” wrote W.B. Yeats and ragtime and blues and jazz got us clapping our hands and singing out our Souls, inviting us to be more than a “tattered coat upon a stick.” These were some of the first freedoms of jazz.
In the 1930’s, the bands got bigger, the dance got wilder, people flung into the air with the Lindy Hop flyin’ on the energy of swing music, driven by the drums, connected to the earth with Bubber Miley’s growling trumpet or lifted to the stratosphere on Cat Anderson’s impossibly high notes. Kids in Germany were dancing to this music outlawed by the Nazi’s, their tiny escapes from the horror of extreme repression, ugliness, hatred and violence. Folks in France were awaiting the next shipment of records on the docks, also enamored by a voice of freedom different from Mozart and Debussy.
In the 1940’s, the freedoms of the big bands playing for dancers hardened to routine and predictability and the musicians were beginning to feel confined. So after playing for their rent money, they headed uptown to Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem and played on into the wee hours of the morning to craft a new anthem of expressive freedom—bebop. With quartets and quintets instead of big bands, each instrument was freerer to explore the heights and depths of its function in the group conversation. Without the big band charts, the ear regained ground and the chance to improvise longer solos was helping craft a new language. Without the tyranny of the dance beat, tempos could stretch to both ends of the fast and slow spectrum. Notes that used to be only allowed to pass could now be held and savored, phrases that were smooth and uniform could be more jagged and unpredictable and sail past the tyranny of the bar line. New freedoms, same spirit.
And then in the late 50’s came another revolutionary named Ornette Coleman. He produced albums titled The Shape of Jazz to Come, This Is Our Music and Free Jazz. The bass and drums stayed connected to the earth, but now the horns could soar minus the tyranny of the piano and its confining harmonies. He continued the breakthroughs of Charlie Parker (Bird) and one can feel him as a new bird soaring a bit higher over the two-person rhythm section without the dense forest of the piano chords to check his flight. Of course, we humans are wired for structure and such freedom could only be coherent with some kind of organizing principle, what Ornette himself put later into a self-created theory called harmolodics. Truth be told, no one really seems to understand precisely what that is, but there is no question that Ornette opened the windows yet again, took down a few more walls in the house of jazz to let it breathe more freely.
Two other revolutionaries of the late 50’s/ early 60’s continued their own investigations into freedom. John Coltrane with his churning polyrhythmic drums and modal harmonies and escape from the tyranny of the tune and the limits of the three-minute recording with such groundbreaking long extended works as A Love Supreme, Meditations, Ascension. And then Cecil Taylor, who threw out the beat and meter altogether along with the melody and the harmony!
None of the three inspired disciples (Coltrane the most) to carry on their single-minded vision of jazz’s freedoms, but all expanded the language and loosened up the parameters to influence just about all of jazz that followed in the next 50 years.
This little overview was inspired by the news of Ornette’s passing a few days ago at 85 years old. Surprisingly little Facebook buzz about it and no AOL News headlines (surprise!), but he deserves some national moments of silence for his revolutionary work, dedication and extraordinary music. Blues compositions like Blues Connotation, Turnaround and Bird Food and his haunting ballad Lonely Woman are just some of his legacies. Spend a moment and listen to them and help send Ornette off on his next flight with the wind of your attention.