Back in the late 50’s and 60’s, some musicians were feeling imprisoned by chords and scales and the boom-chick-a-boom beat, yearned for larger pastures than the 12-bar blues and AABA form and the three-minute recording. The search for freedom of expression that had begun—or at least got lifted up several flights of fancy—with Louis Armstrong back in the 20’s had been developing solo after solo, composition after composition for some 30 years. Now spurred on by Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and others, there arose a genre simply known as “Free Jazz.” The band would come up with no preconceived song or key or chord progression or structure, someone would start playing, the others would respond and so a conversation would develop until it ran out of things to say. (Or sometimes even after it had run out of things to say!)
The power of the approach is that a musician could not fall back on stock phrases or predictable runs. One had to really deeply listen, both to one’s own organically emerging musical ideas and those of the fellow players. It took a great deal from the musicians to negotiate such freedom coherently and it took as much (if not more) from the audience to give up their expectations of the finger snap and the recognizable tune and listen as deeply as the musicians themselves. And because it demanded so much from audience and musician alike, its run as a preferred medium of jazz expression was rather short. No million-selling free jazz records (though Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking album of the same title did okay), no masses running to the Albert Ayler or Sun Ra concerts (though they did have a limited, but passionate following).
It would be tempting to blame this on the unsophisticated audience, but I think otherwise. The fact is—and in another world Schoenberg and Webern’s popularity (ie, lack thereof) bear this out—that we humans are built for singable melodies, recognizable rhythms, coherent forms that allow us to both predict and be surprised. We love the freedom of the unexpected, but we love it more if enough expectations are fulfilled to enjoy the contrast. We can soar with some out-of-the-box solo phrases in the upper atmosphere of the overtone series, but appreciate it more if our feet are firmly on the ground.
So much jazz today is still rooted in the 12-bar blues, the 32-bar tune from the Great American Songbook, the jazz composition using elements of both and the jazz composition exploring new territory beyond all of it. But I believe the Free Jazz movement had its influence and every jazz musician today should be and is prepared to dabble in it—or at least listen and respond as intensely as it demands.
Such improvisation is also part and parcel of the work I do with kids and adults in my Orff Schulwerk training. Small groups create musical conversations based on the first sound of each person’s name, following the simple idea that one person begins, all respond and (most interesting) listen for the moment when the piece seems to want to end. We do similar things with percussion instruments grouped in families and/or xylophones in the pentatonic scale.
And also with movement—mirroring, shadowing, copying each other’s dance steps, responding to each other’s dance steps. Besides the artistic result, it’s a powerful way to connect with a partner or small group, demanding attention and the kind of give-and-take we would hope for in all our relationships. What would happen if each session of Congress or Parliament or even a school staff meetings began with this kind of activity? How would it change the contentious conversations that often characterize politics in all its many faces?
I sat down at the end of my last day in Berlin with nothing much to say. Seemed boring to complain yet again about the rain and cold, to express more dismay at past evil and more praise for current recovery. So I thought I’d start this entry with a sentence to see where it would lead, kind of like in the style of free jazz. I began with the title and –well, there you have it. An entry about Free Jazz! But having visited the Reichstag today, I snuck in that thought about Congress and Parliament. Wasn’t that clever?
And now to pack for the homeward journey.