(Revised and expanded here, this piece originated as an oral essay for an installment of the Cosmoetica Omniversica internet radio series on the arts and sciences. The series was hosted by Dan Schneider and Art Durkee.)
More or less officially unveiled with the first New York appearance of the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot Café in the fall of 1959, free jazz (or new black music, space music, new thing, anti-jazz or abstract jazz as it would variously be labeled), gave new dimension to the perennial “where’s the melody?” complaint against jazz.
For most of the uninitiated, what the Coleman group presented on its opening night was in fact sheer cacophony.
Four musicians (a saxophonist, trumpeter, bassist and drummer) abruptly began to play—with an apoplectic intensity and at a bone-rattling volume—four simultaneous solos that had no perceptible shared references or point of departure. Even unto themselves the solos, to the extent that they could be isolated as such in the density of sound that was being produced, were without any fixed melodic or rhythmic structure. Consisting, by turns, of short, jagged bursts and long meandering lines unmindful of bar divisions and chorus measures they were, moreover, laced with squeaks, squeals, bleats and strident honks. A number ended and another began—or was it the same one again? How were you to tell? No. No way this madness could possibly have a method.
But umbilically connected to the emergent black cultural nationalism movement, the madness did indeed have a method. The avowed objective of the dramatic innovations that musicians like Ornette, Cecil Taylor—and, in their footsteps, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler, Jimmy Lyons, Eric Dolphy and (the later period) John Coltrane, among hundreds of others—initiated and practiced from the late ‘50s into the early ‘70s, was to restore black music to its original identity as a medium of spiritual utility. When these men abandoned an adherence to chord progressions, the 32-bar song form, the fixed beat and the soloist/accompanist format, and began to employ, among other things, simultaneous improvisations, fragmented tempos and voice-like timbres, they were very deliberately replacing, with ancient black methodologies, those Western concepts and systems that had, by their lights, worked to subvert and reduce black music in America to either a pop music or (for many of them no less a corruption of what black music was supposed to be) an art form.
Alan Silva, a one-time bassist with Cecil Taylor and then the leader of his own thirteen-piece orchestra, made the point in an interview I did with him for Rolling Stone.
“I don’t want to make music that sounds nice,” Silva told me. “I want to make music that opens the possibility of real spiritual communion between people. There’s a flow coming from every individual, a continuous flow of energy coming from the subconscious level. The idea is to tap that energy through the medium of improvised sound. I do supply the band with notes, motifs and sounds to give it a lift-off point. I also direct the band, though not in any conventional way—like I might suddenly say ‘CHORD!’ But essentially I’m dealing with improvisation as the prime force, not the tune. The thing is, if you put thirteen musicians together and they all play at once, eventually a cohesion, an order, will be reached, and it will be on a transcendent plane.”
(I commented in the interview that “Silva says his band wants to commune with the spirit world and you aren’t sure that it doesn’t. With thirteen musicians soloing at the same time, at extraordinary decibel levels, astonishingly rapid speeds and with complete emotional abandon for more than an hour, the band arrives not only at moments of excruciating beauty, but at sounds that rising in ecstatic rushes and waves and becoming almost visible in the mesmerizing intensity, weight and force of their vibrations, do for sure seem to be flushing weird, spectral things from the walls, from the ceiling, from your head.”)
Of course not all of these musicians shared Silva’s position entirely. Some saw the music as an intimidating political weapon in the battle for civil rights and exploited it as such. Others, like Taylor, did and quite emphatically, regard themselves as artists. For Taylor, a pianist and composer who took what he needed not just from Ellington and Monk, but from Stravinsky, Ives and Bartók, it wasn’t about jettisoning Western influences on jazz, but about absorbing them into a specifically black esthetic.
For the most part, however, disparities among the younger musicians of the period amounted to dialects of the same language. All of them shared the “new black consciousness”—a new pride in being black—and their reconstruction of jazz, their purging of its Western elements, or their assertion of black authority over those elements, was, to one degree or another, intended to revive and reinstate the music’s first purpose.
Silva saw broad extra-musical ramifications in his procedures. He believed that by rejecting all externally imposed constraints the inherent goodness in men would surface and enable them to function in absolute harmony with both nature and each other. “Man,” he said to me once, coming off an especially electrifying set. “In another ten years we won’t even need traffic lights we’re gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another.”
And I have to say that I agreed with him.
This was, after all, a period in history when “restrictions” of every conceivable kind, from binding social and sexual mores to (with the moon shot) the very law of gravity, were successfully being challenged. And if you were regularly visiting Timothy Leary’s “atomic” level of consciousness, and if you could call a girl you’d been set up with on a blind date and she might say, “Let’s ‘ball’ first and then I’ll see if I want to have dinner with you,” you could be forgiven your certainty that nothing short of a sea change in human nature itself was taking place.
And some of us who regarded Western values as both the cause of all ill (had they not brought us to the brink of annihilation with the hydrogen bomb?), and the principle impediment to such a transformation, saw the new black music as leading the way, as the veritable embodiment of what Herbert Marcuse called “the revolution of unrepression.”
In so heady a time, earnest unself-conscious debates about the relative revolutionary merits of free jazz and rock—the other musical phenomenon of the period—were not uncommon.
I remember a conversation I had with John Sinclair, the Michigan activist, poet and author of Guitar Army (and the co-author, with me, of Music & Politics).
John took the position that rock was the true “music of the revolution.”
No, I argued, rock did stand against the technocratic, Faustian western sensibility. It did, and unabashedly, celebrate the sensual and the mystical. But in these respects it only caught up to where jazz had always been. In contrast to what some of the younger black musicians were up to—the purging of white elements African music had picked up in America—rock was simply the first hip white popular music.
Rock, it was my point, never got beyond expressing the sentiment of revolution while free jazz, by breaking with formal Western disciplines—by going “outside,” as the musicians termed it, of Western procedures and methods and letting the music find its own natural order and form—got to an actualization of what true revolution would be. Rock’s lyrics, I said, promoted, in many instances, the idea of a spiritual revolution, but musically rock remained bound to the very traditions and conventions that its lyrics railed against and the audience never got a demonstration or the experience of authentic spiritual communion. Rock’s lyrics were undermined and attenuated in the very act of their expression by the system used to express them. The new jazz, on the other hand, achieved freedom not just from the purely formal structures of western musical systems, but, implicitly, from the emotional and social ethos in which those structures originated.
As I say, it was a heady time.
Now, of course, free jazz, in anything resembling a pristine form just barely exists, and obviously it has ceased to exist altogether as a revolutionary movement. Like other emblematic movements of the epoch with which it shared the faith that a new kind of human being would surface once all structure and authority that wasn’t internal in origin was rejected, free jazz was ultimately ambushed by its naiveté.
But on purely musical terms free jazz has not been without an ongoing impact. If it never achieved what Alan Silva expected it to, it did (however contrary to its original ambition), expand the vocabulary and the field of options available to mainstream jazz musicians. And while they function today in what are essentially universes of their own, Taylor, Coleman, Murray, Cyrille, Shepp and Dixon are still very much around and continuing to discover the marvelous.
Indeed, stripped though they may be of their mystique as harbingers of an imminent utopia, these extraordinary musicians continue to produce musical miracles as a matter of course. For an always compelling demonstration, try to catch Cecil in one of his live performances—what he would call “exchanges of energy”—with drummers like Tony Oxley.
In a bad time in every department of the culture, a time of rampant—often willful—mediocrity, I could name no better tonic.
Edited remarks on the ‘60s from the interview that followed.
It’s admittedly facile to cast it this way, but you could say that what we mean by the “‘60s” began with the Cuban Missile Crisis and ended with the moon shot—the moon shot and the Yippies failed attempt to levitate the Pentagon and shake out the “demons” that inhabited it.
At bottom the ‘60s were a reaction to the prospect of total annihilation posed by the invention of the hydrogen bomb and they were rooted in the belief that what was wrong, what had brought us to this place, was the denial and suppression of our true selves, of the human beings we were intended to be.
This belief—variously shaped, nourished and focused by a conflation of psychedelic drugs, birth control pills, the popularization of Freudian psychology and Eastern philosophies, glaring racial and gender inequities and a clearly unjustified war in Vietnam—opened virtually every tradition and institution, every custom and convention and every embodiment and instrument of authority, order and structure, to attack. On one level or another everything from the anti-war, civil rights and woman’s rights movements, to the anti-materialism and sexual abandon of the period, to spontaneous prose, rock and free jazz, stemmed from the conviction that somewhere in antiquity humanity had taken the wrong path and that the course could be corrected.
The enemy was the superego, the cultural, social and psychological restraints we’d inflicted on ourselves. Destroying the superego would yield the good human beings we were supposed to be. It was, again as Marcuse described it, a “revolution of unrepression.” We wanted to abolish the apparently arbitrary and misbegotten rules that artificially limited us and led to deluded thinking and behavior. We wanted, ultimately, to abolish the constricting forces of guilt and shame themselves. Guilt and shame were invented by authority, they were trips governments and parents laid on you to keep you in line. We wanted to take an unfettered pride and joy in our bodies. We wanted to be free of the guilt and shame that had crippled and disfigured us.
This is where Jerry Rubin was coming from when he exhorted us to kill our parents.
Of course I’m talking about what the ‘60s were in their deepest aspirations. The vanguard figures—like Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Norman Brown, Allen Ginsberg, Marcuse—envisioned a kind of benign anarchy, a society with no need for governments or police; a society ordered by natural needs, appetites and rhythms and made up of men free of neurosis and in perfect harmony with both nature and other men.
And fueled as it was by the sheer number of people involved (and in what seemed every corner of the culture) I don’t think the sense of utopian possibility we were feeling could possibly be exaggerated. Certainly the intensity of the psychic fevers we were experiencing in the East Village (which to me was the epicenter) can’t be overstated. In the East Village, and in addition to all manner of radical political activity, there was an amazing pullulation of iconoclastic art in every category—dance, music, theater, poetry, painting. People like Ginsberg, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Roi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Kate Millet, Yvonne Ranier, Meredith Monk, Ed Sanders and the Fugs (I’m forgetting a couple of dozen other major players) were all living and working within a one-mile radius and feeding, challenging, validating and energizing one another.
But upheavals like this were hardly limited to New York. They were occurring everywhere—San Francisco, Paris, on every college campus and in the smallest towns. And, Jesus, we were going to the fucking moon—successfully breaking the very law of fucking gravity!
So those of us who were sucked into the vortex of the ‘60s can maybe be forgiven the fact that we were failing to recognize something very basic—that we were challenging a reality that was beyond our capacity to fundamentally change. There was, after all, only so far we could go without entering into a void. We could tinker with social, cultural, economic and political systems—make reforms, expand our horizons, achieve more justice—but essentially society already reflected the best we could do.
I mean we didn’t recognize (and I’m standing behind Ernest Becker here) that the very problems we were attempting to overcome—the constraining social and sexual codes, the emotional hang-ups and the destructive tendencies we wanted to jettison—were actually working solutions to our worst and deepest problem, the problem of mortality. (We also didn’t appreciate that guilt and shame weren’t created by society, but were built into our essence, that they were a natural consequence of living under a death sentence.)
We didn’t understand the legitimacy and necessity of repression and delusion. We didn’t understand (I’ve said all this elsewhere, but I think it bears repeating) that as debilitating as repression and delusion were they enabled us to deny and distort certain untenable truths of existence and to make an otherwise intolerable condition somewhat manageable. We didn’t realize that we had no choice, that what made us crazy, stupid and destructive (what, for an obvious example in the current world—and to the objective of transcending death in heaven—has spawned all these suicide bombers and Christian Fundamentalists) was our profound and abiding need to mitigate the terror that the fact of death causes us. We didn’t see that the reality of the human condition required us to be constricted and insane.
Off-the-wall as it sounds, you could say that the hydrogen bomb was invented in order to create, for its inventors at least, a controllable and therefore relatively comforting death locus.
But in our millennial zeal we were oblivious to such things and I think that at the Pentagon and with the Apollo landing, we were secretly expecting some kind of palpable divine ratification, expecting God to show His face and prove us right. That didn’t happen, of course. Our acid visions turned out to have no physical application at the Pentagon. And the moon was only a barren rock—no Kubrickian monolith buried there to give blessing to the project. It was disappointments like these, disappointments equal in their size to the size of our ambition, that took the heart out of the ‘60s.
It wasn’t long afterwards, remember, that mind-expanding drugs began to be replaced—and necessarily—by mood-elevating stimulants like cocaine.
Beyond the moon shot it was just the motor revolving down after it’s been shut off. I mean the ‘60s are commonly judged to have ended when we finally withdrew from Vietnam. But they’d already expired at the foot of the Pentagon and in the deserts of the moon.