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Silva saw broad extra-musical ramifications in his procedures. He believed that by rejecting all externally imposed constraints 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 vigorous 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 moon shot) very law of gravity, were successfully being challenged. 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 revolution in human nature itself was taking place.
And some of us who regarded Western values as both cause of all ill (had they not brought us to brink of annihilation with hydrogen bomb?), and principle impediment to such a transformation, saw new black music as leading way, as veritable embodiment of what Herbert Marcuse called "the revolution of unrepression."
In so heady a time, earnest unself-conscious debates about relative revolutionary merits of free jazz and rock—the other musical phenomenon of period—were not uncommon.
I remember a conversation I had with John Sinclair, Michigan activist, poet and author of Guitar Army.
John took position that rock was true "music of revolution."
No, I argued, rock did stand against technocratic, Faustian western sensibility. It did, and unabashedly, celebrate sensual and mystical. But in these respects it only caught up to where jazz had always been. In contrast to what some of younger black musicians were up to—the purging of white elements African music had picked up in America—rock was simply first hip white popular music.
Rock, it was my point, never got beyond expressing sentiment of revolution while free jazz, by breaking with formal Western disciplines—by going "outside," as musicians termed it, of Western procedures and methods and letting 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, idea of a spiritual revolution, but musically rock remained bound to very traditions and conventions that its lyrics railed against and audience never got a demonstration or experience of authentic spiritual communion. Rock's lyrics were undermined and attenuated in very act of their expression by system used to express them. The new jazz, on other hand, achieved freedom not just from purely formal structures of western musical systems, but, implicitly, from 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 epoch with which it shared 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 vocabulary and 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 surprise and 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 especially vivid demonstration, try to catch Cecil in one of his live performances—what he would call "exchanges of energy"—with drummers like Max Roach or Elvin Jones.
In a bad time in every department of culture, a time of rampant—often willful—mediocrity, I could name no better tonic.
Former contributor to The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. Coauthor and coeditor, respectively, of two collections of essays about rock and jazz in the '60s: "Music & Politics" and "Giants of Black Music." Essays and fiction on numerous web sites