Revised and expanded here, this piece originated as an “oral essay” for Cosmoetica Omniversica interview series on www.sursumcorda.com.
More or less officially unveiled with first New York appearance of Ornette Coleman Quartet at Five Spot Café in 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 perennial "where's melody?" complaint against jazz.
For most of uninitiated, what 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 solos, to extent that they could be isolated as such in 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 same one again? How were you to tell? No. No way this madness could possibly have a method.
But umbilically connected to emergent black cultural nationalism movement, madness did indeed have a method. The avowed objective of 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 late '50s into 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, 32-bar song form, fixed beat and 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 leader of his own thirteen-piece orchestra, made 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 possibility of real spiritual communion between people. There's a flow coming from every individual, a continuous flow of energy coming from subconscious level. The idea is to tap that energy through medium of improvised sound. I do supply band with notes, motifs and sounds to give it a lift-off point. I also direct band, though not in any conventional way—like I might suddenly say 'CHORD!' But essentially I'm dealing with improvisation as prime force, not 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 interview that "Silva says his band wants to commune with spirit world and you aren't sure that it doesn't. With thirteen musicians soloing at same time, at extraordinary decibel levels, astonishingly rapid speeds and with complete emotional abandon for more than an hour, band arrives not only at moments of excruciating beauty, but at sounds that rising in ecstatic rushes and waves and becoming almost visible in mesmerizing intensity, weight and force of their vibrations, do for sure seem to be flushing weird, spectral things from walls, from ceiling, from your head.")
Of course not all of these musicians shared Silva's position entirely. Some saw music as an intimidating political weapon in 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 Bartok, it wasn't about jettisoning Western influences on jazz, but about absorbing them into a specifically black esthetic.
For most part, however, disparities among younger musicians of period amounted to dialects of same language. All of them shared "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 music's first purpose.