From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Free jazz is a movement of jazz music developed in the 1950s and 1960s by artists such as Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Joe Harriott, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Paul Bley, and Sun Ra. Some of the best known examples are the later works of John Coltrane. Though the music produced by these players varied widely, the common feature was a dissatisfaction with the expressive possibilities of bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz; each in his own way, free jazz musicians attempted to break down or extend the conventions of jazz, often by discarding hitherto invariable features of jazz such as fixed chord changes or tempos.
Although today "free jazz" is the generally used term, it has held many other names. In the 1960s, the loosely-defined movement was sometimes called "Energy Music" or "The New Thing". Free-jazz players were either said to be playing "outside" or "out" (as opposed to "inside"--conventionally), and the word became a favorite one among musicians and record labels: albums from this period include Outward Bound, Out There, Out to Lunch (all by Dolphy), Out Front (Jaki Byard), and Destination Out (Jackie McLean).
While free jazz is most often associated with the era of its birth, many musicians — including Ken Vandermark, William Parker, John Zorn, Paal Nilssen-Love and George Lewis — have kept the style alive to the present day, continuing its development as a jazz idiom. In Europe the style was further extended by players such as Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker into an idiom that came to be called "free improvisation."
The earliest documented example of free-form improvisation is a pair of 1949 recordings for Capitol by a group led by Lennie Tristano, "Intuition" and "Digression." These do not, however, seem to have had a direct influence on the later free jazz movement. The mid-1950s recordings of Ornette Coleman for Contemporary (Something Else! and Tomorrow is the Question) and the first two albums by Cecil Taylor (Jazz Advance and Looking Ahead) mark the beginnings of free jazz, though they still retain a hold on bebop and hard bop languages. The movement received its biggest impetus (and its name), however, when Coleman moved from the West Coast to New York and was signed to Atlantic Records: albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century marked a radical step beyond his more conventional early work, and when he titled a 1960 recording Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, the name stuck to the movement as a whole.
Much of Sun Ra's music could be classified as free jazz, especially his work from the 1960s, although Sun Ra said repeatedly that his music was written and boasted that what he wrote sounded more free than what "the freedom boys" played.
Some of Charles Mingus' work was also important in establishing free jazz. Of particular note are his early Atlantic albums, such as Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, and Tijuana Moods, in which he employed a compositional technique of humming tunes to his players and allowing them to feel their own melodies.
Since the mid-1950s, saxophonist Jackie McLean had been exploring a concept he called "The Big Room", where the often strict rules of bebop could be loosened or abandoned at will. Similarly, Cecil Taylor, the most prominent free jazz pianist, began stretching the bop boundaries as early as 1956.
The Jimmy Giuffre Trio (with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow) received little attention during their original incarnation from 1960-62, but afterwards were regarded as one of the most innovative free jazz ensembles.
Eric Dolphy's work with Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Chico Hamilton, along with his solo work, helped to set the stage for free jazz in the music community.
In Europe, free jazz first flowered through the experiments of expatriate Jamaican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott. Beginning in the late 1950s, he worked on his own distinctive concept of what he termed free form rather than free jazz, which generally involved a more fluid ensemble interaction than the American models.
Free jazz had its heyday in the 1960s, but musicians like David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp and Joe Morris continue to play free jazz. Perhaps influenced by Ornette Coleman's embrace of electric music in the 1970s, James Blood Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock, Ronald Shannon Jackson and others forged styles combining elements of free jazz and fusion.
There is no universally accepted definition of free jazz, and any proposed definition is complicated by many musicians in other styles drawing on free jazz, or free jazz sometimes blending with other genres. Many musicians also tend to reject efforts at classification, regarding them as useless or unduly limiting.
Free jazz uses jazz idioms but generally considerably less compositional material than in most earlier styles — improvisation is essential, and whereas in earlier styles of jazz the improvised solos were always built according to a template provided by composed material (chord changes and melody), in free jazz the performers often range much more widely. Free jazz as a style has grown considerably since its inception, and the ability to improvise freely is a common skill. But, as guitarist Marc Ribot has remarked, free jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, "although they were freeing up certain strictures of bebop, were in fact each developing new structures of composition."
Typically this kind of music is played by small groups of musicians. In popular perception, free jazz is loud, aggressive, dissonant and in general full of sound and fury. Many critics, particularly at the music's inception, suspected that the abandonment of familiar elements of jazz pointed to a lack of technique on the part of the musicians. Most free jazz musicians use overblowing techniques or otherwise elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments. Today such views are more marginal, and the music has built up a tradition and a body of accompanying critical writing. It remains less commercially popular than most other forms of jazz.
Beyond this, free jazz is most easily characterised in contrast with what we refer to here as "other forms of jazz", an umbrella which covers ragtime, dixieland, swing, bebop, cool jazz, jazz fusion and other styles.
"Other forms of jazz" use clear regular meters and strongly-pulsed rhythms, usually in 4/4 or (less often) 3/4. Free jazz normally retains a general pulsation and often swings but without regular meter, and often with frequent accelerando and ritardando, giving an impression of the rhythm moving in waves. Often players in an ensemble adopt different tempi. Despite all of this, it is still very often possible to tap one's foot to a free jazz performance; rhythm is more freely variable but has not disappeared entirely.
Other forms used harmonic structures (usually cycles of diatonic chords). Improvisors played solos using notes based on the notes in the chords. Free jazz almost by definition dispenses with such structures, but also by definition (it is, after all, "jazz" as much as it is "free") it retains much of the language of earlier jazz playing. It is therefore very common to hear diatonic, altered dominant and blues phrases in this music. It is also fairly common for a drone or single chord to underpin a performance (see modal jazz), but the absence of such rudimentary devices is typical as well.
Finally, other forms use composed melodies as the basis for group performance and improvisation. Free jazz practitioners sometimes use such material, and sometimes do not. In some music which is called "free jazz", other compositional structures are employed, some of them very detailed and complex; the music of Anthony Braxton furnishes many examples. It would perhaps be best to call this modern or avant-garde jazz, reserving the term "free jazz" for music with few or no pre-composed elements.
The emergence of free jazz, like previous developments in jazz, was largely tied to the African-American experience. Just as the development of bebop was a reaction against popular swing music, free jazz emerged to counter the growing white interest in finger-popping soul jazz and other music of the 1950s. This idea can be seen in the approaches of the musicians themselves, as in Ornette Coleman's This is Our Music (1960). Both these developments, bebop in 1940 and free jazz in 1960, reveal directions that were more intellectual, less danceable, and less marketable to white audiences. Groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the flagship group of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and Sun Ra made Black identity an integral part of their public personae as musicians, more visibly than previous generations of jazz musicians. This is not to say that the music was racially segregated; white bassist Charlie Haden was a member of Ornette Coleman's influential quartet from the very beginning, and free jazz's principles were quickly assimilated into musical developments in all corners of global society.
Many free jazz musicians regard the music as signifying in a broadly religious way, or to have gnostic or mystical connotations, as an aide to meditation or self-reflection, as evidenced by Coltrane's Om album, or Charles Gayle's Repent.
Free jazz in the world
Outside of North America, free jazz scenes have become established in Europe and Japan. Alongside the aforementioned Joe Harriott, saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, trombonist Conny Bauer, guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer Han Bennink were among the most well-known early European free jazz performers. European free jazz can generally be seen as approaching free improvisation, with an ever more distant relationship to jazz tradition. That being said, specifically Brötzmann has had a significant impact on the free jazz players of the U.S.
Also behind iron curtain was relatively active free jazz scene which producted great musicians like Tomasz Stanko, Zbigniew Seifert, Vladimir Chekasin, Vyacheslav Ganelin and Vladimir Tarasov. Japanese guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi and saxophonist Kaoru Abe, among others, took free jazz in another direction, approaching the energy levels of noise. Some international jazz musicians have come to North America and become immersed in free jazz, most notably Ivo Perelman from Brazil and Gato Barbieri of Argentina (this influence is evident in Barbieri's early work, but fades in his later, more commercially oriented efforts). American musicians like Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Milford Graves, and Pharoah Sanders integrated elements of the music of Africa, India, and the Middle East for a sort of World music-influenced free jazz.