Envisioning a free world through free music

September 19, 2018

Dylan DelGiudice provides an introduction to the visionary world of “free jazz.”

The music is different here, the vibrations are different, not like planet earth. Planet earth sounds of guns, anger, frustration. There is no one to talk to on planet Earth who would understand. We set up a colony for Black people here, to see what they can do on a planet all their own without any white people there. They could drink in the beauty of this planet. It’ll affect their vibrations, for the better, of course. Another place in the universe, up under different stars.

Those words come from the opening sequence of the science fiction movie Space Is the Place, made by the composer, pianist and band leader Sun Ra and released in 1974. In it, Ra dreams of a different world made through the creation of music — a world created by and for African Americans, not for the guns and war of planet Earth.

Listening to Sun Ra’s music, it’s easy to hear this narrative dream reflected in its sounds. Like the opening of Space Is the Place, his music dreams of better worlds often, without saying a word. His political message of needing a world free from oppression is reflected in the style and structure of his music, as well as its explicit content.

Sun Ra’s music has been called “free jazz” because its structure and styles that push aside typical notions of pitch and form in jazz, in favor of musicians improvising together, based on reacting to the sounds each other make. Musicians are free to make sound that isn’t pitched according to the Western sense and doesn’t conform to typical notions of time and rhythm.

Sun Ra
Sun Ra

Through his music and leadership of ensembles, Ra made the effort to appreciate difference as a welcomed musical and social attribute. Ra’s song “Space Is the Place” is extremely complex music, in which the riff played throughout the song by the bass and baritone saxophone is in a five-beat pattern, and the rest of the band and vocals play in four-beat time.

The phrases “Space is the place,” “There is no limit to the things that you can do / There is no limit to the things that you can be” and “Your thought is free” are sung throughout the 20-minute piece over a barrage of horn interjections and intense squeals and stabs from saxophones.

The complex organizational framework of the band, bass and vocals is thus continually broken, tampered with and ignored, while continuing to maintained throughout. Thus, the freedom mentioned in the vocals isn’t a metaphor in terms of music. The music sounds like freedom.

FREE JAZZ is a subgenre of jazz music that arose in the late 1950s, primarily with the music of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. Coleman’s music in particular turned out to be especially influential. The name of the subgenre was taken from his 1961 album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation.

By 1959, Coleman’s compositions were generally short themes that didn’t conform to the song structures of pop tunes that jazz musicians had generally used as springboards for improvisation in the past.

Their fundamental focus was on the beauty of his melodies, which could be intensely emotional as in the case of “Lonely Woman,” raucous and bluesy with “Ramblin’,” somber and ballad-like with “Peace,” and frantic and chaotic with “Change of the Century.”

As magical as Coleman’s tunes and melodies could be, what he called “the adventure” was in the group’s improvisation. Improvisations typically had no agreed-upon structure. The band had to rely on the melodic material of the tune and intense listening to other players, who were free to react to what others were playing, to change the course of the improvisation, or to remain silent.

Coleman called his theory of music “harmolodics,” and he was focused on maximizing individuality through collective improvisation. In The Harmolodic Manifesto, Coleman wrote:

[Musicians] have more room to express themselves with me...They should be free to play things as they feel it, the way it’s comfortable for them to play it. You can use any note and rhythm pattern that makes good sense for you. You just hear it — like beautiful thoughts — you don’t listen to people telling you how to play.

Coleman’s approach to music also reflected an ideal of democracy as he understood it developing in the later 20th century. He saw this ideal being achieved not as a function of changing institutions, but as a sort of awakening by people, crying for their own freedom and individuality. As he wrote:

Communism, socialism, capitalism and monarchy in the world [have] and are changing for a truer relationship of the democracy of the individual. Every person who has had a democratic experience by birth or by passport knows there are no hatred or enemies in democracy, because everyone is an individual. Learning, doing, being, are the conversationship for perfecting, protecting and caring of the belief in existence as an individual in relationship to everyone, physically, mentally, spiritually.

UTILIZING THE musical framework developed by Coleman, other free jazz artists used this form of improvisation to express their reaction to social conditions in the 1960s and the search for meaning and justice in the U.S.

Artists like Cecil Taylor rejected the co-opting and creation of standards in jazz, which he believed were ultimately measured by critics and musicologists according to European standards of musicality. As Taylor once said, “The offices of recognition have a yardstick that was set in Europe, which doesn’t even acknowledge the idea of American art...Negro music is out of it. Negro dancers are out of it. Negro everything is out of it, and that’s where the fight is.”

Other artists, such as saxophonists Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, expressed intense spirituality in their music, leading to a style that some critics weren’t even able to comprehend according to the musical terms they understood.

Coltrane’s music had departed from established styles so much that the jazz critic Nat Hentoff described him and his saxophone partner Pharoah Sanders as “speaking in tongues.” Meanwhile, Ayler’s music could go from somber New Orleans funeral marches and spirituals to noisy free-for-alls in a matter of seconds, based on the emotional contour of the band’s improvisation.

This school of “spiritual jazz,” as it was later called, nevertheless contained a political and sometimes antiwar message within it.

On Coltrane’s 1966 tour of Japan — by which time Coltrane was fully engulfed in the long free improvisations he would explore until his death a year later — the saxophonist visited Nagasaki and offered a prayer at the Nagasaki Memorial Park for the victims of the U.S. atomic bombing.

Coltrane continued to discuss the impact of U.S. imperialism with members of his bands throughout the tour. His piece “Peace on Earth” — which he performed during the tour and can be heard on the album Coltrane in Japan — begins with a serene atmosphere set up by beautiful chords and melodies, but devolves into moments of chaos and what seems like confusion.

The contrast between these sections gives the music a sense of anxiety and a recognition that the world hasn’t realized the serenity of the title.

MANY ARTISTS in the 1960s and 1970s also gave expression to the struggle for civil rights and Black radical politics through their music.

Some, notably Sun Ra, made music for the dream of a better world for African Americans as part of a movement called “Afro-Futurism.”

In 1960, drummer Max Roach and vocalist Abbey Lincoln collaborated on “We Insist!” also known as the “Freedom Now Suite.” The cover of the record featured a picture of a lunch counter sit-in during civil rights movement.

The music dealt with themes of slavery, freedom and South African apartheid, and it even alludes to pan-Africanism with the track “All Africa,” where Abbey Lincoln recites the names of African tribes, followed by freedom chants from legendary Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji.

While most of the music on this record wouldn’t be considered “free jazz,” the third track “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” features a duo between Roach and Lincoln, where they break away from form and express the pain of violence in the South with the raw emotion that only a screaming and whispering human voice can bring.

With the goal of the record being to directly convey an experience through music, Roach and Lincoln decided that the earlier bounds of “jazz” were too confining and developed a musical language that all cultures have some experience with, involving the voice and the drum.

Other artists in avant-garde and free jazz appealed directly to leftist politics and national liberation movements.

Saxophonist Archie Shepp made music that directly appealed to politics with albums like Things Have Got to Change and songs like “Malcolm, Malcolm — Semper Malcolm” off the album Fire Music.

Shepp cited the 1971 Attica Prison rebellion, where prisoners fiercely demanded better living conditions and political rights, with his 1972 record Attica Blues. Later in his career, he named his large group the Attica Blues Orchestra.

Charlie Haden and Carla Bley’s group, the Liberation Music Orchestra, performed avant-garde arrangements of songs from the Spanish Revolution and Civil War such as “El Quinto Regimiento” (“The Fifth Regiment”). Their record also featured pieces such as “Song for Che,” dedicated to the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, and “Circus ’68 ’69,” which attempts to recreate the scene at the 1968 Democratic Convention by splitting the band into two opposing factions.

In 1971, the Liberation Music Orchestra performed “Song for Che” in fascist Portugal, dedicating the piece to rebels rebelling against Portuguese colonial rule in Angola and Mozambique. Haden was detained and later interviewed by the FBI for this dedication.

MANY PEOPLE have pointed out how jazz derives some of its power by being an expression of the material suffering of African Americans in the U.S.

Poet Langston Hughes famously linked the jazz style bebop to police violence in one poem:

You must not know where Bop comes from,” said
Simple, astonished at my ignorance.
“I do not know,” I said. “Where?”
“From the police,” said Simple.
“What do you mean, from the police?”
“From the police beating Negroes’ heads,” said Simple.
“Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club says,
‘BOP! BOP!... BE-BOP!... MOP! ... BOP!’
“That Negro hollers, ‘Ooool-ya-koo! Ou-o-o!’
“Old Cop just keeps on, ‘MOP! MOP!... BE-BOPI... MOP!’
That’s where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro’s head into them horns and saxophones and piano keys that plays it

Free jazz makes a critique of bourgeois ideology and oppression through its very structure. By relying on collective improvisation and no agreed-upon forms for that improvisation, it makes the collective experience and input of the band the only guiding force for the music.

As Coleman writes, free jazz encourages individuality in a group setting, allowing individuals to communicate as a collective, in which democracy operates in real time as a give and take between creative musicians.

With such a radical approach to music, it’s no wonder that so many of its practitioners had a radical message in the content of their music and politics. Free jazz always encourages individuality, not at the expense of the whole, but in order to maximize the musician’s creative input for the benefit of the band and the music.

The message for socialists in all this is to always look beyond the surface in music and think about what the sound and content says about how people relate to the real conditions they face under capitalism.

Further Reading

From the archives