Can Free Jazz Be Fun? A Self-Experiment

Is there really anybody truly enjoying listening to Free Jazz? Is it really like with modern art, where you think you are looking at the work of a 5-year old, just to discover that you could not afford it in five lifetimes (the painting above sold for $32m)?

In both cases, a lot of people, including myself, reject the music / painting because we have certain conceptions of how music has to sound like or how a painting has to look like.

Given the importance of Free Jazz, I decided that I would try to switch-off my prejudices and would see if I could find at least parts of it which I liked.

Most advice on how to approach Free Jazz go along the lines of “move step by step from Be- / Hardbop records towards Free Jazz”. This definitely to me does not sound like the right spirit with respect to Free Jazz. Instead I start with Peter Brötzmann’s “Machine Gun”, recorded 1968.
Keeping in mind that in Free Jazz “the music does not follow the listener, but the listener follows the music”, I put it on and listen to it on my headphones. But this causes me almost a headache and hence I switch to loudspeakers.

Giving it my full attention and imagining the musicians improvising in the studio, I manage to listen to it for a while. Enjoying it? No comment.

“Machine Gun” contains all main characteristics of Free Jazz – atonality, no continuous beat, influence of world music and the extension of the musical space into noise. All combined into a very intense music.
The urge to break all the existing rules and to create something fundamentally new was born from the feeling that everything within the current (Bebop) Jazz framework had been tried. A similar feeling Gillespie, Parker and Monk had 20 years earlier when they developed the Bebop.

Often experiencing a music live helps to create a stronger link and to get closer to it. Since the closest to a live concert is a live record, I try next Albert Ayler’s “Live at Greenwich Village”.
Again, giving it my full concentration, holding no expectations on how the music “should sound”.

To be honest, I don’t think I would have stayed the whole concert, or maybe only at the bar.
Some people however must have liked it, there is applause on the record (back to the painting above).

During the entire history of Jazz some real characters left their strong marks. Think Monk or Jelly Roll Morton. Free Jazzer Sun Ra with his “Arkestra” is certainly one of the most colourful. Claiming to stem from Saturn, he developed a “cosmic philosophy” and song titles like “Outer Nothingness” or “Abstract Eye” fit perfectly to the story.

The whole background of Sun Ra (there is a lot there, including a link to the racism of the time) makes it intriguing to listen to his tunes. But still no fun.

Although for me it is sometimes difficult to detect, Free Jazz is actually not just complete chaos. Free Jazz musicians simply do not accept rules being imposed on them, but rather want to negotiate them every time they play and sometimes even develop them while playing.

With the shock therapy not working, let’s go for the baby-step approach, slowly moving away from Hardbop. “Ascension” (1965) is labelled as “the torch that lit the free jazz thing” and is commonly cited as a masterpiece in Coltrane’s work. Everything before this record is still relatively close to Hardbop, afterwards he was part of the Free Jazz movement.
Putting “Edition II” on, which apparently is Coltrane’s favourite (why going with the second best?), I can indeed imagine the energy that must have been in the air during the recording process. I read that people in the studio started to cry and shout, driven by the intensity of the music.

For me, still no joy however! But this is certainly getting closer to what I like and probably “Ascension” will grow on me. It is Coltrane, for goods sake!

Maybe the other key figure in the development of Free Jazz brings me more pleasure. Ornette Coleman was a shock to the scene and initially nobody wanted to play with him. The sentiments he was facing were probably quite similar to what Parker and Gillespie had experienced twenty years earlier.
He was not the first one to play “free”, but with his four records “Something Else!!!!”, “Tomorrow is the Question!”, “The Shape of Jazz to come” and “Free Jazz”, all released between 1958 and 1960, he defined the new genre.
It is definitely worthwhile taking the time going through the four records, four steps from “Hardbop with some new elements” to true Free Jazz. Still, with the increasing freedom Coleman employs in his music, my listening pleasure decreases.

In comparison with Coltrane, one can see how much ahead of time Coleman was. 1959 Coltrane released “Giant Steps”, celebrating his “sheets of sound”, a very fast improvisation. And in his 1964 record “Love Surpreme” he was still quite close to Bop. While for Coltrane it was a long and difficult process to get to harmonic freedom, Coleman seemed to “just have it”.

For me as a listener, there isn’t a “not getting it”, there is no secret wisdom behind the music. It simply has to be fun listening to it, because if it ain’t fun, why bother?

But independently whether one likes it or not (which is irrelevant anyways), Free Jazz was a logical and extremely important development within Jazz. Not only to move the genre as a whole forward, but also as a further step in the emancipation of the African-American. The musical ground rules had been created by white folks in Europe. To get away with them was very much in-line with social developments at the time, a time when racial segregation laws were overturned in the US.


15 thoughts on “Can Free Jazz Be Fun? A Self-Experiment

  1. I enjoyed your post very much! Music also reflects social and political changes. Free Jazz was born within the war, strikes and students protests, moral was changing fast, new voices in Jazz were defying the status quo, they sounded differently, they claimed for freedom.
    I was lucky enough to be in a Cecil Taylor and a Sun Ra concert. Both impressed me pretty much – I had been listening to those voices – I survived and I believe free jazz taught me to accept new ways of expression, Ayler, Coleman and Brotzman were family to me. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment! Free Jazz, as all other (Jazz) genres was a product of its time, and a very important one.
      I am a bit jealous of you that you had the chance to see Taylor and Sun Ra. In my view, going to a gig brings you always closer to the music, especially if it is with such characteristic player. Just listening to a live record, as I did, is obviously not the same.
      There is a Jazz festival close to my home town which is famous for having excellent young free / experimental musicians on the bill. I will try to go there this August.

      1. Thanks for your comment! You should try to see one or two gigs. I’m sure they can amaze you – that’s the whole point of it!

  2. I’ve completely surprised myself. I’m half way through Machine Gun now (with headphones) and I’m actually really enjoying it! I usually go crazy listening to stuff like this. Will be listening to the other tracks you’ve shared as well. Thank you!

      1. I got through Machine Gun and still enjoyed it! And I LOVE Albert Ayler! Thanks so much for introducing me to him. For some reason, the link for Tomorrow is the Question no longer works. I found a new one

        and am listening now. Thanks again for this post. I am grateful!

  3. In my exploration of “1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die”, it has been the Jazz that has most captured my imagination. And in the early going it has tended to be the Free Jazz that excites me most (although with The Art Ensemble of Chicago, I appear to have found my outer tolerance for the form.) The following post on Richard Muhal Abrams’ Blu Blu Blu documents my initial reaction, which was fascinatingly different from your own:

    1. Indeed, quite a different reaction – it seems you could break through the chaos and find familiar things behind – congratulations! A step I have not managed to do (yet). However, since writing my post on Free Jazz, I have kept coming back to some of the pieces, and there is hope that I will manage to make this step as well.

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