Non-sociopolitical Origins of Free Jazz

This is excerpted from an article in the College Music Symposium that was titled “Misconceptions in Linking Free Jazz with the Civil Rights Movement.” Published online: 1 October 2007 PDF:

A common misunderstanding among journalists and historians is that during the 1960s African Americans striving for their political freedoms also transferred those strivings to originate musical approaches (subsequently termed “free-form” or “free jazz”) in which freedoms were sought from adherence to fixed progressions of accompaniment chords and meter.

This link between avant-garde jazz sounds during the 1960s and the civil rights movement of that era did not necessarily reflect the motives of the originators of free jazz. The originators had other inspirations, and those inspirations reflected a fundamental tradition in jazz of continuously seeking new methods and materials. For instance, the most turbulent of saxophonist Albert Ayler’s free jazz was inspired by the sounds of ecstatic charismatic Christian church worshippers who were speaking in tongues.14 The most turbulent of saxophonist John Coltrane’s music, whether chord-based, mode-based, or free-form, was motivated by an intense quest for new forms, exploring new variations. Coltrane said, “I’ve got to keep experimenting.”15

In attempting to untangle the relations between free jazz and sociopolitical issues, a complicating factor is that free jazz appealed philosophically to some musicians who sought freedom from pre-existing structures of many sorts, both musical and social. Perhaps when journalists heard the remarks of a few such musicians they failed to realize that these musicians were not inventing free jazz; they were just adopting it.

Another factor that might explain why illusory correlations between politics and jazz styles find their way into jazz histories is that journalists and historians do not know the early history of jazz recordings that document the practice of improvising that is free of preset chord changes:

1949. Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh (“Intuition” and “Digression”)
1952. Stan Kenton (from 2′ 29″ to 3′ 08″ in the Bill Russo arrangement “Improvisation” on New Concepts in Artistry in Rhythm)
1953. Teddy Charles, Shorty Rogers, & Jimmy Giuffre (“Bobalob I” and “Bobalob II” on Collaboration: West)
1954. Shelly Manne, Shorty Rogers & Jimmy Giuffre (“Abstract #1” on “The Three” and “The Two”)
1955. Chico Hamilton (“Free Form” on The Chico Hamilton Quintet)
1958. Ornette Coleman (Something Else)

Journalists and historians may not know that such musical freedoms were being explored ten years before the widely publicized “free jazz” recordings coincided with heightened intensity of the civil rights movement. Even if they knew the early history, some authors overlooked the facts that: (a) music using free-form approaches was being recorded by white musicians (Tristano, Giuffre, et al.) for about ten years before an African American musician (Ornette Coleman) began gaining media attention for the practice; and that (b) these musicians were not particularly outspoken regarding the civil rights movement nor were they devising their musical approaches in response to civil rights abuses. Teachers and writers who assume a cause-and-effect link between emerging political freedoms and musical freedoms also overlooked the fact that: (c) other bands also continued to play free jazz in the 1960s without being inspired by politics. Though some free jazz could be inspired by politics, none of the first ten years’ worth of free jazz recordings by the originators was inspired by the civil rights movement, even that made by the mixed-race bands of Chico Hamilton and Ornette Coleman, whose African American members would certainly have experienced enough civil rights abuses to be motivated accordingly.

Whereas the free-form performances of Tristano, Giuffre, Rogers, et al were created by musicians who were thoroughly facile in basing improvisations on the movement of chords, the free-form performances of Coleman and Albert Ayler represent playing by improvisers who were not facile in devising jazz lines compatible with chord progressions. Tristano, Giuffre, Rogers, et al chose not to set harmonic guidelines beforehand, even though they could if they had wished. By contrast, Ayler and Coleman improvised solos despite not knowing how to devise lines that directly reflected chordal accompaniments. Documentation for this latter situation is presented next.

Trumpeter Nate Horwitz was a colleague of Ayler in their hometown of Cleveland. Horwitz said that Ayler did not understand how to devise a jazz solo from standard chord progressions.16 Bassist Andre Condouant recalled Ayler occasionally sitting in with the band of Al Lirvat at the café La Cigale in Paris, France. “He knew the repertoire but couldn’t improvise so much; he played like an amateur . . . . He would play ‘I’ll Remember April’ or stuff like that, and was unable to stick to even the basic harmonies”17 This is illustrated in Ayler’s 1962 recordings of “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Summertime,” in which he played with a pianist, guitarist and bassist who were following the chord changes and providing standard jazz accompaniment.18 Note that reports that Ayler knew some Charlie Parker solos19 reveal only that he knew the lines, not necessarily that he understood how they related to their chordal accompaniments. It did not demonstrate that Ayler understood bebop and only chose to ignore its technique.

Pianist Harold Batiste was a colleague of Ornette Coleman’s in Los Angeles in 1956. Batiste said that Coleman knew some Parker tunes and solos but that Coleman either did not understand or was not interested in how the lines in them related to the chords in the accompaniment. “He didn’t know how to play conventional, and then just decided to keep doing it even when it didn’t fit, as though it had to belong somewhere . . . . I don’t think he could’ve played like everybody else played.”20 Pianist Paul Bley has played with Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre, and Sonny Rollins. He hired Coleman for his own band in 1958. Bley remarked that, “While Ornette was soloing on a 32-bar piece, suddenly he would play eight bars that had no relationship, or relatively little relationship to anything else in the piece.”21 This is illustrated by Coleman’s 1958 recording of “Klactoveesedstene” with Bley.22 This is evident also in the mismatch between Coleman’s improvisations and the piano accompaniment of Walter Norris on Coleman’s first album, Something Else.23

By contrast, two of the top musicians of the period who were attracted to Coleman’s methods were thoroughly facile in chord-based improvisation. One was Don Cherry, the top trumpeter in free jazz and Coleman’s band mate on many albums. He had actually been performing in a bebop style before he met Coleman, and he later demonstrated mastery of such “inside” playing on the Sonny Rollins album Our Man in Jazz,24 though he chose to play outside the chord changes whenever he wished.

The other was saxophonist John Coltrane, who, like Cherry, also was thoroughly facile in improvising lines that continuously reflected their accompaniment harmonies, but he studiously explored methods of improvising in which minimal harmonic restrictions were in effect. In this regard, Coltrane’s record producer Bob Thiele said that “He always felt restricted playing within the chord, staying within the chords of, say, a Cole Porter song . . . . He explained it technically, as to why one could leave the chords. ‘Who says there has to be a restriction on what you play?’”25 Coltrane actually studied with Coleman to pursue this, just as he had studied the music of India to expand his capacity to extract music from modes.

From the above discussion, we can see that different kinds of free jazz had different origins. The players came to it from different directions. The free-form work of Tristano, Giuffre, Bley, Rogers, Cherry, and Coltrane represented chord-based improvisers intentionally abandoning prearrangement in order to provide themselves with fresh formats with which to approach improvisation. In regard to discovering Ornette Coleman and Coleman’s new approaches, Paul Bley said, “There had been a great deal of thought as to how to break the bondage of chord structures over meter . . . . Ornette was so early that Coltrane was an interim step which coexisted with Ornette, whereas historically it should have preceded Ornette.”26 The free-form work of Ayler and Coleman, on the other hand, seems to have represented a continuation of apparently not knowing how to base jazz solos on chord changes. We dare not use this fact to diminish the historic stature of either musician, however, just as knowing that Erroll Garner and Wes Montgomery could not read music should be appreciated as irrelevant to valuing their contributions. Ayler and Coleman were enormously original and influential, and they are justly celebrated for it. For example, Ayler’s Spiritual Unity album is highly respected, it remains a staple in the collections of jazz saxophonists, and Coleman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Keep in mind, however, that their situation was a blessing in disguise because being unable and/or unwilling to play “inside” the chord changes combined with the extraordinary fertility of these players’ melodic imaginations to drive innovations that were “outside.” Crucial to the present article is the fact that the above discussion of how free jazz originated also reveals that none of these directions represented responses to civil rights struggles.

Commentators failed to understand that most musicians make the music just for the sake of making music. A telling example can be found by recounting an incident during which journalist Frank Kofsky was trying to graft his own political agenda onto the music of saxophonist Albert Ayler and began coaxing Ayler to endorse Black anger as a root of Ayler’s music. Ayler replied, “Politics and music. They can be related in some way, but music is music and politics is politics . . . . Musicians make music.”27 Clarification was further provided by 1960s avant-garde saxophonist Marion Brown, who said, “When I play my music I’m not playing anything else at all. I’m not putting down anything that you could express in words. I don’t play about religion, or the Universe, or Love, or Hate, or Soul.”28

In addition to missing the fact that the originators of free jazz were not inspired by politics, some journalists and historians have also overlooked the fact that some musicians were exploring free jazz for purely aesthetic and technical reasons. For instance, the most eminent free-jazz innovator, Ornette Coleman, reported that in 1948 when playing “Star Dust” with Red Connors, “That’s when I started investigating other possibilities of playing music without having any straight guidelines as far as changes or chords are concerned.”29 This recalls the remark of Coltrane quoted above, “I’ve got to keep experimenting.”

These writers’ problems might also stem from a larger tendency. Commentators apparently have failed to appreciate that musicians have a host of different things in mind when they make music. Forces behind any given jazz performance include personal, technical, and environmental factors, all impinging at the same time. For instance, when asked to tell what they were thinking while improvising, Dizzy Gillespie said, “I’m thinking about how to get the line to resolve through the turnaround.”30 Wayne Shorter said, “I’m thinking about how to play something I’ve never played before.”31 Joe Henderson said, “I’m trying to play off the drummer’s rhythms.”32

Failing to make essential distinctions in their reading of accounts by journalists and musicians may be part of what has confused students, writers, and teachers. They failed to distinguish what actually inspired the music, for example “speaking in tongues” for Albert Ayler’s wildest free-form improvisations, from what was perceived in the music, such as Black anger over civil rights struggles according to journalists LeRoi Jones and Frank Kofsky. The listeners’ desires for instrumental music to have programmatic aspects might have contributed to overlooking these distinctions.

Confusion may have been increased when students, authors and instructors failed to distinguish the originators’ techniques, such as abandoning chord changes, from what others had appropriated the music for: an expression of the civil rights freedom movement. The authors of books on jazz history did not learn the rest of the story before going to press and perpetuating the myth. Ultimately instructors unwittingly continue to mislead students because they have confused the music’s effect with its inspiration.

The issue of swallowing the perceptions of forceful journalists may remind us that unlike vocal music in which meaning can be explicitly expressed by lyrics, purely instrumental music is open to diverse interpretations. Germane to the present article, this tendency is especially misleading when the music may be about the sounds for their own sake, not about sociopolitical issues. This point was made more than forty years ago in Igor Stravinsky’s remark that, “music expresses itself.”44 More than seventy years ago, he also reminded us, “Those tedious commentaries on the side issues of music not only do not facilitate its understanding, but, on the contrary, are a serious obstacle which prevents an understanding of its essence and substance.”45

Free jazz did not originate in the struggle for racial freedom and equality during the 1960s. The civil rights movement proceeded at the same time as a small movement in jazz that had dispensed with preset chord progressions as basis for improvisation, thereby “free” of song structure as a guide to spontaneous music. The free-form musicians’ freedom was musical, not social.

Certainly, there are musicians influenced in their art by the politics of their time, but the number of musicians in jazz and the extent of political influence in jazz have been exaggerated by the media. Maybe this is because: (a) it is easier to write about politics than what is actually happening in the music; (b) it is more exciting to describe sensational events of social strife and racial injustice; and (c) sociopolitical forces are easier to understand than the mysterious processes of individual creativity.

It is tempting to attribute a cause-and-effect relation between civil rights struggles and avant-garde jazz of the 1960s, but it is important to distinguish between: (a) independent personal creativity; (b) music that is motivated by political anger (which turns out to be very little); and (c) music that has been adopted as a symbolic expression of a political movement. Recall Albert Ayler’s response to journalist Frank Kofsky’s vain attempt to link Ayler’s music to the politics of Malcolm X. “Politics and music. They can be related in some way, but music is music and politics is politics . . . . Musicians make music.”


The passage below is excerpted from a follow-up article that appeared in College Music Symposium under the title “Letter to the Editor.”  It was published online: 1 October 2011 DOI:


My letter addressed a critique in College Music Symposium by Brian Harker titled “In Defense of Context in Jazz History: A Response to Mark Gridley” (CMS 48, pp. 157-159).  My letter summarized and elaborated my free jazz article about misconceptions in linking the origins of free jazz to socio-political forces. My letter refuted assertions made in the critique.

The main theme of my article was that several writers had mistakenly linked two contexts that were unrelated and then had influenced jazz appreciation teachers and students to adopt their ideas. Apparently they had done this because (a) the description of jazz improvisations that lacked preset chord progressions had occasionally gone under the designation of “free-form” or “free jazz,” and (b) attempts by American citizens to obtain their civil rights had occasionally gone under the designation “freedom riders” and “the freedom movement.” The confusion stemmed from (c) the failure of some commentators to notice that the word “free” had almost entirely different meanings in these two different contexts. (d) The conflation was further reinforced by the fact that both movements were prominent during the 1960s. In other words, freedom seeking in civil rights was linked to concurrent freedom seeking in jazz improvisation. In regard to commentators who do link political freedom with musical freedom we are reminded just how powerful language can be in catalyzing illusory correlations.

“It is unlikely that any music can truly represent the ‘feeling of the times unless it has lyrics, and most ‘times’ have so many different feelings that to characterize a period of history by a single cluster of feelings is bound to be both imprecise and inaccurate.” (Jazz Styles, Prentice-Hall, 1978, p. 336)

Relating sociopolitical struggles to jazz preferences of the 1960s in America in his book Jazz: An American Journey Brian Harker wrote “As the civil rights movement advanced…the music exploded in a metaphorical cry of impatience and frustration, producing yet another species in the evolution of jazz styles: free jazz.” (p. 225) “. . . free jazz reflected the tumult in society.” (p. 248) Despite a natural tendency to be swayed by the drama in such reporting we might ask two questions. (1) Was this era entirely tumultuous? (2) Did the era produce equally tumultuous jazz that mirrored the political arena? Certainly, there was socio-political turmoil during the 1960s. Yet Harker and others, before and after him, have assigned it more weight than is warranted in its influence on music. The overemphasis overlooks the fact that, despite high visibility in the media, only a tiny percentage of Americans were involved in protest marches or freedom rides, burning their draft cards or neighborhoods.

In accounts of the 1960s, other social historians, not just musicologists such as Harker, have also placed disproportionate attention on the activities of a small percentage of the population. The truth is that most people were going about their everyday business of living, loving, studying, and working. In fact, most of the non-jazz popular music at that time, as during most times, was about romance or unrequited love, not about the “. . . impatience and frustration with the resistance to justice” that Harker reported. In fact, romance was the topic in many of Schubert’s songs, too, not protests about Metternich’s reactionary policies in Austria. Similarly, the most popular styles of jazz during the 1960s were not tumultuous, whether free-form, or otherwise. They were bossa nova and Dixieland. Even established jazz giants Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie recorded bossa novas. Among the most popular jazz musicians during the 1960s were the Dukes of Dixieland, Al Hirt, and Pete Fountain. Almost every major city had a few good Dixieland jazz bands. Among the most popular jazz recordings were Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova “Girl from Ipanema,” performed by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, Paul Desmond’s light and lyrical “Take Five” performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and a Dixieland version of Jerry Bock’s “Hello Dolly” performed by Louis Armstrong. Eddie Harris’ jazz rendition of Ernest Gold’s theme for the movie “Exodus” and John Coltrane’s jazz recording of the “My Favorite Things” theme, from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Broadway show The Sound of Music, were found on the turntables of far more listeners than anything as tumultuous as Coltrane’s Ascension album or Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz album, which were generally viewed as the albums most representative of free-form approaches. Among the most popular recordings in the hard bop style by African American jazz musicians at that time were groove-oriented recordings of Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder,” Nat Adderley’s “Jive Samba,” Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” Eddie Harris’ “Listen Here,” and Ramsey Lewis’ cover version of Billy Page’s “In Crowd.” In other words, is there really, as Harker says, an “uncanny unity among politics, science, philosophy, and the arts during any given period” (CMS 48, page 157, lines 31-32), especially during the 1960s in America?