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Jazz Audience Advocates

Avant-garde and Free Jazz

Thomas R. Brown
Jazz Audience Advocates

This is a difficult topic for me to write about. I don’t want be guilty of the very thing I’m critical of—that is to influence you by my opinion of styles or players. As a quasi jazz editor I have an obligation to be encompassing, not exclusionary, regarding the presentation of styles and musicians. Having said that, I will proceed to break my own rules and talk a bit about a style of jazz that isn’t a favorite of mine. 

First of all, what is avant-garde jazz? Occasionally it is used interchangeably with free jazz. I won’t go into all the definitions. You’ll find them online. Briefly, much like other art forms that were leaning toward avant-garde in the 50s and 60s, avant-garde jazz is a style that dismisses traditional foundations. For example, these players tend not to adhere to, nor follow the guidelines of a fixed number of chord progressions in a given order, i.e., songs or tunes. That’s not to say that there is no structure to the stuff these folks play. Free jazz is really not free. There are musical rules to follow. Somewhat of a contradiction don’t you think? If you follow the avant-garde and free jazz groups that play the summer jazz fest circuits, their performances consist essentially of the same stuff every night.

I’ve tried to discover the standards with which to judge avant-garde players. One standard that doesn’t seem to apply is the ability to play one’s instrument well. To my ears many musicians who begin their playing careers and continue to play in this style, are not particularity good musicians. They usually don’t practice chords, scales, licks or even the technical basics of their instruments, which is the most serious omission. But they are good at making strange and unusual sounds. I can speak with authority about the drummers I’ve heard and I feel I am somewhat qualified to criticize piano and horn players as well.

Forgive me but Cecil Taylor, the high priest of avant-garde piano, is a joke. David Murray is a current avant-garde tenor player who is highly revered by critics. He has been described as “nothing if not a virtuoso” by Gary Giddins. However, give a listen to David play standards on the David Murray Quartet album, Season, 1999. I’m embarrassed for him.

There tends to be an abundance of show biz in the presentation of many avant-garde groups, especially those at the national level. After playing a set with a local group at the Ford/Detroit International Jazz Festival a few years back, I walked to the main stage and caught a few tunes by a national avant-garde group. There was an element of circus in their performance. They all wore funny clothes that complimented their funny music. But how long can these sounds entertain you, and more importantly, how often will you go back to listen to them on an album? This particular group seemed to go for the cute, surprising, and unexpected that might appeal to a classical music crowd willing to give avant-garde a listen as a kind of comic relief in the middle of a classical music performance. “Well that was certainly unusual don’t you think Martha? Yes Frank, and wasn’t it fun? I loved the guitar player’s costume. Is the Mozart next?”

Again, what are the criteria that determine if one avant-garde player is good and another is not so good? I have no idea. Maybe it’s as simple as assessing one’s emotional reaction while listening. Or perhaps it’s the visual component. Most jazz critics and journalists LOVE this music. What do they know that I don’t? Or more specifically, what can they hear that I can’t?  It may be that they’re infatuated with the general concept of tear it down and rebuild it better. That concept does work sometimes but there are many examples where it fails miserably. You can listen to politicians on the right and the left argue about this topic ad nauseam.

In preparation for this essay I contacted several professors from Detroit and Ann Arbor Universities, two from art history and one professor of music composition. We discussed closely related issues in classical music.

I’ve learned there are characteristics associated with contemporary classical music that can be found in avant-garde jazz as well. It seems that contemporary classical musicians who play improvisationally tend to minimize the importance of the recognized masters except to the extent that the masters’ work was necessary for the progression and development of contemporary music to its present pinnacle, improvisation without form. A quote from one professor: “These contemporary classical musicians tend to be a somewhat arrogant group of artists whose performances seem to please a very small segment of the classical music audience and a disproportionately large percent of the critics.” Sound familiar? What a striking parallel!

OK, now to back pedal. I began to learn about jazz from Jim Stefanson, a Detroit alto player who played bop but also had a real interest in Ornette Coleman (alto), the major innovator of early free jazz. During our rehearsals in the late fifties we would always include a few of Ornette’s tunes along with jazz standards such as Donna Lee and Stablemates. I quickly came to enjoy Ornette’s writing and playing. A current example of Ornette-inspired writing is John Scofield’s “Big Fan” from John’s album, The Best of John Scofield. John told me, after I begged him for a copy of the tune, that the big fan he was referring to was himself, and the artist was Ornette.

As an aside, if you’re interested in learning how to hear Ornette’s music I suggest the following. Get two of his early albums. The first is, Tomorrow is the Question. It serves as a good introduction to Ornette in that he is playing somewhat more conservatively here than in his later work. Listen to and completely digest the first album. The second is, Double Quartet. From the get-go Ornette throws you off the deep end but I suspect that at least you’ll be somewhat boyant if you spend some time with it.

There are local avant-garde players that I respect and enjoy, but they all are great players in more straight ahead jazz styles. On the national scene the tenor players that can play this style well include Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker (deceased), Jerry Bergonzi, Ravi Coltrane, and Joe Lovano. They are all proficient at improvising on tunes with chord progressions but they can also shift into an avant/free mode and sound wonderful.

Despite all this, I will keep an open mind and continue to discover something substantive in hard core avant-garde jazz. I invite interested listeners to discuss the standards with which to judge this music and tell me where I‘m going wrong. I would consider posting such a piece on this site (contact tombrown2@comcast.net). And above all, don’t let anyone’s opinion, including mine, influence your choice of favorite styles or musicians.  The hammer-home message of our organization is, develop your own listening skills and make your own decisions.  These are the only ones that will be meaningful to you.


Copyright © 2012-2013
Thomas R. Brown
All rights reserved.


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