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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, the KNKX and Jazz24 music teams illustrate the different styles that make up jazz history through storytelling and music. From the early 1900’s to present, journey with us from Dixieland to modern jazz styles, big-band to hip-hop.

Often polarizing, free jazz is for those who chose to break the rules

Ornette Coleman at Enjoy Jazz Festival 2008, Heidelberg, Germany.
Frank Schindelbeck
CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons
Ornette Coleman at Enjoy Jazz Festival, Heidelberg, Germany in 2008.

Free jazz might shove you a bit – or a lot – out of your comfort zone. Carl Pogue suggests that might not be such a bad thing.

Listen to the story above or read the script below:

Ah, the ‘60s. You remember the concept of free love? Went over well with some, not so much with others.

The onset of free jazz in the ‘60s was polarizing in the jazz camp, too. It upset the established order, and there’s little doubt the cultural and political upheaval the U.S. experienced that decade provided fertile soil for those ideas to grow.

Think of free jazz as the punk rock sibling in the jazz family, resulting in sounds that often were a potent form of protest. Here’s a bit of John Handy’s "Tears of Ole Miss."

Free jazz actually burst onto the scene in the ‘50s. Sure, there were avant-garde precursors as early as the ‘40s, but the movement didn’t formulate until later, and when it did, free jazz was an outright rejection of the styles of playing that had taken hold at the time: modal, bebop, hard bop and the like.

If you regard jazz in general as intellectual music; its avant-garde sub-genre is even more challenging. You rarely experience lyrical or melodic elements in free jazz. Most of us are used to hearing music with some sort of pattern of beats and bars; free jazz takes that notion of regular meters and kicks it to the curb. Harmonic structure? No need.

So… what’s left? Music – and expression – that’s hyper-improvisational, often atonal, and typically intense, like Albert Ayler’s song "Masonic Inborn."

Now listen, I try to avoid declarative statements when it comes to music: saying “I prefer this over that,” rather than “this is better than that,” but sometimes my opinions run roughshod. I think we all deal with that to some degree. You can see, though, with free jazz, how the music can more than just confuse listeners, it can frustrate them. Maybe even aggravate them.

Ornette Coleman was on the receiving end of that hostility during a gig in Louisiana. He was beaten by a mob that also wrecked his saxophone. And it didn’t end with the audience - critics pounced, even musical peers: the legendary drummer Max Roach punched Coleman in the mouth after hearing him play Ornette Coleman’s "Theme from a Symphony."

If you’re a radio station that features jazz as a format, you’d better tread lightly when it comes to the avant-garde. The jazz genre as a whole appeals to a slim segment of the population. Free jazz narrows that already limited audience to a select few. But it’s those listeners who often protest that free jazz is jazz, that it embodies the true spirit of the art form. But for most, free jazz is a non-starter. By that I mean someone who would otherwise give a unique sounding artist a shot, in this case will come to a decision in about ten seconds. And that decision is often “bye bye.” Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the first ten seconds of Peter Brötzmann’s song “Everything”:

Hey – you’re still with us. All kidding aside, I’m not trying to convert anyone, just to have you regard free jazz from a different perspective, namely this one: there have been some nasty lines written about certain avant-garde musicians, that their technique and sound reflect a lack of skill. Maybe that’s true for some, but I’m fascinated by the artists who are accomplished musicians – everyone cited in this piece for example – who learned the rules, then chose to break the rules. That might be the biggest takeaway in regards to free jazz: when it comes to art, do we have to get hung up by rules at all?

KNKX Celebrates Jazz Appreciation Month

Throughout the month of April, we will be illustrating different styles of jazz through time that make up jazz history through storytelling and music. From the early 1900’s to 2022, we will journey from Dixieland to Modern Jazz styles, Big Band to Hip Hop.

Listen to installments each weekday at 9am and 7pm on 88.5 FM and See all stories from the KNKX History of Jazz project.

Carl Pogue fell in love with radio ever since getting a degree in the field over three decades ago. He’s spent his entire working career at commercial and public stations, with stops in Portland, San Diego, as well as NPR’s furthest affiliates on the Micronesian islands of Guam and Saipan.