Free jazz

Free jazz
Stylistic origins Jazz
Cultural origins 1950s in the United States
Typical instruments Saxophone, Trumpet, Trombone, Piano, Guitar, Double Bass, Drums
Derivative forms Loft jazz - Experimental rock
Fusion genres
Post-metal - Progressive rock - Punk jazz
Regional scenes
European free jazz
Other topics
Avant-garde jazz - Free improvisation

Free jazz is an approach to jazz music that was first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. Though the music produced by free jazz composers varied widely, the common feature was a dissatisfaction with the limitations of bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz, which had developed in the 1940s and 1950s. Each in their own way, free jazz musicians attempted to alter, extend, or break down the conventions of jazz, often by discarding hitherto invariable features of jazz, such as fixed chord changes or tempos. While usually considered experimental and avant-garde, free jazz has also oppositely been conceived as an attempt to return jazz to its "primitive", often religious roots, and emphasis on collective improvisation.

Free jazz is most strongly associated with the 1950s innovations of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and the later works of saxophonist John Coltrane. Other important pioneers included Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Joe Maneri and Sun Ra. Although today "free jazz" is the generally-used term, many other terms were used to describe the loosely-defined movement, including "avant-garde", "energy music" and "The New Thing". During its early- and mid-60s heyday, much free jazz was released by the independent ESP Disk label.



There is no universally accepted definition of free jazz, and any proposed definition is complicated by many musicians in other styles drawing on free jazz, or free jazz sometimes blending with other genres. Many musicians also tend to reject efforts at classification, regarding them as useless or unduly limiting.

Free jazz uses jazz idioms, and like jazz it places an aesthetic premium on expressing the "voice" or "sound" of the musician, as opposed to the classical tradition in which the performer is seen more as expressing the thoughts of the composer. Many free jazz musicians, notably Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane, use harsh overblowing techniques or otherwise elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments. Earlier jazz styles typically were built on a framework of song forms, such as the twelve-bar blues or the 32-bar AABA popular song form, with a set framework of chord changes. In free jazz, the dependence on a fixed and pre-established form is eliminated, and the role of improvisation is correspondingly increased. As guitarist Marc Ribot has remarked, free jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, "although they were freeing up certain strictures of bebop, were in fact each developing new structures of composition."[1]

Typically this kind of music is played by small groups of musicians, but some has more. For example, John Coltrane's 1965 album Ascension, uses eleven musicians. Many critics, particularly at the music's inception, suspected that the abandonment of familiar elements of jazz pointed to a lack of technique on the part of the musicians. Today such views are more marginal, and the music has built up a tradition and a body of accompanying critical writing.[2][3] It remains less commercially popular than most other forms of jazz.

Other forms of jazz use clear regular meters and strongly-pulsed rhythms, usually in 4/4 or (less often) 3/4. Free jazz normally retains a general pulsation and often swings but without regular meter, and often with frequent accelerando and ritardando, giving an impression of the rhythm moving in waves.[4] Despite all of this, it is still very often possible to tap one's foot to a free jazz performance; meter is more freely variable but has not disappeared entirely.

Non-free jazz forms used harmonic structures (usually cycles of diatonic chords). Improvisers played solos using notes based on the notes in the chords. Free jazz almost by definition dispenses with such structures, but also by definition (it is, after all, "jazz" as much as it is "free") it retains much of the language of earlier jazz playing. It is therefore very common to hear diatonic, altered dominant and blues phrases in this music.

This breakdown of form and rhythmic structure may be due to the free jazz musicians’ use of elements from non-Western music, especially African, Arabic, and Indian. The atonality of free jazz is often credited by historians and jazz performers to a return to non-tonal music of the nineteenth century, including field hollers, street cries, and jubilees (part of the “return to the roots” element of free jazz). This suggests that perhaps the movement away from tonality was not a conscious effort to devise a formal atonal system, but rather a reflection of the concepts surrounding free jazz. Eventually, jazz became totally “free” by removing all dependence on chord progressions and instead using polytempic and polyrhythmic structures.[5]

Finally, some forms use composed melodies as the basis for group performance and improvisation. Free jazz practitioners sometimes use such material, and sometimes do not. In some music which is called "free jazz", other compositional structures are employed, some of them very detailed and complex; the music of Anthony Braxton furnishes many examples.[6] It would perhaps be best to call this modern or avant-garde jazz, reserving the term "free jazz" for music with few or no pre-composed elements.


Early recorded examples of free-form improvisation include solo guitar works by the French guitarist Django Reinhardt and a pair of 1949 recordings for Capitol by a group led by Lennie Tristano, "Intuition" and "Digression".

The mid-1950s recordings of Ornette Coleman for Contemporary (Something Else! and Tomorrow Is the Question) and the first two albums by Cecil Taylor (Jazz Advance and Looking Ahead) mark the beginnings of free jazz, though they still retain a hold on bebop and hard bop languages. The movement received its biggest impetus (and its name), however, when Coleman moved from the West Coast to New York and was signed to Atlantic Records: albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century marked a radical step beyond his more conventional early work, and when he released a 1960 recording titled Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, the name stuck to the movement as a whole.

Much of Sun Ra's music could be classified as free jazz, especially his work from the 1960s, although Sun Ra said repeatedly that his music was written and boasted that what he wrote sounded more free than what "the freedom boys" played.[7] Music by Sun Ra, especially The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (1965), was, in fact, steeped in what could be referred to as a new black mysticism.[5]

Some of bassist Charles Mingus' work was also important in establishing free jazz. Of particular note are his early Atlantic albums, such as The Clown, Tijuana Moods, and most notably Pithecanthropus Erectus, the title song of which contained one section that was freely improvised in a style unrelated to the song's melody or chordal structure. His contributions were primarily in his efforts to bring back the importance of collective improvisation in a music scene that had become dominated by solo improvisation (as a result of the development of the big band). His music did reflect the ideas of freedom, but also looked back, drawing upon bop and even swing styles.[5]

Since the mid-1950s, saxophonist Jackie McLean had been exploring a concept he called "The Big Room", where the often strict rules of bebop could be loosened or abandoned at will. Similarly, Cecil Taylor, the most prominent free jazz pianist, began stretching the bop boundaries as early as 1956.

The Jimmy Giuffre Trio (with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow) received little attention during their original incarnation from 1960–62, but afterwards were regarded as one of the most innovative free jazz ensembles.

Eric Dolphy's work with Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Chico Hamilton, along with his solo work, helped to set the stage for free jazz in the music community.

In Europe, free jazz first flowered through the experiments of expatriate Jamaican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott. Beginning in the late 1950s, he worked on his own distinctive concept of what he termed free form. These explorations were parallel to Coleman's in many respects but Harriott's work was barely known outside of England. Beginning in the mid-1960s, players such as guitarist Derek Bailey, saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker and drummer John Stevens developed an idiom that came to be called "free improvisation". It drew sustenance from free jazz while moving much further from jazz tradition (often drawing equally on contemporary composers such as Anton Webern and John Cage for inspiration).

Free jazz has primarily been an instrumental genre. However, Jeanne Lee was a notable free jazz vocalist; others such as Sheila Jordan, Linda Sharrock, and Patty Waters also made notable contributions to the genre.

Much of the multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton's music could be classified as free jazz. His Ghost Trance Music, which introduces a steady pulse to his music, also allows the simultaneous performance of any piece by the performers. Braxton has recorded with many of the free jazz musicians, including Ornette Coleman and European free improvisers such as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and the Globe Unity Orchestra.

Some musicians of the time combined performance with teaching. Max Roach and Archie Shepp taught at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. After receiving his doctorate from Columbia University Teachers College in 1971, William Byrd taught at Howard University for several years. William “Billy” Taylor taught at the C.W. Post College in Long Island while maintaining several other musical activities, including co-founding Harlem’s Jazzmobile in 1965, serving as the bandleader for the David Frost Show, working as a music commentator for the CBS “Sunday Morning” show, and publishing several compositions and the book “Jazz Piano: A Jazz History” (1983). George Russell, hailed as “the great pathbreaker” for encouraging the use of modes by free jazz composers and performers, was a faculty member at the New England Conservatory. David Baker received two degrees from and later taught at Indiana University in Bloomington, and also performed actively.[5]

The 1960s free jazz ethos was continued in the New York 1970s "loft jazz" scene (in locations such as Sam Rivers' Studio RivBea), and the 1980s "downtown" scene associated with places such as the Knitting Factory. A younger generation of players including David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, William Parker and Joe Morris continued to play free jazz inspired by the ground-breaking work of the 1960s New Thing. Like other styles of jazz, free jazz also adopted elements of contemporary rock, funk and pop music: Ornette Coleman was a leader in this vein, embracing electric music with his 1970s band Prime Time, and a number of other players including James Blood Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock, and Ronald Shannon Jackson forged styles combining elements of free jazz and fusion.

The 1981 documentary film Imagine the Sound explores free jazz through interviews with and performances by Archie Shepp, Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon.

Many musicians are keeping the free jazz style alive in the present day. Two major scenes are based in New York and Chicago. In New York, players include Charles Gayle, William Parker, Matana Roberts, Chad Taylor, John Zorn, Assif Tsahar, Tom Abbs, Kenny Werner, and Chris Speed. In Chicago, notable performers are Fred Anderson, Nicole Mitchell, Ernest Dawkins, Ken Vandermark, and Hamid Drake.


Writers Paul Tanner, Maurice Gerow, and David Megill have suggested that

the freer aspects of jazz, at least, have reduced the freedom acquired in the sixties. Most successful recording artists today construct their works in this way: beginning with a strain with which listeners can relate, following with an entirely free portion, and then returning to the recognizable strain. The pattern may occur several times in a long selection, giving listeners pivotal points to cling to. At this time, listeners accept this – they can recognize the selection while also appreciating the freedom of the player in other portions. Players, meanwhile, are tending toward retaining a key center for the seemingly free parts. It is as if the musician has learned that entire freedom is not an answer to expression, that the player needs boundaries, bases, from which to explore.[8]

Tanner, Gerow and Megill name Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, John Klemmer, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Alice Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, and Sun Ra as musicians who have employed this approach.[8]

Keith Johnson of Allmusic describes a "Modern Creative" genre, in which "musicians may incorporate free playing into structured modes -- or play just about anything."[9] Johnson includes John Zorn, Henry Kaiser, Eugene Chadbourne, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell, Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Ray Anderson in this genre, which continues "the tradition of the '50s to '60s free-jazz mode".[9]

Free jazz in the world

Outside of North America, free jazz scenes have become established in Europe and Japan. Alongside the aforementioned Joe Harriott, saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, trombonist Conny Bauer, guitarist Derek Bailey, pianist Fred Van Hove and drummer Han Bennink were among the most well-known early European free jazz performers. European free jazz can generally be seen as approaching free improvisation, with an ever more distant relationship to jazz tradition. Specifically Brötzmann has had a significant impact on the free jazz players of the United States. A relatively active free jazz scene behind the iron curtain produced musicians like Tomasz Stańko, Zbigniew Seifert, Vladimir Chekasin, Vyacheslav Ganelin and Vladimir Tarasov. Japanese guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi and saxophonist Kaoru Abe, among others, took free jazz in another direction, approaching the energy levels of noise. Some international jazz musicians have come to North America and become immersed in free jazz, most notably Ivo Perelman from Brazil and Gato Barbieri of Argentina (this influence is more evident in Barbieri's early work). South African artists, including early Dollar Brand, Zim Ngqawana, Carlo Mombelli, Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Dudu Pukwana experimented with a form of free jazz (and often big-band free jazz) that fused experimental improvisation with African rhythms and melodies. American musicians like Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Milford Graves, and Pharoah Sanders integrated elements of the music of Africa, India, and the Middle East for a sort of World music-influenced free jazz.


  1. [1]
  2. Jost, Ekkehard (1974). Studies in Jazz Research 4: Free Jazz. Universal Edition. 
  3. Litweiler, John (1984). The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958. Da Capo. ISBN 0-306-80377-1. 
  4. Litweiler (1984) page 158
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Southern, Eileen (1997). The Music of Black Americans: A History, Third Edition. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.. pp. 494–497. ISBN 0-393-97141-4. 
  6. Litweiler (1984), pages 276-7
  7. Berendt, Joachim-Ernst; Huesmann, Günther (2009). The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century. Lawrence Hill Books. p. 28. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Tanner, Paul O. W.; Maurice Gerow, David W. Megill (1988) [1964]. "Free Form — Avant Garde". Jazz (6th ed.). Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown, College Division. p. 129. ISBN 0-697-03663-4. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Johnson, Keith. "Modern Creative". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 14 July 2010. 


  • Jost, Ekkehard (1974). Free Jazz. Studies in Jazz Research 4. Graz: Universal Edition. ISBN 3-7024-0013-3. 
  • Litweiler, John (1984). The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80377-1. 
  • Rivelli, Pauline, and Robert Levin (eds.) (1979). Giants of Black Music. New York: Da Capo Press.  Articles from Jazz & Pop Magazine. Reprint of the 1970 edition, New York: World Publishing Co.
  • Sinclair, John, and Robert Levin (1971). Music & Politics. New York: World Publishing Co.. 
  • Sklower, Jedediah (2006). Free Jazz, la catastrophe féconde. Une histoire du monde éclaté du jazz en France (1960-1982). Collection logiques sociales. Paris: Harmattan. ISBN 2-296-01440-2. 
  • Such, David Glen (1993). Avant-Garde Jazz Musicians: Performing "Out There". Iowa City: University Of Iowa Press. ISBN 0-87745-432-9 (cloth) ISBN 0-87745-435-3 (pbk.).
  • Szwed, John F. (2000). Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-8496-7.

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