Home / Jazz Workshop: The Tricky Appeal of Free Jazz

Jazz Workshop: The Tricky Appeal of Free Jazz

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Bear with me. My ultimate point requires me to relate three stories…

Story #1

This story is the shortest one, but it's not by me. It comes from Do the Math, the blog of Bad Plus piano player Ethan Iverson:

[Ornette Coleman] does some shaping of his performances, which I experienced first hand when he taught me his ballad, “Once Only.” I learned the melody, wrote it down, and then began harmonizing as he played it. After the first phrase, he stopped. “Ethan, what are you playing in that first bar? Ab dominant?” It was Ab dominant. “Try E major instead.” Ah—that was better.

Seems more like a fragment than a story, I know. Keep reading.

Story #2

Five or six years ago, I pushed and prodded my hipster-ish friend Rowena into buying a copy of Slanted and Enchanted. I wasn't the first one to demand that she own it or at least hear it, so she finally relented and picked up a copy. Then, she told a group of us at a dinner that weekend, she brought it home and discovered there wasn't a track on it that she enjoyed. "It's all weird!" she exclaimed. "There's nothing going on in there that I really understand!"

I seemed to recall having the same experience with Slanted when I first heard it, and I knew that one day it had just, out of nowhere, clicked for me — suddenly I'd loved it. But I had no idea exactly how I should explain this to Rowena. Luckily another friend, Jason, was able to articulate what I couldn't.

"Listen," he said. "What you should do is put it on when you're at home one day, then do anything but listen to it. Iron your clothes, wash your dishes, read a book, take a nap if you need to. Just keep it on in the background. Do that every day for a week, and all of a sudden you'll realize you enjoy it."

Good advice, but I'm not sure Rowena ever followed it.

Story #3 (this one's the longest)

On assignment, I've spent the past week or so focusing on a free jazz album from an ensemble out of Chicago. And I don't mind telling you, it's not been easy to listen to. The music resists approaching it passively, of course, but free jazz being–well, free jazz–it also resists listening to it actively. It seems, on the surface at least, not to want to be understood. The melodies seemed like chaos, the instruments sputtering and belching, and the harmonies had some kind of naive language going on, like someone who'd never played a chord before.

"All right," I said to myself, walking home with my iPod and a dollop of frustration, "Maybe that's the angle I can approach this from: a naive art, like Grandma Moses or something. Why not? Ornette always acknowledged jazz as a folk music, didn't he?"

That's when I remembered story #1. "What are you playing in that first bar? Ab dominant? Try E major instead."

This man Coleman, who spent more of his career than almost anyone (barring Cecil Taylor) being called a charlatan and an incompetent, could detect the chord being played against his melody and suggest one that made a better harmony. By ear. This man isn't some naive folk artist, some untrained musical genius. He knows exactly what he's doing. Knows it so well, in fact, that he doesn't even have to look at the written notes to know precisely, to the note, what he's playing.

It was an epiphanical moment–one I've had before, of course, and one I'm sure I'll have many times again when this passes from my conscious mind. Once more realizing that these strange, dissonant harmonies were the result of skill, not ignorant what-happens-if-I-do-this experimentation, the music hit me in a whole new light. It was a cerebral tour-de-force, an intelelctual endeavor to study and marvel at.

Listening to the iPod for the remainder of my 40-minute walk home, I then put the physical disc on in my wonderful surround-sound player at home, and set about making dinner for my wife and myself. She came home and gave me a kiss as I was putting some chicken on the grill, then wrinkled her nose. "What is this?" she asked.

"Free jazz," I responded. "I think perhaps it's even excellent free jazz, but I need to really concentrate on it to know for sure."

She scowled. "I don't like free jazz," she said. "I've just this very minute decided."

Alas, she understood that I was getting paid to listen to this stuff, and that I was on deadline, and she let it keep playing as we sat down to a Writer's-Strike-imposed evening of dinner, Battleship, and Yahtzee. I was still hunting down her submarine when I realized what a fantastic swing the album had.

It was two hours later, trying to decide whether my snakeyes should count for my "1's" or the chance roll, that I realized I'd programmed the CD on repeat. I also realized that I was hearing melodies–strange, surreal, unique melodies, but melodies all the same. What fun, even exhilarating music! Then I further realized that my wife, without even realizing it, was moving her neck and shoulders to the swing rhythms I'd noticed before.

Boom! Story #2 hit like a ton of bricks.

When you put music on repeat and then ignore it, it's not that you're not listening to it; not really. What you're doing is letting it seep into your subconscious, and that is what does the processing for you. Or, if you like, gut instinct.


Understanding that free-jazz musicians know what they're doing is crucial. It allows you to realize that the chaos you seem to be hearing is deliberate, and gives you an in–after all, if there's a method to the madness, you can get in on that method.

That said, even if you don't get it at first, let it sink in, and don't be so sure that the seemingly high-concept abstraction won't punch you right in the gut. Sure, you have to get used to the stuff, just like you have to get used to anything else…but once you do, your id will have as much stake in the music as your rational faculties do.

Perhaps this can be summed up by another Ornette quote, this one from his liner notes to my favorite of his records, This Is Our Music: "Learned technique is a law method. Natural technique is nature's method. And this is what makes music so beautiful to me: It has both, thank God."

So does music appreciation. Thank God.

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About Michael J. West

  • JC Mosquito

    I’d say that people shouldn’t listen to this kind of music til they’re ready for it.

    It’s funny – I have certain friends that get this, and some that don’t. I loaned a later day Coltrane album to a friend, and his wife, a jazz singer, asked why he was listening to a guy practice his scales.

    Yeah – Cec Taylor, Ornette, Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, problably never sold as well as Kenny G – and that’s something I definitely don’t get.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Imo, I think people should try listening to this in parts. Like you mentioned, play the cd in the background to a chore or routine then actively listen for the melodies(?) that appeal to them. I always find with complex music that the transitions are the hardest to get used to. BUT, this stuff is right up my alley. I guess I’m used to listening to some pretty whacked out but talented sh!te.

    Thanks alot for the suggestion… Definitely some cool stuff.

  • there’s an 18-minute mp3 on the Ganelin Trio main page.

    it’s not “crazy” free jazz, but it is collective improv.

  • Thanks everyone! Mark, Pico, perhaps you guys are right; perhaps I (and Pico) simply have Commie Liberal ears. But I hope not: I hope more people are willing to give it a try, as I genuinely do think that once you acclimate yourself to it, ANYONE can enjoy it. Hell, look at my wife; she hated free jazz when the evening started, and was totally caught up in it by the end.

    Guppus, you’re right. I should have given more suggestions; I’m wary of naming the disc I was listening to–since I talked so much about it, it would amount to reviewing it here when I’m on assignment to review it elsewhere.

    So here’s an alternative suggestion. Give the sound samples a try, eh?

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    My only complaint,Mr. West, is that you should’ve pointed us,the unfamiliar music lover, to some of the works that you like. I personally would like to hear a recent release of this style because I don’t like the sounds or perhaps the egineering/recording of those instruments from the 1960s. Just my opinion & usually just about the drums.

    Other than that, It was an excellent read…

  • very nice.

    you know, sometimes i think that people should witness music like this being created live…it’s such a different experience than listening to a recording.

    the big problem of course is that most ears (Pico’s excepted) hear music and try very hard to fit it into the forms they know. so when a set of chord changes and their associated melody lines are not layed out as usual, the dissonance puts them off.

  • I don’t think that most people would like whack jazz no matter how many times they listen to it, even as background music. If anything, it might make them hate it even more.

    Luckily, I’m not one of those people ;&)

  • Nicely done Micheal. You really brought this home by going full circle to make your point. It’s a literary device sure, but when it’s done well — as it is here — it can be a very effective one. Again, well done sir.