One Punk’s Guide to Free Jazz by Mike Faloon

Originally appeared in Razorcake #108 Feb./March 2019
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One Punk’s Guide to Free Jazz by Mike Faloon

“The weirdos of America have always been ignored but have always made great shit happen.” –Taylor Ho Bynum(1)

***

Emerging at the dawn of twentieth century, no one knows exactly who started jazz or precisely when it started. But all paths lead to African-Americans, specifically black Creoles, living in Jim Crow New Orleans. Using rhythms and melodies from Africa and the Caribbean, they drew on ragtime, blues, marches, work songs, spirituals, and waltzes.

As with any great leap forward, particularly one emanating within an oppressed and ostracized community, jazz met with resistance from the outset. Opponents spewed racist and classist arguments, decrying the music’s “bad taste” and claiming this African-American art form posed a threat to “middle class” (nay, white) values. Meanwhile, a number of white musicians formed their own bands, co-opting the sounds of their African-American contemporaries. Some went a step further and had the audacity to claim credit for creating jazz.

But as we’d later see with rock’n’roll, punk, and hip hop, the gatekeepers didn’t wield all the power. Jazz spread rapidly: Chicago, New York, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and countless cities in between. Across the decades, attempts to denigrate jazz and its creators persisted (and persist), but over time a jazz cannon emerged. Jelly Roll Morton. Louis Armstrong. Duke Ellington. Billie Holiday. Charlie Parker. Miles Davis. John Coltrane. These iconic figures and many others faced countless obstacles as they defined and refined America’s greatest artistic contribution to world culture.

And they’re just the start of the story. Jazz has evolved in many directions since. I would argue the most compelling of these subgenres is free jazz. Most renderings of jazz history give short shrift, if any consideration at all, to free jazz. Most read like a history of punk that skips from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana and ends with Green Day. Much of the best punk exists beyond the common narrative. The same holds true for jazz.


***

From a scene in The Office. Angela has just realized her husband is having an affair with a coworker.

Angela: I feel so stupid.
Dwight: You’re not stupid. Jazz is stupid.
Angela: Jazz is stupid. Why don’t they play the right notes?

***

Jazz often serves as a punch line, cultural shorthand for a number of stereotypes. Jazz is pretentious. Jazz is too complicated. Jazz is boring. Meanwhile, the music can elicit negative images of its fans, from the finger-snapping, beret-wearing beatnik, to the yuppie, know-it-all with a turntable that costs more than a used car.

Jazz and its followers, at their worst, can sink to these clichés. But jazz, at its best, thrives far beyond mainstream aesthetics and commercial considerations. And in my experience, it’s made by thoughtful, grounded people who encounter many of the same obstacles as their counterparts in other parts of the cultural underground, like where to put on shows and how to find reliable record labels and distribution.

The prospect of wading in can be daunting. Having a trustworthy guide is invaluable. Mine was a high school friend, Jeff. He was only a year older but already developed an expansive knowledge of music. He introduced me to ‘50s classics such as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue—soothing and prettyand ‘70s gems like Stanley Clarke’s Schooldays, inspired by funk and rock. Jeff also steered me away from the smooth jazz of the era, the ‘80s bands that smiled too much and sleepwalked through sounds best suited for mimosa-soaked Sunday brunches.

I heard a few records I liked, but didn’t latch on to any particular musicians. I appreciated Jeff’s passion, but also knew he was a talented bassist and a quick study. I figured his understanding was largely rooted in being able to play the music, speak the language. He could hear things I couldn’t. The seeds of curiosity were planted, but I also started to contend with some of the stereotypes, specifically of jazz fans.

At the time I played in a cover band, King Otter And The Electric Flem. One time we closed a backyard party with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” I loved the song. Still do. It’s easy to play and so satisfying. After we finished, a friend—his head full of jazz guitarists like Pat Metheny and Al Di Meola—asked to borrow a guitar. He scoffed at “You Really Got Me.” He mocked the song—and, by extension, us—for being so simple. Then he started noodling. He fired off lots of notes in rapid succession. His playing was impressive, required a lot of dexterity, but it didn’t register. It was like someone mistaking a large vocabulary for good story telling. I thought he was judging unfairly, being a typical jazz fan (not that I knew many), mistaking the quantity of notes for the quality of the music. In this case, though, it was probably more a function of age, the folly of youth, but he confirmed my sense of jazz fans being snobs.

***

“If you go back, there are weird, trippy records. That’s when people you met (in the late ‘70s scene) had deep knowledge of obscure, trippy musics. Raymond Pettibon taught me so much. He brought me to my first bebop gig. He plays me (John Coltrane’s) Ascension. I thought John Coltrane was still alive. I thought he was a punk rocker, an older one. It was like a Nervous Gender gig, Germs. Totally wild.” –Mike Watt [2]

***

My college radio station played jazz in the afternoon. I DJ’d on nights and weekends and occasionally filled in on the jazz show. I was fumbling in the dark but remembered some of the names Jeff introduced to me. My default was to find the longest song on each record, so I’d have fewer songs to choose.

Records like John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage started coming into focus. Other records were as baffling as they were intriguing. Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, for example, is a perplexing, thought-provoking record. Recorded in late 1960, Coleman led a double quartet of two saxes, trumpets, bassists, and drummers. They played live to tape with no written parts or songs. They played for thirty-seven minutes. Half went on side one. Half became side two. Pure improvisation. An eight-person conversation. Free Jazz isn’t the best of the genre—or even the pinnacle of Coleman’s career—but it’s riveting. There were fewer melodies and less repetition than I was used to. Plus, I had no context for how or why anyone would embark on such an endeavor, but I admired the audacity. It was like performance art, like Andy Kaufman’s bizarre wrestling sketches, and I was left wondering how much was about expression and how much was about provocation.

I thought I was starting to figure out jazz but I wasn’t fooling anyone. One afternoon, I introduced side one of Free Jazz by “Ornate Coleman.” I didn’t realize my mistake until a very patient listener called in to correct me.

***

“I’ve always said we don’t have to compromise this music at all. We don’t have to do anything to sweeten it, make it more palatable to mainstream sensibilities. We just have to present it as our art, as it is, and people with ears are going to hear it.” –James Keepnews, quoting drummer Andrew Cyrille [3]

***

At the time, I would have said I liked jazz but didn’t understand it. It was like my perception of wine, an acquired taste, something I associated with the worst aspects of adulthood—resignation and responsibility. To me, this meant a lot of work and more projected joy than actual satisfaction. I thought the music’s true meanings were beyond my reach and any attempts to crack the codes would leave me flailing while being held at arm’s length, like Curly trying in vain to scrap with Moe.      

I assumed there were definitive meanings to be extracted, certain things I was supposed to understand. I felt like real aficionados readily understood these things and would quickly realize that I did not. This was more a function of my insecurities and projections than actual experiences. I’d once felt the same way about punk. But punk comes right at me, offering lyrics, rhythms, and melodies that I usually connect with immediately. Jazz can be equally provocative, equally stimulating, but more circuitous. Not better or worse, just different paths.

***

Everything changed with Pharoah Sanders, a saxophonist who moved from Arkansas to New York by way of Oakland in the early ‘60s. He played with Sun Ra and came to greater prominence with John Coltrane. I recognized his name, which I associated with the most adventurous of musicians, someone who I perceived to be truly out there. At a used record store, I found a double album “best of.” Gatefold. Ten dollars. The combination of mystery, legend, aesthetics, and price was irresistible. The first passes through the record were rough. I liked parts but didn’t get far with the shrieking and honking, the seeming totality of atonality. Over time, though, Sanders’ range came into focus, the beauty and cacophony, sometimes alternating, others simultaneous. Meanwhile, the percussion swirled. It didn’t move straight ahead, it didn’t push like the drumming I was used to. The rhythms supported, lifted, hovered, and floated, weren’t concerned about moving forward in time, about completing a task from start to finish. Maybe there were meanings to be deciphered, intentions to be decoded, maybe not. It wasn’t as binary as I’d led myself to believe. I started to hear the grey areas, even if I was still mystified. Pharoah Sanders was an acquired taste but his music didn’t feel like work. It felt like release.

I’d found my way back to free jazz, also known as creative music or improvised or spontaneous or out or instantly composed. Or energy music or the new thing, or any of the other labels that have been slapped on and peeled off over the years. Monikers aside, I was more receptive than I’d been before. Sanders offered a fascinating mix of composition and improvisation, the planned and the spontaneous. Jazz had always blended, composed, and improvised parts to varying extents, but free jazz—which emerged in the late ‘50s and bloomed throughout the ‘60s and beyond—puts different combinations in play, pushes in different directions, incorporates a broader range of tones, rhythms, and meters. Pharoah Sanders led me to other giants of the era including Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, Grachan Moncur, and Joe McPhee. And I can’t leave out drummers such as Andrew Cyrille and Sunny Murray. Most drummers strive to keep time, but Cyrille and Murray, among others, sought to untether their playing from conventional time in favor of more abstract rhythms. Valerie Wilmer, writing about Murray, said it really well in her book As Serious as Your Life: “(His) aim was to free the soloist completely from restrictions of time, and to do this he set up a continual hailstorm of percussion.”

***

“The history of this creative music was people making (music) for themselves. The music was not about a set of patterns you play over a certain kind of chord changes, but was a process of committed self-discovery, cultural examination, and revolutionary thought.” –Taylor Ho Bynum

***

Over the course of the ’60s and into the ’70s, many jazz musicians, like a lot of counterparts in rock, made a play for the mainstream—exposed chest hair, fusion, arenas—diluting their sounds in pursuit of bigger paychecks and wider acceptance. But free jazz musicians were less inclined to view their music as a primarily commercial enterprise. During this time, a number of black music collectives started across the country. Bill Dixon founded the Jazz Composers Guild in New York, which sought to work collectively when dealing with club owners and promoting shows, and, later, the Free Conservatory of the University of the Streets, which focused on teaching music to young people. In St. Louis, the Black Artist Group included poets, painters, and actors along with musicians. According to Todd Jenkins’s Free Jazz and Free Improvisation, the BAG’s headquarters included “classrooms, performance and rehearsal spaces, and dormitories.” In Chicago, a group of musicians founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1965. In 2015, the AACM celebrated fifty years of “nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music” [4] with a four hour concert at Mandel Hall in Chicago.

***

“I use the term free music. Free from any industry, institutional, or critical oversight.” –Joe Morris [5]

***

I’m just starting to explore those black music collectives. Likewise for the loft scene of the ‘70s, a time when musicians in New York City created their own spaces, set up their own shows, and released their own records. Out of necessity, they took into their own hands more of the means of making and promoting their music—and all of the work that came with it. Pianist Cooper-Moore sealed cracks in the walls of his band’s unheated, four story building at 501 Canal Street. Saxophonist Sam Rivers and his wife Bea Rivers ran the performance space Studio Rivbea on Bond Street. Juice Glover, an electrician by trade, held regular sessions at his place, The Firehouse Theatre, on East Eleventh Street.

***

It’s no coincidence jazz pushed the boundaries so far and so fast during the civil rights era, but motivations were multifaceted. Writing for the New York Review of Books, Adam Shatz described how there was a “misleading tendency to analyze jazz, especially formally adventurous, ‘free’ or avant-garde jazz, as some kind of direct expression of radical politics: the cry of urban rage or the voice of the black revolution. Questions of aesthetics, of the painstaking choices people made when crafting their art, went out the door.” [6]

Anger and other emotions were part of the equation, but reducing musicians’ motivations to just these factors diminishes their intellect and intentions, among other things. It’s not surprising perceptions of jazz and its creators are often simplified. Jazz is an African-American art form and most of its innovators have been black men. There continues to be trouble accepting black men in multiple, sophisticated roles, especially when “composer” is one of those roles.

Composers are held in the highest regard in Eurocentric music. They write the tunes. They pen the script everyone follows. Western tradition is locked into music being written, planned, rehearsed. Through this lens, people often believe improvised music is lesser because it merges those parts—to varying extents the writing happens as the performance unfolds, as if what’s spontaneous is inherently inferior to what’s mapped out.
I used to be baffled by the idea of improvised music. I’ve tried playing drums for years. I can barely fumble through simple songs I’ve rehearsed dozens of times. I can’t imagine participating in spontaneous composition that would appeal to an audience. Improvised music is like conversation. Good conversations aren’t scripted. We may think of what we want to say beforehand, consider topics to bring up, jokes to share, phrases to include, but we listen and respond in the moment.

***

“(Braxton) was saying it’s O.K. to be a black composer in your own way, and to develop your own language, and to also write about it, to find a way to communicate it to the public, so that you won’t go down in history as being defined by someone else.” –Tyshawn Sorey, multi-instrumentalist, composer, talking about Anthony Braxton [7]

***

In the ’70s, Anthony Braxton, a saxophonist, composer, and teacher, developed his own ways of notating and naming his songs. He devised a unique system of letters, numbers, shapes, and lines. Traditional notes and staffs didn’t convey all he was expressing. His song titles can resemble schematics or blueprints. While Braxton was accepted as a jazz musician, his work—which didn’t fit the mold—was met with widespread resistance and confusion. “I can’t get my orchestra music out, I can’t get my chamber music out,” Braxton told writer Graham Lock in the 1988 book Forces in Motion. Variations of this typecasting persist. Tyshawn Sorey is an accomplished drummer, pianist, and trombonist. He has a doctorate from Columbia and is a professor at Wesleyan. He’s composed jazz pieces and operas. Despite these and other credentials, he feels he is pigeonholed as “just” a drummer.

***

“I don’t think it’s likely that modeling a kind of music that encourages intergenerational, intercultural, non-hierarchical dialogue, and creative thinking is actually going to create a political system that mirrors that, but it’s like the Seven Samurai. They knew they were going to lose, and even if they won, half of them would be dead and the villagers would hate them, but you gotta fight anyway, you take on the bandits.” –Taylor Ho Bynum
 
***

Looking back on the history is interesting. Following the current scene is even better. There’s a golden era of free jazz records, which I’ll come back to shortly. The gateway is live performances. I stumbled across a weekly series of live shows at Quinn’s, a diner-turned-club, in a neighboring town. It seemed too good to last. I’ve learned from punk that reliable venues tend to be short-lived and should be relished while they’re active, so I went as often as possible.

The live shows at Quinn’s heightened my appreciation for free jazz. It was seeing Joe McPhee for the first time, playing with the late Dominic Duval, sax and bass so subtle and subdued that I had to lean closer before McPhee ripped through, reached for the highest end of his register and beyond, and blew blustery clouds of atonality. It was being there as trumpet player Jaimie Branch closed her eyes, tilted her head, and propelled a series of delicate, prolonged notes that conjured colors I never before could conceive. It was witnessing two frat boys walk in half way through a James Brandon Lewis sax solo. Talking as they crossed the room, they were oblivious to Lewis. They also confirmed my assumptions about white dudes with collared shirts and ball caps. They continued yammering as Lewis ramped up, facing his bandmates, his back to the audience, louder, more frantic, and laser focused. The frat dudes approached the counter and before the words “Bud Lite” could pass their lips, Lewis connected and their faces lit up with the same Holy shit! looks the rest of us wore. Much of the appeal in seeing improvised music is seeing everything between the notes, witnessing the means and the ends, the deliberations and decisions, the wincing and grimacing and reaching.

***

“Most people don’t live in a place where interesting things happen frequently. Invariably, in all of these places, there is a small clutch of people who are absolutely dedicated to making their community more fun and exciting. They just want to do their part and make the place where they live a little less drab and soul crushing. This is a constant. These are the people who start bands and put on shows and form roller derby leagues and run little record labels out of their kitchen and all manner of other constructive activities. Generally, they make no money. They struggle against daunting odds, just so their community has sounds other than the monotonous churn of factory equipment and the mundane clack of computer keyboards one cubicle over, and sights other than Subway signs and Chevy dealerships.” [8] –Rev. Nørb, writer, musician

***

James Keepnews and Steve Ventura are among that small clutch of people. They built the scene at Quinn’s that came to mean so much to me. They’re enthusiastic and eager to share their knowledge, quite unlike my initial assumptions about jazz fans. They’re like activists in their drive to promote the music they revere. And they’re not alone. Bassist Michael Bisio and his wife Dawn Bisio host shows in the community room of their apartment building in Kingston, N.Y. Drummer Andrew Drury hosts the Soup and Sound series at his Brooklyn apartment. He makes and serves soup before each show. In each case people are putting on amazing, affordable shows in accessible settings.

***

“People ask, ‘Do you make any money? Will it be historically significant? My answer is, ‘Screw you.’ It took me a long time to get to that.” [9] –Joe Morris, guitarist, composer

***

Then there are the records. A few years ago, just as I was wrapping my head around Pharoah Sanders, in the depths of an endless Northeast winter in which the snow piled ever higher and my back ached ever more from the shoveling, I wanted new sounds while working outside. A Village Voice “Best of the Year” poll led me to Lisa Mezzacappa’s What Is Known? and Mary Halvorson’s Saturn Sings.
Lisa Mezzacappa is a San Francisco-based bassist. What Is Known? has a real spark and crackle. There’s a punk-like energy, especially in John Finkbeiner’s guitar, but Mezzacappa’s songs are more sinuous. (I later learned Finkbeiner was in Mike Lucas’s Knights Of The New Crusade.)

Mary Halvorson is a guitarist based in NYC. She is small in stature and her glasses evoke the look of a librarian, but she wields an enormous hollow body guitar with an even bigger sound. Saturn Sings is sweeping and melodic at times. Other times Halvorson plays with distress signal urgency, surfing through exhilarating fretboard dances that evolve into freeform freakouts, on the precipice of being too much to ingest. Then she jump cuts, slows down and allows her tone to mushroom, wondrously large and enveloping.

I go back to their records often and I’ve discovered dozens of others from the Monday night shows at Quinn’s. Jazz musicians can be more prolific than mid-’90s J Church, New Bomb Turks, and Man Or Astroman? combined. There’s a steady stream of records and the more adventurous the musician, the greater the potential for extreme peaks and valleys. I suggest following specific musicians like some people follow certain directors or actors. Knowing the cast and/or creators is more important than the genre. Over time you’ll figure out who you trust.

I took the deep dive into free jazz about five years ago. I’m still puzzling it out, still discovering fascinating musicians from a wide range of ages, ethnicities, genders, cultures, and classes. I’m still running into performances and finding records that leave me bewildered. Not everything sticks, but there are few things in this life as invigorating as uncompromising music that respects your intelligence, doesn’t lay out everything in a “paint-by-numbers” format, and leaves you with some work to do. As with punk, there’s a lot to be explored and you can encounter a heap of “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” but open-minded thrill seekers will find plenty to embrace. Here’s a list of records that helped me along my journey into this fascinating world.

Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners (1957), with John Coltrane (1957)
Miles Davis, Kinda Blue (1959), In a Silent Way (1969)
John Coltrane, Giant Steps (1960), Africa/Brass (1961) Love Supreme (1965)Pharaoh Sanders, Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun) (1970) Pharoah Sanders & The Underground (2014)
Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidananda (1970)
Joe McPhee, Nation Time (1971), Barrow Street Blues (2015), Plan B from Outer Space (2017)
McCoy Tyner, Extensions (1970), Enlightenment (1973)
Anthony Braxton, New York, Fall 1974 (1974), Five Pieces 1975 (1975)
Mary Halvorson, Saturn Sings (2010), Illusionary Sea (2013), Away with You (2016)
Kirk Knuffke, Arms & Hands (2015)
Andrew Drury, Content Provider (2015)
Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (2017)
Ingrid Laubrock, Roulette of the Cradle (2015)
Tomeka Reid Quartet, Self-titled(2015)
Kamasi Washington, The Epic (2015)

Mike Faloon is a longtime Razorcake contributor. His latest book, The Other Night at Quinn’s, is out now on Razorcake/Gorsky. It’s about the free jazz scene that emerged in a small town in upstate New York. Check it out if this article resonated.


[1] This and subsequent quotes from Taylor Ho Bynum come from episode 147 of Jeremiah Cymerman’s podcast, “5049.”

[2] Interview in Razorcake #100

[3] From an interview with the author

[4] aacmchicago.org/about/

[5] Interview with the author

[6] “Jazz and the Images That Hold Us Captive,” Adam Shatz, New York Review of Books, June 17, 2018

[7] “Is It Jazz? Improvisation? Tyshawn Sorey Is Obliterating the Lines,” Giovanni Russonello, New York Times, August 2, 2017

[8] Nørb originally posted this on social media. It’s also included in The Other Night at Quinn’s (Razorcake/Gorsky, 2018).

[9] Interview with author