Free jazz is an approach to jazz music that was first developed in the 1950s and 60s as musicians attempted to alter, extend, or break down jazz convention, often by discarding fixed chord changes or tempos. Though the music of free jazz composers varied widely, a common feature was dissatisfaction with the limitations of bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz that had developed in the 1940s and 50s. Often described as avant-garde, free jazz has also been described as an attempt to return jazz to its primitive, often religious, roots and emphasis on collective improvisation.
As its name implies, free jazz cannot be defined more than loosely, as many musicians draw on free jazz concepts and idioms, and it was never completely distinct as a genre. Many free jazz musicians, notably Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane, used harsh overblowing or other techniques to elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments, or played unusual instruments. Free jazz musicians created a progressive musical language which drew on earlier styles of jazz such as Dixieland jazz and African music. Typically this kind of music is played by small groups of musicians. The music often swings but without regular meter, and there are frequent accelerandi and ritardandi.
Free jazz is strongly associated with the 1950s innovations of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and the later works of John Coltrane. Other important pioneers include Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Joe Maneri and Sun Ra. Coleman pioneered many techniques typical of free jazz, most notably his rejection of pre-written chord changes, believing instead that freely improvised melodic lines should serve as the basis for harmonic progression in his compositions. Some of bassist Charles Mingus's 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. 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-1960s heyday, much free jazz was released by established labels such as Prestige, Blue Note, and Impulse, as well as independents such as ESP Disk and BYG Actuel.
Defining the essence of free jazz is complicated; many musicians draw on free jazz concepts and idioms, and free jazz was never entirely distinct from other genres. Many individual musicians 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 or other extended techniques to elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments.
Earlier jazz styles typically were built on a framework of song forms (e.g.: 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."
Free jazz, especially during its inception, contains themes of both progressive musical language and gathering inspiration from the past. The rejection of the bop aesthetic was combined with an increased fascination with earlier styles of jazz such as Dixieland jazz with its collective improvisation, as well as African music. This interest in older and more culturally authentic forms of music resulted in the incorporation of instruments from a variety of global cultures by many free jazz musicians. This includes Ed Blackwell's use of the West African talking drum, and Leon Thomas's interpretation of pygmy yodeling.
Typically this kind of music is played by small groups of musicians, although some examples use larger numbers. For example, Ornette Coleman's 1960 album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation uses eight musicians, and John Coltrane's 1965 album Ascension, uses eleven musicians.
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 we encounter frequent accelerando and ritardando, giving an impression of the rhythm moving in waves. 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.
Previous jazz forms used harmonic structures (usually cycles of diatonicchords), and even when improvisation occurred it was founded on the notes in the chords. Free jazz almost by definition is free of 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.
The practitioners of free jazz were serious about pursuing this approach, and their music employed concurrent developments in 20th Century art-music theory and practice also used by John Cage, Musica Elettronica Viva, and the Fluxus movement.
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" (or avant-garde jazz) other compositional structures are employed, some of them very detailed and complex; recordings of Clifford Thornton and Anthony Braxton furnish many examples.
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. It remains less commercially popular than most other forms of jazz.
This breakdown of form and rhythmic structure has been seen by some critics to coincide with jazz musicians’ exposure to and 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.