The music wasn't unnamable because it was given many names. Among its listeners and critics there seemed to be no consensus of a universally accepted label to cover the varied innovative approaches to revolutionary jazz from the late 1950's through the 1960's. My awakening to the wide world of modern jazz occurred in my teen years. As a budding musician, I loved the preceding stages of this music's evolution and aspired to become adept at playing everything from 1930's "swing" through the early-1960's gospel-tinged "soul" jazz, with special emphasis on absorbing the most challenging 1940's "bebop" innovations of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. All the while, in keeping informed through incessant reading about jazz, I was fully aware that while the bebop revolution had been triggered by young musicians' dissatisfaction with their perceived creative limitations of the swing idiom, the music of my own era was entering another musical revolution by restless young musicians revolting against what the challenging bebop had become in its various descendant forms such hard bop, "mainstream" and "cool" jazz.
The introduction of modal jazz (favored by Miles Davis and John Coltrane) was a desire to push the boundries of jazz into unchartered territory. This produced some refreshing music different in nature to forms of jazz previously heard. Modal jazz was not, however, a true pathway to freedom, being more restrictive harmonically than some of the more adventurous bop. The music of Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols and Randy Weston exhibited greater rhythmic and harmonic diversity and freedom. As such, their music inspired a new breed of musicians seeking a manner of expression unencumbered by many of the rules inherent with all the previous developments in the evolution of modern jazz. My own goal was to learn the music I loved, which meant the music that the new breed was rebelling against, and as I progressed in my mission, I grew intensely curious about the exciting new development of "new breed" artists such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. I would soon be trying to grasp both the bebop concept and free jazz explorations, the latter of which were collectively most often referred to as "The New Thing".
The controversy created by the musical mavericks of the late 1950's and early to mid-1960's was astounding. Most established jazz artists were very outspoken in their negative reaction, to the point it seemed that some mainstream players must have felt threatened by any public acceptance of a music so radically different than that which they had spent so many years learning and honing their improvising skills. You could hear some say: "If what they're doing is the right way, then all the years I've spent learning how to play was all for nothing?!" I personally never saw the arrival of this startling new music as a "replacement" but as an alternative. I did not believe the choice meant choosing one approach to the exclusion of the other. As for the players themselves...yes, each approach required a serious commitment for the fullest realization in performance. Artists who embraced and sought to perform both mainstream jazz and avant garde were scarce indeed.
I learned to recognize references to this new musical development by many names: Avant Garde, Free Jazz, The New Music, New Black Music, Outside Jazz, Free Form, The New Wave, Energy Music, The New Thing, and, in certain musicians' circles, "Outside Shit". The most hostile reactionaries designated it "Anti-Jazz"! The New Music was not based on standard songs, or song forms. Revolutioanary jazz compositions often had no conventional harmonic foundation, as in no chord progression. To improvisers of the earlier forms of jazz, this was a radical break and it created a dilemma for players at a loss for creating with no guiding framework. Among the more radical of new original jazz compositions were those with no key signature and no bar lines. The more open-minded musicians perceived new possibilities based on melody and rhythm and an organic development of those elements. The various innovators in this new realm found their own disparate and individualistic ways to play "free" music.
The Ornette Coleman concept is different from Cecil Taylor's, yet both composer-performers share credit as the pioneers of free jazz. They ushered in an era of exploratory inventiveness freed from restrictions applied to all the former stages in the development of modern jazz. One retained element in their music of the 1950's was the steady pulse, the swinging beat. Most listeners (especially musicians) were so shocked at the absence of chord changes, numerous jarring effects within improvised solos and abandonment of familiar tunes long favored by many jazz listeners, no one seemed to notice that the music still swung in the usual manner of conventional jazz. That would change: In 1962, while playing in Copenhagen with a trio sans a bass player, Cecil Taylor opted to further free his music from past conventions. Cecil suggested to his drummer that he provide a textural rhythmic interplay rather than a stated tempo. Sunny Murray, who had played with Taylor's group for over a year, became the first jazz drummer to completely abandon time-keeping. He is the father of free jazz drumming and a master at his art.
UPDATE: December 19, 2017
Sunny Murray passed away in Paris on December 7, 2017 at the age of 81. Mr. Murray had remained active in Europe with concert appearances and recordings. In freeing drums from its traditional time-keeping role, he expanded the coloristic, textural and expressive possibilities of his instrument. Considering the immense importance of his contribution to the development of creative improvised music, his name and his work should be better known. If Sunny Murray had received the recognition he deserved I would not be writing a description of his attributes and accomplishments. Better yet, listen to his music on the innumerable recordings available from multi-national sources. Sunny Murray, who was born September 21, 1936 in Idabel, Oklahoma, USA - died in France, a citizen of the universe! May he rest in peace.
more to come...