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What Is Free Jazz?

Written by MasterClass

Feb 7, 2019 • 5 min read

Free jazz stemmed from a basic principle, one that most musicians (and indeed, most artists) are familiar with: learn the rules—then break them. Like the avant-garde movement in visual arts, free jazz was an attempt to break from the traditions of jazz and create something entirely new. As jazz musicians became more comfortable with improvisation, a new sound emerged: experimental, unorthodox, and rebellious.

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What Is Free Jazz?

The free jazz movement developed in the 1960s as a rejection of conventional musical structures: things like melody, harmony, and chord progressions. Because of its dominant element of experimentation, free jazz defies characterization. Free jazz is more often than not played mostly by individuals or small groups, who practice collective improvisation. There have been a few free jazz bands too.

Free jazz musicians allow themselves to ‘get primitive’—in other words, return to a wilder, freer form of jazz that pays homage to jazz’s religious roots. Free jazz also draws inspiration from other types of music, from contemporary to world music. Free jazz musicians often experiment with unusual instruments from other cultures, or sometimes, simply invent their own. For example, the great John Coltrane, an American jazz saxophonist and pioneer of the free jazz movement, sometimes used a flute during his live performances.

History of Free Jazz

The roots of free jazz trace back to New York’s Five Spot jazz club in the Bowery. As the story goes, an alto saxophonist named Ornette Coleman walked into the club in 1959 and began playing freeform jazz on his plastic saxophone. Coleman referred to his new style as “free jazz” and released an album, Free Jazz (1960), from which the movement gets its name.

As with most avant-garde movements, free jazz stuck to the sidelines at first. The influential greats were divided on the merits of the new genre: Miles Davis and influential jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge kept their distance, while composer Leonard Bernstein thought of Coleman as a genius. But as the rebellious spirit of the ’60s took hold, opinions changed. Saxophonists John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy were among the first to follow Coleman; they were soon joined by pianist Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, whose free jazz style drew inspiration from gospel music.

Soon, individuals gave way to free jazz groups, who helped bring legitimacy to the genre. Pianist and composer Sun Ra helmed his own free jazz big band in his nonconformist style, while groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago found more success in Europe, where free jazz was widely accepted, thanks in large part to German and British musicians like saxophonist Evan Parker.

Common Characteristics of Free Jazz

Unlike other forms of jazz that are structured around a framework, like the 12-bar blues, the key to free jazz is improvisation. That said, there are certain characteristics that have come to define the style over the decades.

  • The use of different instruments. The most common instruments in jazz are piano, saxophone, bass, and drums. Free jazz musicians began experimenting with instruments like violins, clarinets, flute, other percussion instruments. The more unusual instruments used in free jazz include harp, ukulele, and even bagpipes.
  • Diatonic chord cycles. Sometimes, free jazz musicians use cycles of diatonic chords—chords that are derived from the notes of a key. So it’s possible to distinguish some influence of early jazz in free jazz, but the best free jazz musicians are skilled at suspending these patterns or inverting their sequence to produce something truly new.
  • An expression of emotion. Like other forms of jazz, free jazz is more about an expression of emotion than it is about carrying out a complex harmonic structure. As the Oscar and Grammy Award-winning jazz musician, pianist, and composer Herbie Hancock believes it’s about the simple but often difficult act of communicating one’s human experience to others.
  • Displaced rhythms. Improvising over displaced phrases can be tricky, but it can also unlock surprising inspiration. Displacing rhythms means shifting around musical phrases to land before or after where the ear is used to hearing them. This gives the piece an unexpected sound and makes it exciting to listen to and play.
  • Solo playing. For many free jazz musicians, playing alone allows a level of freedom that is impossible to achieve when playing with a group. Solo players don’t have to stick to a certain tempo or key; they can mess with the form of a song at will, repeat parts that aren’t meant to be repeated, or leave entire parts out.

Five Famous Free Jazz Artists and Performers

  1. Ornette Coleman. Coleman began playing alto and tenor saxophone as a teenager in Los Angeles in the ’50s and was soon playing in dance bands and rhythm-and-blues groups. During the day, he studied harmony while working as an elevator operator; at nights, he would frequent underground jazz clubs, playing his cheap plastic alto saxophone. He is credited with developing the so-called “harmolodic theory” of improvisation: abandoning harmonic patterns and chord changes in favor of an improvisational style that more directly attacked the melody of a song.
  2. John Coltrane. Coltrane was trained in clarinet and alto saxophone. During his early career, he was known for improvised solos influenced by African and Indian music. Coltrane transitioned into fully-fledged free jazz between 1965 and his death in 1967, practicing a freer improvisation based on prearranged scales. Although his foray into free jazz divided critics, many regard this period as one of the most important of his career.
  3. Cecil Taylor. One of the leading free-jazz pianists, Taylor was influenced by fellow jazz pianists like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Horace Silver. An adventurous player, Taylor was leading his own jazz groups in America in the mid-’50s but was often ostracized for his freeform style. Like many free jazz musicians, Taylor found a warmer reception in Europe, where he collaborated with like-minded improv musicians like Evan Parker and Han Bennink.
  4. Eric Dolphy. A major influence on free jazz, Dolphy often improvised on woodwind instruments. He got his start playing the clarinet, oboe, and alto saxophone in Los Angeles before joining Roy Porter’s big band in the 1940s. After moving to New York in the ‘60s, Dolphy collaborated with the likes of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. He was heralded for introducing both the flute and the bass clarinet in free jazz improvisation, allowing other artists to find new ways of musical expression.
  5. Albert Ayler. The tenor saxophonist got his start playing with his father in church before touring around with rhythm-and-blues groups as a teenager. After a stint playing tenor saxophone in U.S. Army bands, he began slowly branching out, alienating standard harmonic practices and experimenting more and more with free jazz.