The International Writers Magazine: Manhattan Jazz History - From Our Archives:
The Jazz Revolution of the '60s
or less officially unveiled with the first New York appearance
of the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot Café in
the fall of 1959, free jazz (or new black music, space music,
new thing, anti-jazz or abstract jazz as it would variously be
labeled), gave new dimension to the perennial "where's the
melody?" complaint against jazz.
most of the uninitiated, what the Coleman group presented on its
opening night was in fact sheer cacophony.
Four musicians (a
saxophonist, trumpeter, bassist and drummer) abruptly began to playwith
an apoplectic intensity and at a bone-rattling volumefour simultaneous
solos that had no perceptible shared references or point of departure.
Even unto themselves the solos, to the extent that they could be isolated
as such in the density of sound that was being produced, were without
any fixed melodic or rhythmic structure. Consisting, by turns, of short,
jagged bursts and long meandering lines unmindful of bar divisions and
chorus measures they were, moreover, laced with squeaks, squeals, bleats
and strident honks. A number ended and another beganor was it
the same one again? How were you to tell? No. No way this madness could
possibly have a method.
umbilically connected to the emergent black cultural nationalism
movement, the madness did indeed have a method. The avowed objective
of the dramatic innovations that musicians like Ornette, Cecil Taylorand,
in their footsteps, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Archie Shepp,
Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler, Jimmy Lyons, Eric Dolphy and (the later
period) John Coltrane, among hundreds of othersinitiated and
practiced from the late '50s into the early '70s, was to restore
black music to its original identity as a medium of spiritual utility.
When these men
abandoned an adherence to chord progressions, the 32-bar song form,
the fixed beat and the soloist/accompanist format, and began to employ,
among other things, simultaneous improvisations, fragmented tempos and
voice-like timbres, they were very deliberately replacing, with ancient
black methodologies, those Western concepts and systems that had, by
their lights, worked to subvert and reduce black music in America to
either a pop music or (for many of them no less a corruption of what
black music was supposed to be) an art form.
Alan Silva, a one-time bassist with Cecil Taylor and then the leader
of his own thirteen-piece orchestra, made the point in an interview
I did with him for Rolling Stone.
"I don't want to make music that sounds nice," Silva told
me. "I want to make music that opens the possibility of real spiritual
communion between people. There's a flow coming from every individual,
a continuous flow of energy coming from the subconscious level. The
idea is to tap that energy through the medium of improvised sound. I
do supply the band with notes, motifs and sounds to give it a lift-off
point. I also direct the band, though not in any conventional waylike
I might suddenly say 'CHORD!' But essentially I'm dealing with improvisation
as the prime force, not the tune. The thing is, if you put thirteen
musicians together and they all play at once, eventually a cohesion,
an order, will be reached, and it will be on a transcendent plane."
(I commented in the interview that "Silva says his band wants to
commune with the spirit world and you aren't sure that it doesn't. With
thirteen musicians soloing at the same time, at extraordinary decibel
levels, astonishingly rapid speeds and with complete emotional abandon
for more than an hour, the band arrives not only at moments of excruciating
beauty, but at sounds that rising in ecstatic rushes and waves and becoming
almost visible in the mesmerizing intensity, weight and force of their
vibrations, do for sure seem to be flushing weird, spectral things from
the walls, from the ceiling, from your head.")
Of course not all of these musicians shared Silva's position entirely.
Some saw the music as an intimidating political weapon in the battle
for civil rights and exploited it as such. Others, like Taylor, did
and quite emphatically, regard themselves as artists. For Taylor, a
pianist and composer who took what he needed not just from Ellington
and Monk, but from Stravinsky, Ives and Bartok, it wasn't about jettisoning
Western influences on jazz, but about absorbing them into a specifically
BLACK k esthetic.
For the most part, however, disparities among the younger musicians
of the period amounted to dialects of the same language. All of them
shared the "new black consciousness"a new pride in being
blackand their reconstruction of jazz, their purging of its Western
elements, or their assertion of black authority over those elements,
was, to one degree or another, intended to revive and reinstate the
music's first purpose.
Silva saw broad extra-musical ramifications in his procedures. He believed
that by rejecting all externally imposed constraints the inherent goodness
in men would surface and enable them to function in absolute harmony
with both nature and each other. "Man," he said to me once,
coming off an especially vigorous set. "In another ten years we
won't even need traffic lights we're gonna be so spiritually tuned to
And I have to say that I agreed with him. This was, after all, a period in history when "restrictions"
of every conceivable kind, from binding social and sexual mores to (with
the moon shot) the very law of gravity, were successfully being challenged.
If you were regularly visiting Timothy Leary's "atomic" level
of consciousness, and if you could call a girl you'd been set up with
on a blind date and she might say, "Let's 'ball' first and then
I'll see if I want to have dinner with you," you could be forgiven
your certainty that nothing short of a revolution in human nature itself
was taking place.
And some of us who regarded Western values as both the cause of all
ill (had they not brought us to the brink of annihilation with the hydrogen
bomb?), and the principle impediment to such a transformation, saw the
new black music as leading the way, as the veritable embodiment of what
Herbert Marcuse called "the revolution of unrepression."
In so heady a time, earnest unself-conscious debates about the relative
revolutionary merits of free jazz and rockthe other musical phenomenon
of the periodwere not uncommon.
I remember a conversation I had with John Sinclair, the Michigan activist,
poet and author of Guitar Army. John took the position that rock
was the true "music of the revolution."
No, I argued, rock did stand against the technocratic, Faustian western
sensibility. It did, and unabashedly, celebrate the sensual and the
mystical. But in these respects it only caught up to where jazz had
always been. In contrast to what some of the younger black musicians
were up tothe purging of white elements African music had picked
up in Americarock was simply the first hip white popular music.
Rock, it was my point, never got beyond expressing the sentiment of
revolution while free jazz, by breaking with formal Western disciplinesby
going "outside," as the musicians termed it, of Western procedures
and methods and letting the music find its own natural order and formgot
to an actualization of what true revolution would be. Rock's lyrics,
I said, promoted, in many instances, the idea of a spiritual revolution,
but musically rock remained bound to the very traditions and conventions
that its lyrics railed against and the audience never got a demonstration
or the experience of authentic spiritual communion. Rock's lyrics were
undermined and attenuated in the very act of their expression by the
system used to express them. The new jazz, on the other hand, achieved
freedom not just from the purely formal structures of western musical
systems, but, implicitly, from the emotional and social ethos in which
those structures originated.
As I say, it was a heady time.
Now, of course, free jazz, in anything resembling a pristine form just
barely exists, and obviously it has ceased to exist altogether as a
revolutionary movement. Like other emblematic movements of the epoch
with which it shared the faith that a new kind of human being would
surface once all structure and authority that wasnt internal in
origin was rejected, free jazz was ultimately ambushed by its naiveté.
But on purely musical terms free jazz has not been without an ongoing
impact. If it never achieved what Alan Silva expected it to, it did
(however contrary to its original ambition), expand the vocabulary and
the field of options available to mainstream jazz musicians. And while
they function today in what are essentially universes of their own,
Taylor, Coleman, Murray, Cyrille, Shepp and Dixon are still very much
around and continuing to discover surprise and the marvelous.
Indeed, stripped though they may be of their mystique as harbingers
of an imminent utopia, these extraordinary musicians continue to produce
musical miracles as a matter of course. For an especially vivid demonstration,
try to catch Cecil in one of his live performanceswhat he would
call "exchanges of energy"with drummers like Tony Oxley.
In a bad time in every department of the culture, a time of rampantoften
willfulmediocrity, I could name no better tonic.
EDITED EXCERPT FROM THE SURSUMCORDA INTERVIEW
On the '60s
It's admittedly facile to cast it this way, but you could say that what
we mean by "the '60s" began with the Cuban Missile Crisis
and ended with the moon shotthe moon shot and the Yippies failed
attempt to levitate the Pentagon and shake out the "demons"
that inhabited it.
At bottom the '60s were a reaction to the prospect of total annihilation
posed by the invention of the hydrogen bomb and they were rooted in
the belief that what was wrong, what had brought us to this place, was
the denial and suppression of our true selves, of the human beings we
were intended to be.
This beliefvariously shaped, nourished and focused by a convergence
of psychedelic drugs, birth control pills, the popularization of Freudian
psychology and Eastern philosophies, glaring racial and gender inequities
and a clearly unjustified war in Vietnamopened virtually every
tradition and institution, every custom and convention and every embodiment
and instrument of authority, order and structure, to attack. On one
level or another everything from the antiwar, civil rights and woman's
rights movements, to the antimaterialism and sexual abandon of the period,
to spontaneous prose, rock and free jazz, stemmed from the perception
that somewhere in antiquity humanity had taken the wrong path and that
the course could be corrected.
The enemy was the superego, the cultural, social and psychological restraints
we'd inflicted on ourselves. Destroying the superego would yield the
good human beings we were supposed to be. Again, as Marcuse put it,
it was a "revolution of unrepression." We wanted to abolish
the apparently arbitrary and misbegotten rules that artificially limited
us and led to deluded thinking and behavior. We wanted, ultimately,
to abolish the constricting forces of guilt and shame themselves. Guilt
and shame were invented by authority, they were trips governments and
parents laid on you to keep you in line. We wanted to take an unfettered
pride and joy in our bodies. We wanted to be free of the guilt and shame
that had crippled and disfigured us.
This is where Jerry Rubin was coming from when he exhorted us to "kill"
Of course I'm talking about what the '60s were in their deepest aspirations.
The vanguard figureslike Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Norman Brown,
Allen Ginsberg, Marcuseenvisioned a kind of benign anarchy, a
society with no need for governments or police; a society ordered by
natural needs, appetites and rhythms and made up of men free of neurosis
and in perfect harmony with both nature and other men.
And fueled as it was by the sheer number of people involved (and in
what seemed every department of the culture) I don't think the sense
of utopian possibility we were feeling could possibly be exaggerated.
Certainly the intensity of the psychic fevers we were experiencing in
the East Village (which to me was Ground Zero) can't be overstated.
In the East Village, and in addition to all manner of radical political
activity, there was an amazing pullulation of iconoclastic art in every
categorydance, music, theater, poetry, painting. People like Ginsberg,
Burroughs, Corso, Ornette, Cecil, Roi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Kate Millet,
Yvonne Ranier, Meredith Monk, Ed Sanders and the Fugs (I'm forgetting
a couple of dozen other major players) were all living and working within
a one-mile radius and feeding, challenging, validating and energizing
But upheavals like this were hardly limited to New York. They were occurring
everywhereSan Francisco, Paris, on every college campus and in
the smallest towns. And, Jesus, we were going to the MOONsuccessfully
breaking the very law of GRAVITY!
So those of us who were sucked into the vortex of the '60s can maybe
be forgiven the fact that we were failing to recognize something very
basicthat we were challenging a reality that was beyond our capacity
to fundamentally change. There was, after all, only so far we could
go without entering into a void. We could tinker with social, cultural,
economic and political systemsmake reforms, expand our horizons,
achieve more justicebut essentially society already reflected
the best we could do.
I mean we didn't recognize (and I'm standing behind Ernest Becker here)
that the very problems we were attempting to overcomethe constraining
social and sexual codes, the emotional hang-ups and the destructive
tendencies we wanted to jettisonwere actually working solutions
to our worst and deepest problem. I'm talking about the problem of being
mortal; about the problem of living inside a body that's ultimately
going to kill you; about the problem of being born under a death sentence
(a sentence reserved for the worst of crimes) and of which, if you think
about it, the burden of guilt and shame is a natural consequence.
We didn't appreciate the legitimacy and necessity of repression and
delusion. We didn't understand that as debilitating as repression and
delusion were they enabled us to deny and distort certain untenable
truths of existence and to make an otherwise intolerable condition somewhat
manageable. We didn't realize that we had no choice, that what made
us crazy, stupid and destructive (what, for an obvious example in the
current worldand to the objective of transcending death in heavenhas
spawned all these suicide bombers and Christian Fundamentalists) was
our profound and abiding need to mitigate the terror the fact of death
causes us. We didn't see that the reality of the human condition REQUIRED
us to be uptight and insane.
Off-the-wall as it sounds, you could say that the hydrogen bomb was
invented in order to create, for its inventors at least, a controllable
and therefore relatively comforting death locus.
But in our millennial zeal we were oblivious to such things and I think
that at the Pentagon and with the Apollo landing, we were secretly expecting
some kind of palpable divine ratification, expecting God to show His
face and prove us right. That didn't happen, of course. Acid visions
turned out to have no physical application at the Pentagon. And the
moon was only a barren rockno Kubrickian monolith buried there
to validate the project. It was disappointments like these, disappointments
equal in their size to the size of our ambition, that took the heart
out of the '60s.
It wasn't long afterwards, remember, that mind-expanding drugs began
to be replacedand necessarilyby mood-elevating stimulants
Beyond the moon shot it was just the motor revolving down after it's
been shut off. I mean the '60s are commonly judged to have ended when
we finally withdrew from Vietnam. But they'd already expired at the
foot of the Pentagon and in the deserts of the moon.
© Robert Levin July 2005
Extracts of this piece first appeared in Cosmoetica.com
all rights reserved