By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2021)
You must surrender whatever preconceptions you have about music if you’re really interested in it.
― Cecil Taylor
The Oxford Dictionary defines “harmonious” thusly:
tuneful; not discordant.
That sounds nice. So what is this “discordant” you speak of?
1. disagreeing or incongruous.
2. (of sounds) harsh and jarring because of a lack of harmony.
Well, that sounds unpleasant. But here’s the funny thing about music. There may be rules defining what constitutes “harmony” …but there no rules defining what constitutes “music”. What’s “discordant” to you might be “harmonious” to my ears (and vice-versa).
In a piece I did in honor of International Jazz Day, I wrote:
Miles Davis is considered a “jazz” artist, but first and foremost he was an artist; one who defied categorization throughout his career. The influence of his 1970 2-LP set Bitches Brew on what came to be called “fusion” cannot be overstated. But be warned: this is not an album you put on as background; it is challenging music that demands your full attention (depending on your mood that day, it will sound either bold and exhilarating, or discordant and unnerving).
I was somewhat taken aback to learn the other day that that a scant 6 years before he recorded Bitches Brew, Miles Davis made this comment about pioneering “free jazz” multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy (taken from a Down Beat interview published in 1964):
“Nobody else could sound as bad as Eric Dolphy. Next time I see him I’m going to step on his foot. You print that. I think he’s ridiculous. He’s a sad motherfucker.”
That’s one of the tidbits I picked up from Fire Music, writer-director Tom Surgal’s retrospective on the free jazz movement that flourished from the late 50s to the early 70s.
Call it “free jazz”, “avant-garde” or “free-form” …it’s been known to empty a room faster than you can say “polytonal”. After giving your ears a moment to adjust, Surgal and co-writer John Northrup do yeoman’s work unraveling a Gordian knot of roots, influences, and cosmic coincidences that sparked this amazingly rich and creative period.
Mixing vintage performance clips, archival interviews, and present-day ruminations by veterans of the scene with a dusting of academic commentary, the filmmakers illustrate how it fell together somewhat organically, flourished briefly, then faded away (Lao Tzu’s oft quoted “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long” comes to mind here).
After a nod to Be-bop, the film delves into the work of pioneers like saxophonist Ornette Coleman (his 1960 album Free Jazz gave the category-defying genre a handle) and pianist Cecil Taylor. While artists like Coleman, Taylor (and Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, et.al.) are now considered jazz greats, their boundary-pushing explorations were not universally embraced by critics (or audiences) at the time.
In fact, it wasn’t until saxophonist John Coltrane (“the most high and mighty” as one veteran player reverently intones in the film) released his 1966 album Ascension, that the movement received validation. Coltrane had been paying close attention to the revolutionary sounds coming out of the clubs, and Ascension indicated he had embraced the movement (although it certainly threw many of his fans for a loop).
As a musicologist points out in the film, it might have been easy for critics and the jazz establishment to look down their noses (or plug their ears) and dismiss players like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and their unconventional tonalities as amateurish noodling…but no one could say John Coltrane was an amateur (at least not with a straight face).
The film examines the regional scenes that sprang up, and (most fascinatingly) associated collectives that formed, like The Jazz Composer’s Guild in New York, The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, and The Black Artist’s Group in St. Louis (this was “D.I.Y.” long before Punk). The European scene (primarily in the UK, Germany, and Holland) that was inspired by the American free jazz movement is also chronicled.
Sadly, the filmmakers suggest a collective amnesia has set in over the ensuing decades that essentially has erased the contributions of these artists from jazz history. Here’s hoping enough people see this enlightening documentary to reverse that trend.