Free jazz

From Academic Kids

Free jazz, or avant-garde jazz, is a movement of jazz music characterized by diminished dependence on formal constraints. Developed in the 1950s and 1960s, it was pioneered by artists such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon and Paul Bley. Some of the best known examples are the later works of John Coltrane.

While free jazz is most often associated with the era of its birth, many musicians – including Peter Brotzmann, Cecil Taylor, Mars Williams, Ken Vandermark, and William Parker – have kept the style alive to the present day.



Ornette Coleman is often regarded as, if not establishing free jazz outright, at least crystalizing the form in the late 1950s.

Indeed, the style owes its name to Coleman: Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation was the title of a 1960 recording by Coleman. He intended it only as an album title, but the term quickly became synonymous with the current adventurous innovations in jazz, and eventually became the name of a movement and style.

In the 1960s, the loosely-defined movement was sometimes called "Energy Music" or "The New Thing".

There were earlier precedents, however. Two songs by pianist Lennie Tristano are sometimes cited as the earliest free jazz. "Digression" and "Intuition" were both recorded in 1949; neither had prearranged melody, harmony or rhythm.

Most of Sun Ra's music could be classified as free jazz, although Sun Ra said repeatedly that his music was written and that what he wrote sounded more free than what "the freedom boys" played.

Some of Charles Mingus's work was also important in establishing free jazz. Of particular note are his early Atlantic albums, such as Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, and Tijuana Moods, in which he employed a compositional technique of humming tunes to his players and allowing them to feel their own melodies.

Since the mid-1950s, saxophonist Jackie McLean had been exploring a concept he called "The Big Room", where the often strict rules of bebop could be loosened or abandoned at will.

The trio led by Jimmy Giuffre with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow between 1960 and 1962 received little attention during their original incarnation, but afterwards were regarded as one of the most innovative free jazz ensembles.

Eric Dolphy's work with Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Chico Hamilton, along with his solo work, helped to set the stage for free jazz in the music community.


There is no universally accepted definition of free jazz, and any proposed definition is complicated by many musicians in other styles drawing on free jazz, or free jazz sometimes blending with other genres. Many musicians also tend to reject efforts at classification, regarding them as useless or unduly limiting.

Free jazz uses jazz idioms but generally considerably less compositional material than in most earlier styles -- improvisation is essential, and whereas in earlier styles of jazz the improvised solos were always built according to a template provided by composed material (chord changes and melody), in free jazz the performers often range much more widely. Free jazz as a style has grown considerably since its inception, and the ability to improvise freely is a common skill.

Typically this kind of music is played by small groups of musicians. In popular perception, free jazz is loud, aggressive, dissonant and in general full of sound and fury. 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. Most free jazz musicians use overblowing techniques or otherwise elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments. Today such views are more marginal, and the music has built up a tradition and a body of accompanying critical writing. It remains less popular than most other forms of jazz.

Beyond this, free jazz is most easily characterised in contrast with what we refer to here as "other forms of jazz", an umbrella which covers ragtime, dixieland, swing, bebop, cool jazz, jazz fusion and other styles, as in the following paragraphs.

"Other forms of jazz" use clear regular meters and strongly-pulsed rhythms, usually in 4/4 or (less often) 3/4, all swung. Free jazz normally retains a general pulsation and often swings but without regular metre, and often with frequent accelerando and ritardando, giving an impression of the rhythm moving in waves. Often players in an ensemble adopt different tempi. Despite all of this, it is still very often possible to tap one's foot to a free jazz performance; rhythm is more freely variable but has not disappeared entirely.

Other forms used harmonic structures (usually cycles of diatonic chords). Improvisors played solos using notes based on the notes in the chords. Free jazz almost by definition dispenses with 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. It is also fairly common for a drone or single chord to underpin a performance (see modal jazz), but the absence of such rudimentary devices is also common.

Finally, other 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", other compositional structures are employed, some of them very detailed and complex; the music of Anthony Braxton furnishes many examples. It would perhaps be best to call this modern or avant-garde jazz, reserving the term "free jazz" for music with few or no pre-composed elements.

Racial/Social aspect

Free jazz was, like previous developments in jazz, largely tied to the African-American experience. Since the beginnings of bebop with Charlie Parker et al, jazz had been moving in a direction that was more intellectual, less danceable, and less marketable to white audiences. The two major innovations in free jazz - the increasing freedom from harmony and regular time - were seen by some as parallel to the 1960's Black Power movement and demands for total emancipation, which made it all the more potentially off-putting to mainstream listeners. Groups like AACM and Sun Ra made Black identity an integral part of their public personae as musicians, more visibly than previous generations of jazz musicians. This is not to say that the music was racially segregated; white bassist Charlie Haden was a member of Ornette Coleman's influential quartet from the very beginning, and free jazz's principles were quickly assimilated into musical developments in all corners of global society.

Free jazz in the world

Outside of North America, free jazz caught on to varying degrees, primarily Europe and Japan. Saxophonists Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, trombonist Conny Bauer, guitarist Derek Bailey and drummer Han Bennink were among the most well-known early European free jazz performers, and all continue making music in the 21st century. European free jazz can generally be seen as approaching free improvisation, with an ever more distant relationship to jazz tradition. Japanese guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi and saxophonist Kaoru Abe, among others, took free jazz in another direction, approaching the energy levels of noise. American musicians like Don Cherry, John Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders integrated elements of the music of Africa, India, and the Middle East for a sort of World music-influenced free jazz.

See also

free improvisation, experimental music, noise music

External link

Jazz | Jazz genres
Avant-jazz - Bebop - Dixieland - Calypso jazz - Cool jazz - Free jazz - Hard bop - Modal jazz - Jazz blues - Gypsy jazz - Chamber jazz
Soul jazz - Swing - Acid jazz - Jazz fusion - Jazz rap - Nu jazz - Latin jazz - Smooth jazz - Trad jazz - Mini-jazz - Creative jazz
Other topics
Musicians - Jazz standard - Jazz royalty
de:Free Jazz

fr:Free jazz ja:フリー・ジャズ no:Frijazz


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools