‘It is our belief that jazz musical forms must be extended to meet an entirely new set of artistic, social, cultural and economic circumstances. It might seem strange to some to see the word ‘jazz’ mentioned in context with such cold hard realities as society and economics, yet it is an undeniable fact that the very origins of the music itself and all its subsequent development was rooted in societal forms. The field holler, the spiritual, the blues—each serves a definite function and grew out of very real, very painful experiences.
‘As musical instruments replaced the human voice, poetic directness and social commentary began to give way to a “purer” musical form. It was now possible for a listener to hear just the music, without the ambivalence that words elicit. He could identify with whatever he chose and reject whatever he chose. Thus, the Negro (through jazz) has lent America a somewhat uneasy reprieve. . . For us, music is functional as well as aesthetic. The artist presumes to judge life, to assess it for all men, to accept it, to reject it. Both as men and artists in a complex, often-times grievously unjust, world we accept this challenge this society poses and we project our answer through our music, one which sings a New America. We take our place beside those poets of the field. Only the nuances of the language have changed. The same essential longing for dignity over despair is still with us.
‘We can’t let the audience escape. We must bring into our music every stench of the streets, every tragedy; don’t let them rest.’Archie Shepp
Ornette Coleman has provided one major source of direction for contemporary developments; Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane have mediated his ideas while developing their own music. The other major source of direction has been provided by pianist Cecil Taylor. In passing, we should note that, since we last discussed Taylor in this magazine (nlr No. 23), he has continued to work only intermittently,
In many ways, Taylor’s music explores the same areas as Coleman’s. He has extended the harmonic frame of reference for jazz improvisation, and, as an accompanist, he has worked to minimize the differentiation between ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ in the jazz group. In some respects, however, he is more important than Coleman as an innovator. Firstly, he has succeeded in bringing new rhythmic possibilities within the jazz musician’s reach. Prior to his withdrawal, Coleman had never properly worked out his concept of ‘spread rhythm’, and had only occasionally achieved the rhythmic balance he envisaged. Taylor, on the other hand, had achieved a more complete mastery of complex rhythms through his academic training; he likens his playing to dancing and in much of his best work (D Trad That’s What Debut No. deb 138) the energy, complexity and interaction of the rhythms are the most startling and the most important features. He is the first jazz musician to work explicitly with continuous, nonmetrical, rhythmic development, and to offer a coherent alternative to metrical patterns.
Secondly, Taylor’s academic study gave him an exceptional command of techniques of composition. Even his slender recorded output contains a surprising variety of compositions, and suggests that he may be one of the most important composers jazz has ever seen. Coleman has always been interested primarily in the freedom of improvisation; his themes—highly-original and beautifully-balanced melodic figures—serve merely as starting points for the soloist. Taylor, on the other hand, writes so as to increase the overall formal cohesion of a jazz performance. Thus Tune 2, (Columbia 33cx 10102) one of his earlier compositions, extends for 90 bars, offering the soloist a longer and more varied progression than the more usual 12-bar or 32-bar themes, and some of his later compositions allow for improvisation within the theme itself, bringing the two into more complete integration.
Taylor has moved towards jazz from academic music, teaching himself to improvise. Thus, though he has been working as a jazz musician for almost 10 years, his work carries only programmatic reference to the post-bop tradition, and does not evolve logically from it. Not till recently, after making contact with younger musicians of whom Coleman, Coltrane and Rollins in his later period were primary influences, did his work reach fruition, and he and several of his protegés have become key figures in the younger avant-garde.