Jazz Con Class Radio

Interview with Howard Mandel concerning the Avant Garde/Free Jazz Era


I made a decision that led to an online interview with Howard Mandel. The “Q & A” will immediately follow after my reasoning.

Recently I created a new playlist and named it “Avant Garde” for a very significant Jazz era which primarily dominated the 60’s. While searching for the appropriate music to fill the playlist with, I ran into another description of this era and it was the “Free Jazz” era. Actually, the two terms are sometimes mashed together as one and with a slash between them, “Avant Garde/Free Jazz.” I searched a little deeper and ran into this very important link in which helped clarify the terminology further but also created another problem for me. (Note: Please take a look at the link before reading any further)

I was faced with a dilemma now because I needed to separate and actually exclude many legendary Jazz musicians that produced music in the same era. Why? Shouldn’t they all be included in this new “Avant Garde” Playlist? I just couldn’t do it, there’s a certain distinction between the two styles and they are too noticeable to overlook. I had to exclude some artists from the “Avant Garde” Playlist but will be releasing the “Free Jazz” Playlist very soon. This is how I chose to evaluate the songs  from this era and where I feel,  Jazz Con Class listeners would be more comfortable with. To further clarify and sort of justify my decision, take a listen to these examples, I placed this song in the Avant Garde Playlist. “Blue Spirits” is from the 1966 Freddie Hubbard “Blue Spirits” album:

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I placed this song, “Consequences” from the Archie Shepp And The New York Contemporary Five album inside the Free Jazz Playlist:

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What about this song, “Out to Lunch” from Eric Dolphy’s 1964 “Out to Lunch” album and which some songs are borderline:

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It can and has become very difficult because I will have to be judging each song individually. The Avant Garde/Free Jazz era was an extraordinary one and will be discussed further, here in this Interview (Q & A) with Howard Mandel:

Jose Reyes (or Me) Introduction and OPENING QUESTION:

Hello again Howard, I would like to thank you again for accepting this invitation. Although I have labeled this online interview as a “Q & A” (Question and Answer) session, the presentation will concentrate more on the history of the Avant Garde/Free Jazz era. Before I begin and in case the readers/listeners here did not click on the link I provided in the beginning of this post, please visit and learn more “about” Howard Mandel on this link.

Ok Howard, after reading my opening statement concerning the selecting and separating process I used to create my playlists (Avant Garde and Free Jazz), do you feel my approach is damaging the musical message intended by the musicians in this era or can there have been an attempt to create a “new” nontraditional and unconventional style of Jazz?

Howard (Answer for Question#1):

Hi Jose. My point of view is that the two stylistic label you denote are at most lines along a continuum of musical development, which so much interweaving and cross-fertilization as to not be very useful as divisions. I perceive the avant-garde as a developmental process that runs through the entirety of American jazz history, and signals the element of continuous revolution/re-evaluation/assertion by the daring individuals who seek to express themselves (you might say “freely”) in jazz. The term “free jazz” I find especially problematic, and don’t think it is really descriptive of much of anything. “Freedom” was and remains an important word, a vital concept, in life as well as in jazz and other art forms, but freedom is not anarchy and free jazz never abandoned all precedents so much as its players wanted to free themselves from certain assumptions/conventions, to free themselves to achieve or accomplish something they hadn’t gone for before.

I like to joke in an Ornettian way that “free jazz is like free pizza delivery – you know where you’re going but there’s no one way to get there.” Of course this begs the issue of what you “pay’ for free delivery or free jazz. And the question you ask seems to beg a further question: Did jazz need to be freed?

But let me return to your specific questions. First: Does the selection and separation process damage the musical message? No. The musicians of that era have left a rich body of work that was concerned with very different issues than arguments about what to call what they were doing. I think your division of the music of that era into those two forms is somewhat subjective and as such a little arbitrary. Nothing wrong with that, it is inevitable because it music IS perceived subjectively and doesn’t have important quantifiable (as opposed to qualifiable) elements. Also, since your aim is to set up a playlist, I suppose you’re looking for a range of music that sounds good in sequence, or together. I don’t think that purpose is conjunct with defining styles systematically, though.

Second: Was there an attempt to create a “new” nontraditional, unconventional style of jazz? Yes indeed, as there has been nonstop throughout what I call in my book Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz the first American jazz century. If only to distinguish themselves so that they get the gig-call rather than their peers, jazz musicians have always put a premium on expressing their individuality. I think that goal is at the very root of playing jazz. And in the mid ’50s (let’s just arbitrarily start there, though as I write in my book attempts to play “free” – improvise spontaneously without formal guidelines – goes back in recorded history to Lennie Tristano’s 1949 session with Lee Konitz, among others, that resulted in the pieces “Intuition” and “Digression) there was an abundance of mainstream professional jazz that had become absolutely hidebound to a small array of materials. There was a tyranny of chord progressions, an exhaustion of certain jazz themes, an overabundance of solidly virtuosic musicians (saxophonists, especially) running even-eighth note lines at wicked speeds over blues+substitutions in a way that reduced the new paths the bebop innovators had developed into a swing-to-hard bop rut that many “modern” players were digging for themselves.

The degree to which that hegemony represented jazz in the ’50s and much of the ’60s is forgotten, I think, directly because of the excitement and energy innovative musicians you associate with both or either the avant-garde or free jazz brought to our ears. In jazz, we tend to downplay the commonplace and notice the uniquely creative standouts. Let me bring this point to an example: when I was first becoming familiar with jazz in the mid ’60s I frequently went to Joe Segal’s Modern Jazz Showcase Sunday afternoon matinees presented at a rented ballroom in a hotel on the north side of Chicago. Segal is a devotee of Charlie Parker, especially – but the artists I remember him featuring with some regularity included Jimmy Forrest, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, and so on. Today I can identify stylistic distinctions among those men, but when I was learning they sounded SO alike to me. Dexter was somewhat more melodically driven, but the others, good as they were, ran standard chord progressions with implacable control, that did not allow for much address of emotional range. It was either burner or ballad. Coltrane pushed this frame to the limit with “Giant Steps.”

But where was the exotic mystery of “Night In Tunisia”? The loping blues of “Yardbird Suite”? Art Blakey’s Messengers (another Segal favorite) had a lot of power and Blakey had a strong preference for using distinctive melodies as vehicles for blowing, but then the blowing by many of his saxophonists would fall into the same patterns. When Wayne Shorter recorded his Blue Note records, he didn’t sound like that –he arranged and performed his own compositions to escape the clichés without abandoning the contemporary niceties of melody, harmony and rhythm, but to expand on them. No one called his albums Speak No Evil or Juju “avant garde, although he was moving towards a place with his saxophone that instrument hadn’t gone before. The way he applied his personal playing in his own bands, in Blakey’s and with Miles’ quintet or in Weather Report was different in relation to the band context, I think. He wasn’t particularly interested in exploring at that time the far reaches that Coltrane had arrived at – but he was completely at ease performing neck-and-neck with Sam Rivers, for instance on Tony Williams’ Spring, in an odd time meter. Some of these musicians took small steps to subvert expectations and allow themselves more room to breathe creatively – some quickly assumed larger diversions from cconventions, including more vocalisms or extreme techniques, breakdown of conventional structures, and sheer wildness – perhaps identifying themselves with the turbulent cultural environment (assassinations, riots, contentious demonstrations for Civil Rights and against the draft and war in Vietnam). Some were taken by the increasing accessibility of music from previously unheard from parts of the world, as well as by newly emerging electronic instruments; some thought to emulate the visual artists who were richly rewarded for abstract expressionism. I don’t’ think many of them – even Ornette and Cecil and certainly not Miles – set out to make their music self-cconsciously avant-garde. But they definitely set out to play what THEY heard and be free of obligations to forms and structures that limited options they knew instinctively that they had, and wanted to let the whole world hear, too.

Have I gotten too far from your question?


Question #2(Me):

What was the reaction from the more conventional Jazz musicians? Did they feel this change was necessary but to a lesser degree and where the typical format of performing a Jazz song was still present? Example; Charles Mingus, he experimented with many sounds and off-key improvising but made sure it maintained with that Bluesy Jazz format his music had. It just seems the music created by the Free Jazz artists lacked a beginning and end. Improvising is cool to me and what Jazz is all about but with a direction planned. Improvising helps the musicians explore themselves and is essential for improving their playing ability. Jazz is never boring, that’s for sure. Alright Howard, I asked the question in the beginning of this paragraph and added my perspective about Free Jazz to help me be more specific but also in defense of creating two different playlists from the same era.

Howard (Answer for Question #2):

Charles Mingus was not a conventional musician. He was certainly an avant-gardist in spirit, temperament and creative practice – as was Monk, Max Roach, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jaki Byard, etc. I think Mingus was disturbed when Ornette received so much attention and acclaim for his dates at the Five Spot – Mingus and Roach wanted to be the leaders of change, engaged with social issues that they mixed into their musical productions, and the arrival of Ornette out of the blue (ok, the West) knocked their strategies to the side. Cecil Taylor they had known about for a while, and his pianistic approach seemed so outlying that he had been ridiculed and shut out of commercial performance opportunities (remember, commercial opportunities did play a major role in musicians’  lives and ambitions then, maybe more than now when such stakes seem to have disappeared for all but the very few). But Cecil had a penetrating intelligence that could not really be ignored. There was, yes, some music presented as “avant-garde” or “free jazz” that was formless, off-key, chaotic, inchoate – I think that was just mediocre music, music which aspired to transcendence and creativity without its makers having the skills or sensibilities or maybe imaginative qualities to pull it off. There was a fair degree of bombast in the cultural world of the ’60s, and uncertainty about standards to apply to new directions, about matters of artistic quality. There were geographic rivalries, the assumption by musicians who had come up through traditional, established paths to dominate bookings in New York City clubs and U.S. tours that they were the guys, and nothing was happenin’ in Chicago, L.A. or San Francisco, New Orleans, St. Louis, Europe, etc. There were personality conflicts – Albert Ayler was an extraordinary personality, Sun Ra did have a hugely idiosyncratic take on the world, etc., but it was an era of bold statement and large egos. Some of the milder people, like Herbie Hancock or Ron Carter could step back, take it all in, work as they wanted to. They had the musical education to address pretty much whatever they were presented with or thought of themselves, and Herbie, for one, excelled with hipster/pop tunes like “Watermelon Man,” with unfettered improvisation on Tony Williams Blue Note debut Lifetime (not to be mistaken for his electric Lifetime band), with abstractions that remained consistent with launching materials in Miles’ quintet, with electronic inventions like electric pianos and synthesizers (in his own Mwandishi group), with jazz-rock-soul-fusion in the Headhunters. Musicians who were not capable of being broad, of moving into new realms – or who simply did not like confronting musicial ideas that departed from the ones they’d grown up with – they were the people who resented the avant-garde and disparaged as “free jazz” (“anti-jazz” never caught on, it was a term one Down Beat critic used in his review of a Coltrane/Dolphy work, and most sophisticated musicians had a lot of respect for Coltrane and Dolphy, so there was a circle-the-wagons effect around them that squashed the notion they could possibly do anything that was “anti” jazz.

Again: I know of no improvisation that was so “free” it had no direction planned. Ornette’s album Free Jazz may have sounded completely without focus when it was first issued, but when we listen now we hear what amounts to section demarcations, the sequence of episodes in which one or the other horn players of the double quartet come to the fore (they don’t “solo” exactly, but they are sort of handed more authority), the drummers’ climactic end. Cecil Taylor’s “Unit Structures” is not some formless splat! It’s a work of intense determination and inspired collaborative relationships. No one could arrive at what that ensemble or Cecil’s smaller group in Conquistador did by just stumbling into it accidentally – that music was envisioned, if we accept that the vision did not dictate specific pitches at specific moments in a structural cycle, but rather an architecture supported by highly distinctive design. The AACM musicians sometimes played “free” but mostly were very interested in extended composition. Yes, there was a large amount of what I think was “energy music”, just blowing blowing blowing to let off steam, to demonstrate determination, to express extreme emotions, to try to get to somewhere high up by sheer physical momentum – and I think a percentage of that was unsatisfying noise which the musicians considered otherwise because they accepted the most simplified explanation of what the leading explorer’s music set out to do. I think my job as a critic is to separate the wheat from the chaff. There was a lot of wheat in the range of jazz created from fresh ideas in the ’60s and ’70s and from those beginnings, still; and as usual, there was a lot of chaff.


Question #3 (Me):

What overall impact in the music of Jazz and its popularity did Free Jazz (Examples: Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Albert Ayler and many others) and my Avant Garde playlist (Examples: Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, McCoy Tyner, Billy Higgins and many others), have on the following Jazz era, Jazz Fusion and in Jazz music in general, now at the present moment?

Howard (Answer for Question#3):

What Ornette, Cecil, Miles, Ayler, Sun Ra, Dolphy, Coltrane in his most experimental works and others did in the ’60s and thereafter has had a huge influence on jazz “fusions” (I’m deliberately avoiding “jazz fusion” as a stylistic label, the way you’ve used it) and jazz and very many other forms of exploratory music up to the present. The ’60s avant-garde opened the doors so everything was possible, nothing excluded out-of-hand. Joe Lovano takes for granted the freedoms to explore that were posed at that time, and devotes himself to the standards of beauty that were posed in the era. Sonic Youth, Tortoise, jam bands, noise musicians, contemporary “classical” composers, all of them operate within areas that were opened up by the “free-est” players – and by the way, Freddie Hubbard is a fascinating example of a musician who dared to play at his highest level, really going out of his comfort zone, with Ornette, Trane, Ilhan Mimaruglo, and sometimes with Herbie Hancock – simultaneously (but in other projects) subscribing to the established parameters of “jazz”, and then funkifying the whole thing but still playing hot, “free” (as in imaginatively unfettered) jazz. Musicians like Shepp helped make it clear that a jazz player could have a penetrating social critique; Ayler established that the music sought the most urgent universalist realms. I think these musicians were heroic. There is an enormous range of variety in the output of even just one of them (Sun Ra’s solo recordings, his spaceways songs, his revitalizations of Fletcher Henderson material, his use of multi-keyboards and electronic wind instruments – he did indeed live in an alternate solar system of his own generation). Dolphy brought to jazz an interest in the sounds of nature (birds, especially), the systems of Indian raga, engagement with difficult through-composed scores (w/Gunther Schuller, et al), and the imperative to develop new techniques (like multiphonics). Ornette returned to jazz and music in general the basic element of direct emotion. Cecil re-imagined the piano, how to play it and what it can do, and has produced one of the pre-eminent oeuvres of musical modernism – dare to top it! It’s like trying to out-write James Joyce or Melville.

I hear “jazz fusion” (to return to your question) as being another misnomer, misconception, a term mostly applied by rock critics or non-jazzers, to begin with, and then used by marketers. Jazz has always been about fusions; it is an omnivorous art form, gobbling up everything  it connects with and all the settings through which is passes. There was a lot of exciting rock ‘n’ roll, soul and salsa in the late ’60s-early ’70s and jazz musicians had no reason to constrain themselves from assimilating aspects of those musics into their approaches beyond the limits of their own preferences. Jazz that employed electronic instruments – whether guitars or synths or electric pianos or octave dividers or bass amps (on uprights!) or in-studio processes were labeled “jazz fusion.” The music was not delineated by the intentions or achievements of the musicians but there is no usefulness, in my view, to lumping Weather Report and what Joe Zawinul was trying to do with Jeff Lorber. Pat Martino comes straight out of Wes Montgomery – nobody called Wes a jazz fusion musician, even when he was covering the Beatles “A Day in the Life”. We are accepted a very flawed vision of our musical world when we allow marketing (“What section in this record store do I find X record in? Oh, the jazz/bluegrass/blues/section?”) to dictate how we think about what we hear. My motto is: Question those labels! Do they serve a purpose, or do they obscure genuine aspects of music and affiliations of intentions from our view. The terms “free jazz,” “avant-garde,” and “jazz fusion” are just shorthand ways of referring to this or that, but if we use them to be the very definition of this or that we are doing a disservice to further investigations of what this or that may really be. Keep mind and eyes and ears open, respond with all the smarts and heart you’ve got, pursue whatever expression you find interesting with people you love – and then we have the basis of meaningful discussion about the artistic endeavors of creative people, across the limits of chronology, geography and received opinion to get to the real heart of what matters.

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