After the cool jazz of Miles Davis comes free jazz, which pushed the limits of creativity and expression in jazz. Saxophoneist Ornette Coleman created two albums that capture the essence of the movement, The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959 and the eponymous Free Jazz in 1960. Coleman was a unique performer who played a white plastic saxophone in an era of all brass instruments. His bassist Charlie Hayden recalls hearing him for the first time. Coleman showed up at a session in Los Angeles and pulled out his white plastic horn, which Hayden had never seen an adult musician play before. Coleman’s creative and unique playing was so far beyond the bounds of what was considered acceptable that he was shortly asked to leave. He put his horn away and left, but Hayden pursued him and said, “Hey, your music was so great. Do you think we could play sometime?” Ornette responded, “Thanks, my playing doesn’t normally get a lot of compliments like that.”
Your poor correspondent (YPC) researched this post by listening to both Coleman albums in their entirety, which is not likely to happen again because Coleman’s music is not YPC’s “cup of tea” as they say. There is a tension between music being too trite and too inaccessible, and Coleman is on the inaccessible side of that tension. Now it might be that YPC is simply insufficiently sophisticated, and that’s a fair criticism. Certainly Coleman has had a successful career and built up a fan base, but there’s also an argument to be made that his music is more fun to play than to listen to. That is, it’s made for an inside audience and risks edging into an ego-trip. To YPC, free jazz often sounds like noise. It’s just hard to understand and appreciate the musicality of free jazz when it’s too free.
There are jazz songs and albums that fans like to listen to, but too often it seems that isn’t what musicians want to play. For example, John Coltrane’s Favorite Things is one of his best-selling recordings, but given the direction his music took afterwards, it is logical to wonder if it was a recording he felt he needed to do rather than wanted to do. There will always be a creative tension between musicians and their audiences, but there must also be respect, and if audiences vote with their feet and move away from a genre, then that’s a fact that must be taken into consideration. Jazz is among the most American of musical genres, but its audience is not growing. So while free jazz is an important part of jazz history and Ornette Coleman is an important jazz artist, it is worth considering whether free jazz was too experimental and too inaccessible.