Free Jazz, Coltrane and Sun Ra

SUN RA c.1972

Avant garde jazz, or “free jazz” as commonly known, could be the most theoretical and abstract sound in Western music.

Developed by Black American virtuoso musicians mostly on acoustic instruments (sax, trumpet, piano, upright bass, drums), it's hard to think of a more dense and austere yet ultimately spiritually rewarding listening experience.

Stemming from the fast-moving ‘Be Bop’ jazz of the 1940’s and the driving, soulful ‘Hard Bop’ jazz of the 1950s, avant garde jazz came into full flower during the counterculture flux of the 1960’s when the music seemed to bespeak the raw emotions — violence, sadness, passion — of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam experience.

Although the free jazz movement largely petered out after the inevitable conservative backlash of the mid-1970’s, the music still remains today as testament to a legion of brave forward-thinking artists who placed creativity and expression above the lure of the almighty dollar.

By turns chaotic and lyrical, free jazz resists easy tropes. The traditional musical cornerstones of melody, rhythm and harmonic progression are mostly abandoned and replaced by a radical approach “free” of the shackles of Western musical rules. However, it is also clear free-jazz theory remains deeply indebted to the outsider experimental music of Europeans like Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and Erik Satie.

Seeking new musical ways to express their own times, avant garde jazz musicians plumbing their psyches for inspiration during the tumultuous 1960s concluded that a truly revolutionary jazz music demanded a fresh, explosive instrumental language based on shaping slabs of pure sound, instead of simply running the usual chord progressions or regurgitating standard note groupings. Old precepts like smoothly precise intonation, well-tempered harmony and steady predictable meter were to be thrown out like yesterday’s newspapers.

The entire free jazz idea was perhaps best encapsulated by saxophonist Archie Shepp’s incandescent manifesto: “Where my own life and art suffice, I disregard Western musical thought altogether.”

ARCHIE SHEPP c. mid-1960s

Composer/players like Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler created solos and improvisations that could evoke devastating pain or ethereal beauty, often within the same freewheeling piece. Free jazz was a decidedly angular new music full of sharp contradictions with no quarter given to listeners seeking the sonorous classic jazz sounds of just a few years earlier.

Predictably, free jazz was savaged by many establishment critics at the time as “anti-jazz” played by militant charlatans and it generally sold slowly in the record stores. Even the Be Bop era innovators like Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis found ‘The New Thing’ to be musically untenable and loudly voiced their disdain despite having suffered similarly critical slings & arrows during their own heyday 20 years earlier.

It is this very same incendiary volatility that ensures avant garde jazz remains resistant to facile appraisal or mass co-option by the music industry even today. It also explains why it’s one of the few Western sounds able to withstand the overwhelming assimilation pressure of pop culture: It’s simply not an easily accessible music.

ALBERT AYLER — c. mid-1960s

Most listeners are completely baffled by a music seemingly without rules and big corporations can’t sell products to the strains of what is sheer cacophony to many ears. Hell, you can’t even really dance to it. Believe me, I’ve tried.

But this difficult, noisy penumbra disguises a pure musical essence that puts unfettered creativity — or the “ugly beauty” to paraphrase pianist Thelonious Monk — on transparent display to create a primal soundtrack of unchained sonic revolution amidst societal upheaval.

Certainly the most famous name in avant garde jazz is saxophonist John Coltrane (1926–1967) who began his career in the late 1940’s as a huge-toned disciple of tenor titans Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and jazzy R&B honkers Illinois Jacquet and Ike Quebec.

Coltrane first gained international superstar status in the acclaimed Miles Davis groups of the 1950’s for his lengthy solos and modal “sheets of sound” Hard Bop style. Coltrane soon formed his own band and recorded dozens of modern jazz masterworks including the classic LPs ‘Blue Train’, ‘My Favorite Things’, ‘Giant Steps’, and ‘A Love Supreme’, among many others.

JOHN COLTRANE c.1963 [courtesy: Washington DC Jazz Network]

But sometime around 1962 or 1963, Coltrane decided to turn his back on mainstream jazz and he embarked upon an epic journey of musical exploration driven by a restless spiritual need, coupled with an almost superhuman mental stamina unsurpassed by any musician in history.

Coltrane regularly stretched his solos into undulating 1 or 2 hour dissections of a singular theme, bending and twisting notes until they became their own musical universes totally unmoored from the earthly limitations of the chord.

Perhaps somewhat amazingly, John Coltrane sold millions of records worldwide during (and after) his career, veritable market proof of the universal soul-penetrating power of his music. He is always rightfully credited with being the real spearhead of avant garde jazz.

But it is actually the little-known composer and pianist Sun Ra (1914–1993; born Herman Poole ‘Sonny’ Blount) who is perhaps the true father of avant garde jazz and the musician who served as a primal influence on John Coltrane’s quest for a deeply expanded musical consciousness.

Sun Ra — 1971

Sun Ra, renown for wearing resplendent regalia and claiming he was an alien from Saturn since the 1930’s, led a big band called ‘The Interstellar Solar Myth-Science Arkestra’ for nearly 40 years with many of the key musicians remaining in the band the entire time. It was Sun Ra’s two fiery saxophonists, John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, who both often played in a ‘free’ style as far back as 1955 that was similar to what Coltrane would later develop in the early ‘60s.

On his many records and in live band performances, Sun Ra’s musical approach frequently veered from vaguely straight-ahead Be-Bop to Latin-tinged exotica to berserker freeform meltdowns accompanied by eerie chants about the wonders of the solar system or ancient Africa.

Throughout peak 1960’s albums like ‘The Nubians of Plutonia’, ‘Pathways to Unknown Worlds’, ‘The Magic City’, ‘Angels & Demons At Play’, ‘Crystal Spears’ and ‘The Bad And Beautiful’, Sun Ra and The Arkestra create tangled sonic webs of improvisational genius – dark, kinetic sounds bursting with spiky electric piano or fuzzy keyboard lines and collective horn freak-outs that would likely send most punk rockers screaming from the room.

Clearly, this music is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, the sound easily rivals any rock band in both sheer power and unbridled intensity. And all this huge ruckus from musicians dressed in colorful robes no less!

Sun Ra LP ‘The Heliocentric Worlds’— ESP-Disk Records, 1965

Interestingly, Sun Ra is credited with being one of the very first to employ electronics in a ‘jazz’ recording when he used an early electric keyboard prototype in “Advice to Medics” on 1956’s ‘Supersonic Sounds’ LP. He was also among the first to use a Moog synthesizer on record during the ‘My Brother, The Wind’ sessions in the mid-1960’s and he regularly incorporated instruments from various countries in his recordings long before the term ‘World Music’ became vogue.

Sun Ra was also one of the first to privately press his own records independently, a basic idea in today’s DIY music scene. He released an astounding 200 or so albums during his lifetime, most on his own self-financed, produced and distributed Saturn Records, a practice which allowed him to survive outside the realm of the corporate music marketplace. Many of his LPs were first issued with hand-painted covers in tiny privately pressed batches. All the original Saturn LPs now command very hefty sums on the record collector market.

His slightly mellower late 1970s and 1980s recordings showcase Ra’s lifelong affinity for classic Swing-era arrangements (Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman) and are masterpieces of beautifully fractured big band jazz.

Evidence Records lovingly reissued about 25 classic Sun Ra titles on CD in the 1990s and it’s a good place to get his music at a reasonable cost. Ra’s amazing 1972 film ‘Space Is The Place’ gained infamy on the art-house cinema circuit as a post-psychedelic hybrid of social documentary, Blaxploitation kitsch, and free jazz magick and is highly recommended on DVD.

A lifelong teetotaler and vegetarian, Sun Ra’s occult mysticism and guru-like control over the organization and regimen of his band was legendary. His penchant for enigmatic pronouncements on subjects ranging from UFOs to numerology to religion to communal living was de rigueur for Arkestra band members who were regularly tested on their understanding of Sun Ra lectures during rehearsals. In 1971, Sun Ra even taught a college course at Berkeley, “The Black Man In The Cosmos,” that attempted to explain his alien Kosmiche philosophy to rather befuddled college students.

Sun Ra’s fixation with ancient Africa, extraterrestrials, Egyptology, planetary time travel and all things metaphysical was sometimes perceived as a weird ‘out there’ gimmick. In actuality, his galactic philosophy worked as an empowering belief system in which the struggles of Black people were to be rewarded by the cosmic freedom promised in the outer space of the future. Sun Ra music envisioned an ever-expanding pan-African universe with all folks fully in command of their politics and culture.

The ultimate lofty intellectual goal of all this high-minded musical abstraction was markedly singular - ecstatic peace. The special communion between deep spirituality and music is explicit in much avant garde jazz and many Sun Ra titles like Interplanetary Consciousness, Beyond Sin & Thought, Space Ankh, Interstellar Force and We Travel The Spaceways invoke astral journeys, jazz music and worship of a higher being almost interchangeably.

Sun Ra — Omniverse (Saturn Records, 1979)

Although Sun Ra’s appeal to the general public or even to most jazz fans remains minimal, his influence on modern music is very significant.

Artists as diverse as David Bowie, Lou Reed, The MC5, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Phish, Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth Wind & Fire, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, NRBQ, Bootsy Collins and John Cage all claim Ra’s music as a pivotal influence and a few have even attempted to cover his songs on their own albums. The Arkestra band still continues on to this very day performing concerts worldwide honoring the legacy of their dear departed leader

Sun Ra’s underground championing was a prime example of the way avant garde art could perfectly align with youthful revolutionary spirit. It may also mark the last instance of any jazz music, originally born and raised in the ghetto, still having some real emotional resonance with the people down on the ground it purported to serve.

Sun Ra himself, however, always remained highly suspicious of all politicians or centralized power structures on either the right or left:

“I don’t like to approach Black people with the truth because they like lies. They live lies. At one time, I felt that White people were to blame for everything, but then I found out that they were just puppets too and pawns of some greater force, which has been using them. Some force is having a good time [manipulating black and white people] and looking down, enjoying itself up in a reserved seat, wondering, “I wonder when they’re all going to wake up.”

Nowadays, it’s slightly sad that jazz music as an entire genre has been relegated to Weather Channel themes and smoothed-out background fodder. Because way back in the day, jazz was as alive and vital as the turbulent street protests and fervent shouts for equal rights.

For Sun Ra, social change and a new political Black consciousness may have been the controversial matrix of his strange alien sound, yet he never once preached any hatred or separatism - only pure musical love.

On his brightly glowing planet, everyone of all colors vibrated sympathetically to the same crazy celestial beat.

Jorge Cervera has been a professional musician for over 30 years and an obsessive record collector since age 12. He has over 5,000 LPs and deals vinyl online all over the world from his sprawling tumbleweed ranch near Cheyenne Wyoming USA.

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Writer, Musician, Montana Lover, Bon Vivant

Writer, Musician, Montana Lover, Bon Vivant