Music, Freedom, and Form

I read yesterday that Pharoah Sanders had died. By most accounts he was a kind and gentle man, though his music explored the limits of sonic tolerance. His work in the ‘60s with John Coltrane and Albert Ayler “helped pioneer a frenetic blend of spiritual jazz that, through shrieking horns and loose rhythmic structure, was meant to summon higher powers. The idea, it seemed, was to blow the sax so hard that the music reached God’s ears.”

So says Marcus J. Moore in The Nation, then going on to render an appreciation of Sanders’ development in later years, pointedly with Promises in 2021, an album I haven’t heard in which Moore finds greatness. I do have a couple of albums wherein Sanders and Coltrane are apparently searching for Karma or God on their horns. They are hard to listen to today.

When I was music critic for The New Leader in the late ‘60s I went on a couple of rants about free jazz—how screeching and emotive self-indulgence had taken over the music. Since I’ve become old and crotchety I haven’t much changed my opinion about free jazz though I’ve mellowed a bit. It’s not popular anymore for a lot of reasons, but Pharoah was one of the few to try keeping it relevant, and we salute him for that.

Free jazz proponents talked a lot about freedom. Yet when jazz tends to anarchy it can sink into expressionistic bedlam. John Coltrane’s music in the ‘50s and ‘60s was a revelation to me. When he later focused on his intense spiritual quest I simply couldn’t follow him.

For me, music must have some form or purpose or content its listeners can relate to. Free jazz leaves most musical norms behind, and “all notes are created equal!” It began as protest music and, in my opinion, evolved to self-indulgence. There’s more to it than this, of course. Below is a very good, somewhat complicated explanation of how free jazz takes different forms. I’ve never heard a better one.

When forms like serialism in classical music die out, as free jazz mostly has, what comes next? Ornette Coleman, a unique kind of free jazz musician, showed us one way. Hear “Lonely Woman” from The Shape of Jazz to Come, 1959:

The impulses—musical and social—that created free jazz were not always noble. Mingus and Miles used to say that these folks were jiving the public, trying to make money off black protest. Mingus was very vocal about this: “if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something . . . .”

When Mingus or his band “played free,” as they often did in his later music, they never got lost in their explorations. There was always a tonal center or a melody or chords to come back to. Mingus was also a master of the many modes and moods of jazz. These traditions and roots were his stock in trade. I’ve always felt that the free jazz people never cared much for these things.

Coltrane the Cultural Icon

I’m moved to write about the Great Jazz Messiah after reading what Ben Ratliff wrote in the Washington Post the other day. Ben, a good critic now somewhat retired from journalism, pokes and probes around the cultural goings-on of the early ‘60s to explain Coltrane’s evolution, from 1961 to be exact.

It’s a kind of “rambling, unfocused piece,” as one commenter put it. And it makes the usual generalizations about the era that can ring false to those who lived through it, as I did. His piece also testifies to why I don’t write jazz criticism anymore.

Ratliff focuses on 1961 because it was the time of Coltrane’s pathbreaking Live at the Village Vanguard recordings. Here’s part of his negative take on the culture of that time:

From my standpoint—I wasn’t born until seven years later—the culture of that period seems marked by tension, diffusion, doubt, repetition, foreboding, lengthiness, savviness, taut aggression, wary knowledge, inspired dread, disciplined joy. The music sounds post-heroic and pre-cynical; interestingly free from grandiosity; full of room for the listener to find a place within it and make up their own mind. I want to live in it—not necessarily in its material evidence (I am looking forward to the next Playboi Carti record, just like you), but in its sensitivity, its skepticism and refusals. I think I can.

(Whew! Some tortured language here. Just like you, I had to Google “Playboi Carti.”) Ben finds all this as a cornerstone to Coltrane’s music of the period. I heard it rather differently. As a college kid I had spent an evening hearing Coltrane live with the first Miles Davis Quintet, as recounted in Jive-Colored Glasses. In 1956-57 that marked a whole new sound from the hard bop noises we were used to.

When I came to New York in 1965 to teach at NYU I also found a quasi-career as a jazz writer. Coltrane’s music by then had moved on to its final phase, a sound of total feeling—formless, powerful, and to a degree ineffable. Ben Ratliff, it turns out, wrote one of the best critical books about this development—in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound).

If you came at the later Coltrane from a more analytical (and less cultural) point of view as I did, you’d find the music hard to get into, hard to move you musically. After A Love Supreme he just lost me. Ben’s book quotes trumpeter Don Ellis’s criticisms (p. 163). Here are a couple of things Ellis points up that also bothered me. One is Coltrane’s sense of time:

That is, he never really gets “inside” the pulse, but rather plays over it. He now has his whole group playing with this same feeling! This is a good device, but it would be even more effective if balanced by strong “inside time” sections. In fact contrast in general is one of the weaknesses of this group.

 . . . In the great bulk of Coltrane’s work we get a good deal of filigree or decoration (in the form of continuous scales and arpeggios performed at a rapid velocity) but very little “meat” or positive strong statements or ideas. It is like he is playing chorus after chorus, solo after solo on only one idea—that of continually varying scale patterns and arpeggios.

That is valid technical criticism, but it really got under the skin of all those who wanted to find echoes of Africa in all that Coltrane did, to the exclusion of other influences. A kind of reverse racism, it seemed to me, and I wrote a piece about it that generated some commentary.

There has been so much written about the ‘60s, the white-black polarizations, the push for new Black Art, the musical cries of cultural pain. Coltrane’s late music, especially in Meditations and after, values feeling over form and rapidly became part of how American culture came to view jazz as a whole.

In that sense Saint John was certainly a revolutionary. But, like so much in our cultural life, his late music was not really open to replication. For all its angry devotional power, I think its closed, hermetic appeal was one reason why jazz lost its way and became a music only for the committed few.