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.

Mingus at 100

As Duke Ellington said about the people and music he loved, Charles Mingus was “beyond category.” Now there’s been a flood of media recognition honoring Mingus’s centennial, and he may be more famous now than when he was alive. Yet the man was so prolific and complex that it’s impossible to do him justice in any short tribute. Nate Chinen gave that a good effort on NPR.

Since I spent a lot of time with Mingus and wrote a book about him, let me give you a few excerpts that reflect something of the true flavor of the man. In 1972, I taped him on one of his favorite subjects, the hoax of electronic music. He was talking with an Italian journalist who inadvertently evoked a lot of Mingus’s aversions.

Electronics are doing the same thing in music as elsewhere: They’re replacing people. Push a button, it sounds like an oboe, but not a good oboe player; another button, sounds like a French horn. The guy who plays this stuff is a nigger because he can’t afford to get a violin player or a French horn or oboe player. He might like to have the oboe—I would—but will go to the commercial extreme because it’s popular to use electric instruments.

And the great men like Charlie Parker and men who played legitimate instruments would laugh at these guys because they’re not in it for the love of music but because they think they’re going to make a lot of money—like Miles Davis did. Miles didn’t even need to make any money; he was already rich, or his daddy was rich. . . . But I know he’s an electronic man, and eventually somebody like me is going to make him come back and start playing again, put that bullshit down and play his horn. He’s gonna have to because [otherwise] he’ll be laughed out. Because you can get a little kid to push a button, and with these machines they got now, it’ll sound like they’re right.

Of course I fell in with that, as I did with many of Mingus’s opinions. Jazz lovers are often purists to a fault. We also spent much time talking about classical music. Mingus was deeply into that, as I found out later in our talks on Beethoven.

Kids should be educated to music, man, [classical is] not bad music. Our society should be listening to operas and everything else by now. It’s just noise to them, they can’t relax for a minute, it makes them sick. If a guy came in and played a beautiful violin for two-three minutes, they’d go crazy—over an ordinary microphone or no microphone.

Don’t you think they could appreciate Pablo Casals if he was young today? Sure they could, man, if this damn country would push it. I don’t know why they don’t want the kids to hear good music. Is it because it would make them healthy? They might throw their pot away. They might, man. You going to print that? And the young Casals, they’re stopping them.

And of course he hit on the avant-garde, another source of his strong opinions:

If Bird were here today, he wouldn’t be still playing bebop. You think he’d let Albert Ayler or somebody like that cut him? He’d do the squeek-squawk too but only a few bars of it. He wouldn’t do every tune like that. He would be avant-garde at the end of the composition or in the middle as a laugh and then go back to playing the music. . . .

You don’t just eliminate the beat. Music is everything—the beat and the no-beat; jazz wants to beat, emphasize the beat, so you don’t cancel it entirely. Especially if you call yourself black, because African people ain’t gonna never stop dancing. Puerto Ricans, the gypsies, Hungarians, they all have a dance music. You know? But they also have mood music that don’t have a beat to it sometimes, Indians don’t have a beat to it, but when they dance to it, they got a beat to it. I don’t see why these cats are ashamed to have a beat to their music.

Mingus was about so much more than angry protest, though I would finally type him as a turbulent man who saw through the many follies of our culture, and not just in music. But his music is what made him great if not famous. We’ll talk about that another time.