British comedian Les Dawsons was famous for playing the piano poorly. Hilariously bad. I’m just destroying the song. But he often received praise from other pianists for his talent. Anyone could play the piano poorly, they would say, but playing the perfect wrong note – one that leaves the melody recognizable but incorrect – is a unique skill. So it was with the innovators of free jazz: critics, peers and the general public heard the cacophony, but the reality was that it attracted the most skilled, the most innovative, the most collaborative performers, those who could. tiptoe chaos, but only because they understood the order.
The evolution of jazz has accelerated so much that the term is almost meaningless. As jazz historian Gary Giddins notes in a free jazz history lesson Fire music, a musician who grew up listening to Duke Ellington worked in the club circuit while Charlie Parker was playing. This was the case with the transformation of bebop into free jazz, the often obtuse form defended from the end of the 1950s by pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and respected by John Coltrane (no one could claim that Trane could not not play). With interviews with numerous survivors of a scene that saw tragic attrition rates and a thorough dig through the archives of amazing performance footage, Tom Surgal creates what he often calls a “fix” to the PBS 2001 series. laborious by Ken Burns, Jazz, who disdainfully treated the move as an afterthought.
Surgal’s theorem is clear: free jazz is not far removed from the informal structures of bebop, but just further downstream, just as bebop was not so far removed from the big band era. Yeah, take that stepping stone off and it looks like an impossible jump, but they’re all part of jazz. Yet this is also the limit of Surgal’s thesis. Free jazz is a subset of jazz, yes, but it is also part of the larger movements of postwar America. So, not to mention modernism, or the philosophical reassessments that would crystallize into deconstructionism, or (save for an incidental mention of Miró and Mapplethorpe) the crazy adventures of mid-century visual art, diminishes and closes free jazz: frustrating, considering that Surgal started this project because he thought Burns’ version of jazz was too limited. More astonishingly, it gives the impression that free jazz introduced avant-garde music to Europe (a breathtaking act of Americanism that crumbles just by saying “Stockhausen”). Fire music also involves the scene simply finished, which seems antithetical to his whole idea of jazz evolving. This is why the story Surgal tells is ultimately fascinating but dry, deep but limited, and a lesson rather than an experience.