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Introduction In the summer of 1960, jazz composer and alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Ed Blackwell recorded This Is Our Music for Atlantic records. The album captured an original musical vision that had polarized performers, critics , and fans since the quartet’s New York City debut the previous year. Coleman reordered structural principles to afford the members of his group maximum melodic and rhythmic freedom. By allowing each musician to play inside or outside conventional chord, bar, pitch, and tempo guidelines, he pursued an expressive and collective approach to improvisation. On the session’s one standard tune, ‘‘Embraceable You,’’ Coleman’s motivic development quickly departed from Gershwin’s melody line, the chord sequence that anchored it, and the four-bar constraints on each phrase. By placing these innovations at the center of his musical conception, rather than referring to them as passing embellishments , he changed the entire sound of jazz. Individually, Coleman’s temporary allegiance to tonal centers, and high-pitched bent notes, allowed him to approximate a wider range of human sounds on his horn than previous instrumentalists. Collectively, the absence of orthodox musical reference points forced other band members to contribute to the performance in new ways. Following the saxophone into—or propelling it toward—uncharted territory, the group sacrificed some of its cohesion for improvisational daring and range. Thus the unison introduction by Coleman and Cherry to ‘‘Embraceable You’’ sounded ragged or sloppy to some listeners, the perception of harmonic dissonance between the instruments occurred frequently, and the rhythm section rarely propelled the other players with any urgency. At the same time, the Quartet’s spontaneity radically altered the emotional appeal of Gershwin’s song, replacing the relaxed ballad interpretation favored by Nat Cole or Charlie Parker with a plaintive dirge-like quality. Later in the year, Coleman recorded an album that gave his music a name: Free Jazz.1 The trade press quickly employed this title to describe the work of performers exploring similar musical territory, including Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and later Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, 2 Introduction Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell , Joseph Jarman, and many others. Yet a musical analysis of Coleman’s innovations cannot adequately define the movement to which he contributed so much. For a start, these instrumentalists used free approaches to improvisation in numerous contrasting ways, drawing upon some but not all of Coleman’s practices and combining them with distinctive personal approaches to tone, melodic construction, rhythmic pulse, and just about every other stylistic trait. No wonder jazz writers used so many terms besides free jazz to try to encapsulate the music’s essence: free form, abstract jazz, atonal jazz, anti-jazz, avant-garde, space music, and ‘‘the new thing,’’ to name a few. I define the movement also by its cultural identity, by the meanings that listeners attached to it. Free improvisation included stylists as diverse as John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman not only because they shared a commitment to experimental music but because they dominated a controversy over the ownership of jazz implicit in the title This Is Our Music. Whose music was it? At various times during the 1960s, musicians, critics, fans, politicians, and entrepreneurs claimed jazz as a national art form, an Afrocentric race music, an extension of modernist experimentation in other genres, a music of mass consciousness, and the preserve of a cultural elite. The debate over its meaning framed the reception of free improvisation and greatly influenced the standing of jazz in American culture. Jazz music has traveled a long way toward respectability in a short period of time. Its access to the universities and arts foundations, after initial confinement to bordellos, speakeasies, and other disreputable spaces, confirms Lawrence Levine’s premise that ‘‘the perimeters of our cultural divisions have been permeable and shifting rather than fixed and immutable.’’2 This book explores the question of who makes decisions about the value of a cultural form and on what basis, taking as its example the impact of 1960s free improvisation on the changing status of jazz. By examining a key transitional moment in the realignment of hierarchical categories, I synthesize issues of race, economics, politics, and aesthetics in an investigation of the competing definitions of American identity. In order to account for the music’s shifting fortunes, I draw upon and seek to extend recent literature on canon formation in jazz. The notion that jazz has...


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