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Avant-garde jazz stretched the parameters of mainstream (or swing) jazz and while it's musical elements changed, jazz also became more political in the 1950s and 1960s. How did the changes in the approach to the music overflow into such an assertive political posture?

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Avant-garde jazz stretched the parameters of mainstream or swing jazz. And while its musical elements changed, jazz also became more political in the 1950s and 1960s. How did the changes in the approach to the music overflow into such an assertive, political posture?

You have different musicians responding to the Civil Rights era in different ways. Very few of them were making conscious connections. Sonny Rollins really was probably the first when he did a piece called the Freedom Suite. Now the music is instrumental, it's beautifully composed. It's a three-part suite, one side of a record. Very melodic, very listenable - everybody really loves this piece. What made it so political, besides the title, is the liner note that he wrote in which he, for the first time on a jazz album, you know, underscored his solidarity with the Civil Rights movement and that the world was changing. Um, after that, after the bombing in Alabama, John Coltrane did a record called Alabama, which sounds like a hymn. And just the title - you didn't need any words. Just the title and the way he sounds on that - very, very powerful political statement.

And then as the war started to rev up, people started responding to that. You had the Revolutionary Ensemble doing an album called Vietnam. Again, just the word. You had Charlie Hayden, Carla Bley doing the Liberation Music Orchestra, in which they mostly based it on tunes from the Spanish, you know, the war in Spain in 1938, 1939, and when it was hip to be part of the left political force field; and they were trying to revive that, and again they did it with these wonderful Spanish melodies that are very singable, very listenable, but in an avant-garde context where the solos were pretty free. So there's that.

But there's also a political aspect to the music that has nothing to do with language or specific references to the Civil Rights era. It has to do with the fact that young, black musicians, calling their music "free jazz" and the way they present themselves on the album covers - they don't look like jazz musicians used to look. They're not smiling - for Ornette Coleman's cover of This Is Our Music, This Is Our Jazz, you have four guys wearing these shades and dark suits and they look real serious. And their music doesn't play by the old rules, and free jazz itself, what does that mean? Free? That's a heavy word. It doesn't mean that you just play whatever the hell comes into your head. Which is what a lot of people thought it did and didn't understand it. It does mean that you're free to play in whatever manner you want that could be completely spontaneous, free. It could be playing at Dixieland. It could be playing "Hello, Dolly." It means that you are not being tied down to somebody else's definition of what it means to be a jazz musician. That's really the power of the avant- garde. You know, so Lester Bowie - a great figure associated with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Fearsome Avant-Garde Unit - you know, made records of the "Great Pretender," a Platters song that he grew up and loved. That's part of free jazz; or he did "Hello, Dolly." Sonny Rollins used to play "Hello, Dolly." It means the freedom to be who you are, what you are, and not to be defined by semantics.

Chapter 15 Jukebox