Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz was at the center of controversy in early 1960s music journalism. Released in 1961, the album contains a single thirty-seven-minute performance that is abstract and opaque. Its presumed cacophony and lack of order made Free Jazz emblematic of the “new thing,” the moniker journalists used to describe jazz’s emergent avant-garde, and links were drawn between the album’s sound and the supposed anti-traditionalism and radical (racial) politics of its artists and their supporters. This article does three things. It examines prominent reportage surrounding the album and the “new thing,” outlining the analytical shortfalls that helped to promulgate common misunderstandings about the music. It presents a new analytical framework for understanding Free Jazz, and it explains how the performance was organized and executed by exploring the textural provenance of its abstraction: heterophony. Heterophony, a term commonly used in ethnomusicology but with various shades of meaning, is theorized here as an opaque, decentralized musical texture. It opens up new epistemological terrain in the context of experimental improvised music by affording multiple simultaneous subjectivities (i.e., different sonified identities), interpolating the listener into a dynamic and constantly shifting sonic mesh. The experiment that was Free Jazz, I argue, is one of collective musical agency, in which the opacity of that sonic mesh—woven by the musicians in coordinated action—subverts traditional expectations of clarity, cohesion, and order, beckoning the listener to hear more openly, or more “freely.”
Free Jazz and the “New Thing”: Aesthetics, Identity, and Texture, 1960–1966
Kwami Coleman is a musician, composer, and musicologist. His 2017 recording is called Local Music and contains original music for trio (piano, bass, and drums) that interpolates field recordings from Harlem, New York. His book, in production, is titled Change: The New Thing and Modern Jazz. Coleman and his music have also appeared on screen in rapper Common’s “Black American Again” music video (2016), and in actor and director Adepero Oduye’s film To Be Free (2016). He is assistant professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University.
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Kwami Coleman; Free Jazz and the “New Thing”: Aesthetics, Identity, and Texture, 1960–1966. Journal of Musicology 1 July 2021; 38 (3): 261–295. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jm.2021.38.3.261
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