Free Jazz

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An approach to Jazz that was originally developed during the 1950s and 1960s, this was due to musicians attempting to alter, extend, or break down, conventional Jazz, they would often discard fixed chord changes, and standard tempos.

Though the music of Free Jazz composers varied widely, a common feature was dissatisfaction with the limitations of Bebop, Hard Bop, and Modal Jazz that had developed in the 1940s and 1950s.

Often it was described as Avant-Garde, but Free Jazz has also been described as an attempt to return Jazz to its primitive, often religious, roots and emphasis on collective improvisation.

As its name implies, Free Jazz cannot be defined more than loosely, as many musicians draw on Free Jazz concepts and idioms, and it was never completely distinct as a genre. Many Free Jazz musicians, notably Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane, used harsh overblowing or other techniques to elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments, or played unusual instruments.

Free Jazz musicians created a progressive musical language which drew on earlier styles of Jazz such as Dixieland Jazz and African music.

Typically this kind of music is played by small groups of musicians. The music often swings but without regular meter, and there are frequent accelerandi and ritardandi.

Free Jazz is strongly associated with the 1950s innovations of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and the later works of saxophonist John Coltrane. Other important pioneers include Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Joe Maneri and Sun Ra. Coleman pioneered many techniques typical of Free Jazz, most notably his rejection of pre-written chord changes, believing instead that freely improvised melodic lines should serve as the basis for harmonic progression in his compositions. Some of bassist Charles Mingus's work was also important in establishing Free Jazz. Of particular note are his early Atlantic albums, such as The Clown, Tijuana Moods, and most notably Pithecanthropus Erectus, the title song of which contained one section that was freely improvised in a style unrelated to the song's melody or chordal structure. Although today "Free Jazz" is the generally used term, many other terms were used to describe the loosely defined movement, including "Avant-Garde", "energy music" and "The New Thing". During its early and mid-1960s heyday, much Free Jazz was released by established labels such as Prestige, Blue Note, and Impulse, as well as independents such as ESP Disk and BYG Actuel.

Around the World

Outside of North America, Free Jazz scenes have become established in Europe and Japan. Alongside the aforementioned Joe Harriott, saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, trombonist Conny Bauer, guitarist Derek Bailey, pianist Fred Van Hove, drummer Han Bennink, saxophonist and bass clarinetist Willem Breuker, and pianist Misha Mengelberg were among the most well-known early European Free Jazz performers. European Free Jazz can generally be seen as approaching free improvisation, with an ever more distant relationship to Jazz tradition. Specifically Brötzmann has had a significant impact on the Free Jazz players of the United States.

A relatively active Free Jazz scene behind the iron curtain produced musicians like Tomasz Stańko, Zbigniew Seifert, Vladimir Chekasin, Vyacheslav Ganelin and Vladimir Tarasov. Japanese guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi and saxophonist Kaoru Abe, among others, took Free Jazz in another direction, approaching the energy levels of noise. Some international Jazz musicians have come to North America and become immersed in Free Jazz, most notably Ivo Perelman from Brazil and Gato Barbieri of Argentina (this influence is more evident in Barbieri's early work).

South African artists, including early Dollar Brand, Zim Ngqawana, Carlo Mombelli, Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo, and Dudu Pukwana experimented with a form of Free Jazz (and often Big Band Free Jazz) that fused experimental improvisation with African rhythms and melodies. American musicians like Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Milford Graves, and Pharoah Sanders integrated elements of the music of Africa, India, and the Middle East for a sort of World Music influenced Free Jazz.

Some "Other" Artists

Apart from the artists mentioned above, there are a number of artists who wouldn't normally be associated with the world of Jazz, who have been credited with incorporating Free Jazz into their creations, below is a list of just a few, with Free Jazz working its way into everything from Gothic, to Industrial, to Rock, to Thrash Metal, and Punk, to name but a few.


Art Of Noise


The Birthday Party



Captain Beefheart

Celtic Frost


David Bowie

David Sylvian


Die Warzau


Einstürzende Neubauten

Erik Satie


Felix Da Housecat


Frank Zappa


Harold Budd



J. G. Thirlwell

John Cage

John Coltrane





Lydia Lunch


Mike Patton (of Faith No More)

The Monks



Nick Cave


Nik Turner

Nurse with Wound


Pere Ubu

Pink Floyd

The Plastic Ono Band



The Residents

Robert Fripp

Roxy Music


Sonic Youth


Siouxsie & the Banshees


Talking Heads


Terminates Here

Tim Buckley