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Future: Many Voices : Jazz's Languages, Dialects Are Innumerable

February 20, 1987|DON HECKMAN

The contemporary jazz era was ushered in on a chilly night in late November, 1959, at a somewhat run-down nightclub in Manhattan's Third Avenue called the Five Spot. The evening's headliner, the Ornette Coleman Quartet, had already released a controversial recording and raised a flurry of interest on the West Coast. But the New York City opening was eagerly trumpeted by some observers as the debut of the first significant alternative to the then-dominant be-bop and hard bop styles.

The time was ripe for something else. For better or worse, a new era for jazz was beginning, fueled by the energies of dramatically changing times. The dawning Kennedy '60s were about to replace the conservatism of the Eisenhower years with an upbeat new generationism. But be-bop, the hipster-embraced jazz form that had defined what little counter-culture there was in the '50s, was beginning to show signs of wear, unrepairable even by a second generation of hard bop players.

Not everyone was convinced, however, that Coleman was quite the musical messiah he was advertised to be. His notion that jazz could be played freely, in a kind of spontaneous musical anarchy, was viewed by many musicians and critics with suspicion--a reflection of his primitivism rather than his musical sophistication.

The weeks and months after Coleman's debut were enlivened by a free-ranging debate over the merits of his music that rivaled--in both intensity and obfuscation--the dialectical differences between Trotskyites and Leninists.

In retrospect, Coleman's controversial opening at the Five Spot appears to have been an event of symbolic rather than literal importance. It was, after all, John Coltrane, not Coleman who became the most influential player of the post-bop era. And Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor and George Russell, among others, had already been tilling their own radically new musical soil since the mid-'50s.

Coleman's real contribution was more intangible but, in its own way, equally important. By making a sharp right turn away from the evolutionary flow of styles, he proposed, in effect, that jazz can be many things. While the most immediate consequences of that action were radical--sometimes in the extreme--the long-range result was the blossoming of a multitude of new jazz strains.

The next few years saw a virtual blitzkrieg of assaults upon traditional jazz techniques: Cecil Taylor's relentless manipulation of huge blocks of percussive sound; John Coltrane's expansion of the limits of both chromatic and modal improvisation; Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp's heroic efforts to reach into the primal cry of music-making; George Russell's precise applications of his Lydian Method of Tonal Organization; Charles Mingus' astonishing ability to absorb the sounds and sights and feelings of a culture in transition and meld them into a new creative whole; Miles Davis' exploration (still continuing) of the shadowy area between jazz and rock.

The list could go on, with greater and lesser names--from jazz action theater and aural versions of abstract expressionism and improvised pointillism and 12-note rows.

But as the '60s unfolded, and the energies of rock began to dominate public consciousness, much of the experimental music of the jazz avant-gardists began to feel wrong. Even the most receptive listeners found that the disturbingly nihilistic sounds of this music represented too accurate and too pessimistic a reflection of the anger and frustration coursing through American society.

As the baby boomers--the kind of vigorous young listeners who had traditionally been jazz's primary audience--began to mature, they turned, instead, to other sounds. The songs and music associated with the great social and cultural upheavals of the Vietnam War and, in the early '70s, the collapsing Nixon presidency, were sung and played by rock musicians, not jazz musicians, as the baby boomers found more relevant solace in the easy accessibility, social awareness and musical energy of the new rock performers.

By the early '70s, rock dominated the public consciousness, and predictions of the imminent death of jazz were echoing through the jazz community--with considerable justification. The amazing success of Motown Records in the '60s had opened up pop music venues (with their commensurate commercial rewards) that would have been virtually untouchable by black performers a decade earlier.

As a result, the gifted young black urban performers who were at the cutting edge of jazz in the past had emerged in the '60s, instead, as Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Kool & the Gang, etc. And a burgeoning amateur and semi-professional interest in performing (music stores were selling more hardware than at any time in their history) quickly turned away from the demanding disciplines of jazz in favor of the easier, more lucrative potential of the various forms of rock.

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