A) When I was seven years old I started piano lessons, and like most piano students back in the 1950s, I learned to play little tunes note-by-note out of a book. Everything was very structured.
B) By the time I was twenty years old I was playing in free-form, “out” jam sessions with multi-instrumentalist and the father of avant-garde jazz, Sam Rivers.
So how did I get from A to B?
Well, first of all, I didn’t seem to be able to stick to the note-by-note routine very well. Within a year after starting lessons I was making up little tunes of my own. And as time went on, playing music out of a book felt more and more like being in a strait-jacket, at least to me.
At age 13 I dumped my lessons and taught myself how to play jazz by listening to records and trying to copy them on the piano. I learned how to improvise by putting together some chords in my left hand and just playing anything I felt like with my right hand.
But this certainly wasn’t free-form music. It still had structure. It followed a pattern. Nevertheless, it was more spontaneous than reading music out of a book, because I could make melodies up when I improvised.
So how did I make the leap from structured jazz to free-from jazz?
I actually didn’t, because there wasn’t any leap to make. So-called free-form jazz isn’t what some people think — just a bunch of chaotic sounds. I found out from playing with Sam Rivers that the avant-garde has structure, too.
Sam used to assemble a bunch of us young, green musicians on Sunday afternoons in a club in the Boston neighborhood Roxbury, and he’d give us a little musical motif to get us started playing. It would be a short series of notes, maybe five or six, and then we would play and build on this bare-bones structure. It was fascinating to me, because sometimes it would just sound like a big random mess, but then suddenly everything would come together and it would be magic.
I puzzled over this for a long time, and then it hit me: it sounds like a mess when we’re not listening to each other, but just to ourselves. So the structure had to extend to the musicians themselves — it wasn’t just about the notes. We had to learn how to be our own structure, listening to each other closely, responding to each other, playing off each other, building on each others’ ideas. There had to be a sense of brotherhood, if I can put it that way.
I didn’t end up dedicating myself to free jazz the way some other players have, but I find that the concept tends to pop up in the music I write for my band and also in my piano playing, even when I’m playing some straightahead tune. I use it for contrast, to build tension and release, and I find it very satisfying.
I know a lot of people, even the most devoted jazz fans, can’t stand listening to avant-garde jazz, but I’ve discovered that even the ones who despise it have a positive reaction when it’s used in small doses in a more mainstream context.
If you don’t know anything about avant-garde jazz and are curious, you might check out Cecil Taylor, Marilyn Crispell, Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, and of course, Sam Rivers. Here’s a sample: