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Writing Jazz
2001 MLA Meeting
New Orleans
29 December


Timothy S. Murphy
University of Oklahoma

Improvisation as Idiomatic, Ethic and Harmolodic

Work in progress.
Please do not copy, quote or circulate without author's permission.

[Note: This essay is basically a position paper, intended to define my own perspective on an existing controversy. I am well aware of the schematic nature of my account of the curatorial perspective that I criticize herein; I intend to develop that aspect of the essay further as a result of the panel's discussions. In any case I hope that I have managed to present a position that is substantial enough to be worth arguing about, as the analytical philosophers say.]

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is currently in the midst of a monumental expansion project whose history, if the journalists are to be believed, may be read as a parable that can shed some light on the problem of jazz's history and its continuing vitality. According to a recent New Yorker article by Calvin Tomkins, the problem that MOMA faced in the Nineties was the one implied by its very name: what is "modern art," and what are its historical limits? Practically, this problem of definition or identity arose in response to a shortage of exhibition space in the museum, and was posed on the theoretical plane as "the question of when the museum should stop buying new art.... A few trustees argued for cutting off at the year 2000, and making MOMA the definitive museum of twentieth-century art."1 Just as the date would mark the chronological end of the modern era, so the turn to postmodernism would mark the formal limit of modern art. The adoption of this rather rigidly chronometric solution to the theoretical problem of the identity of modern art would have effectively allowed the museum to stop collecting new art and hence would have solved the practical problem of lack of new exhibition space at the same time. However, none of the museum's principals signed on to this proposal either theoretically or practically, but instead made "a new commitment" to the "modernist faith" (presumably in something like its Poundian version, "Make it new") in the form of a huge architectural project to expand the museum so that it can continue to collect new works into the 21st century, and a massive fund-raising campaign to pay for the billion-dollar expansion.

However a spectator might feel about the viability of MOMA's resolution to its identity crisis, she would have to acknowledge both its ambition and, more importantly for the argument that follows, its dogged contemporaneity. The museum has refused to become strictly retrospective, which means it has refused, paradoxically, to become a museum in the normal sense: an institution dedicated to the preservation and study of extinct forms of life, knowledge and practice. In this way, MOMA has taken an approach to its curatorial field that is diametrically opposed to that taken by another New York cultural institution that has recently begun to raise money for facility expansion, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Program, to the equally modern art that constitutes its field.2 Other jazz history and pedagogy programs around the country, as well as the jazz recording industry, have followed its ideological lead. These jazz institutions have, with very few exceptions, adopted a strictly retrospective definition of the music, one whose effective cultural hegemony was both clearly embodied in and further disseminated by Ken Burns' massive 18-hour documentary Jazz, which first aired in early 2001. This film will help us to formulate the question that is the point of departure for what follows: is jazz still a living part of art and culture in the present, or is it now only part of the history of art? Through both its content and its structure, Burns' documentary seems to imply that jazz is no longer a living art form but rather a collection of historically fixed artifacts, museum relics that can best be appropriated through the kind of curatorial logic that Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis' work at Lincoln Center (and on recordings) represents. Since Marsalis, abetted by critics and Lincoln Center artistic advisors Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, was Burns' primary consultant on the film, this implication should surprise no one.

Burns' Jazz has been widely recognized as a landmark in the history of jazz studies, but what has been less widely noticed is the fact that it's also a powerful piece of propaganda for one particular version of jazz history. This version of jazz history, long associated with Murray and Crouch,3 sees the main line of jazz development as the evolution of the music from its hybrid Southern origins through its recognition as the quintessential form of American popular music between 1920 and 1950 to the climax of its artistic achievement in bebop. This much is relatively uncontroversial, and Burns' documentary dramatizes this story quite effectively, though rather hagiographically, in its first nine episodes. The consequences its promoters draw from this model, however, constitute the bone of contention for this paper. If one accepts the tendentious claim that jazz reached its highest point in bebop, then it would seem to follow that the sequence of musical developments that took place after bebop would constitute at best a slackening of invention and at worst a wholesale decomposition of the form. This is in fact what many proponents of the curatorial perspective argue, explicitly or implicitly: they view all of the identifiable post-bebop schools of jazz-third stream, free jazz, open form, energy music, free improv, fusion, acid jazz-as deviations or aberrations that, by adopting alienatingly avant-garde and/or crudely populist performance practices, alienated jazz's mass audience and allowed its place as America's most popular music to be usurped by rock and rap.4 Burns' documentary reflects this perspective in its basic structure: after an opening episode dedicated to nineteenth and early twentieth century roots, it allots fifteen of its eighteen hours (eight of its ten episodes) to the first fifty years of jazz (roughly 1910 to 1960), and only a single 90-minute episode to the last forty years from 1960 to the present. Further evidence of this disproportion can been seen in the coverage of specific figures: the series contains biographical accounts of major early figures like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker that could, with a little re-sequencing, stand alone as feature-length films in their own right, while comparably significant post-1960 figures like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman are handled in hasty fifteen-minute (or shorter) segments.5

Supporters of the curatorial model often point to the commercial success of a younger, "neo-classical" generation of jazz musicians, including the Marsalis brothers, Joshua Redman and others, who have consciously adopted big-band or bebop-era performance practices (specifically, elaborately orchestrated compositions for traditionally organized large ensembles or harmonic improvisation on chord sequences for traditional small ensembles like quartets) as evidence of the validity of their view.6 Since jazz sales now account for a smaller percentage of overall music sales than "classical" (i.e., Euro-American scored orchestral and chamber music of all historical periods) does, though each is less than five percent of the total, this argument is unpersuasive. These supporters also note the critical success of these players, though by "critical" they generally mean "establishment," in the sense that Wynton Marsalis' 1997 Pulitzer Prize in Music (for Blood on the Fields) is a prize governed by the standards of the academic compositional establishment and not by those of jazz at any era in its history (compare Marsalis' award to the awkward "special citation" that the Pulitzer Committee gave to Duke Ellington in 1965).7

The convergence of all this institutional, media and commercial power in an unprecedented and monolithic jazz establishment that promotes a equally monolithic version of jazz history is troubling to many historians and critics, as it should be.8 It amounts to a gesture of premature closure that, if left unchallenged and consequently taken seriously by enough performers and listeners, could signal the end of jazz as a living, developing art form and its effective replacement by the pastiche-driven, neo-classical "afterlife" that many critics are already calling "postmodern jazz." Some critics go even further than this; Eric Nisenson, for example, subtitled his polemic on this issue "the murder of jazz."9 I don't think that the situation has degenerated that far, though I do believe that the problems Nisenson and other critics have diagnosed will be difficult to solve. But if they are not solved, then Nisenson's prediction may well come true and we will be left with only the museum exhibits and the various schools of "undead" neo-classical or postmodern jazz. As an alternative to the restrictive closure of this curatorial model, I would like to propose a critical matrix that I believe can help us identify and understand those functional elements of contemporary jazz that are still alive, still open and generating new modes of sonic and performance organization. This matrix is derived from the ideas of three musicians whose works offer not only sophisticated theoretical models for understanding the challenges facing jazz historiography, but also compelling practical resolutions to the dilemmas that perplex active performers: free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, open form composer Cornelius Cardew, and free improv mainstay Derek Bailey.


Part One: Idiomatic

First, it is important to focus on the central and defining characteristic of jazz within its historical context: improvisation, the creation of new sonic structures and relationships in the real time of performance. Now, improvisation is not unique to jazz, not even in the history of western music-baroque practices of ornamentation and the realization of figured bass constitute important precedents, even though they clearly have no direct bearing on jazz techniques. The importance of jazz improvisation in this cultural context was its re-activation and elaboration of long-dormant creative possibilities. From the point of view of world musical culture as a whole, jazz improvisation is even less anomalous: in fact, most folk or indigenous musical traditions around the world, from raga to flamenco, contain a strong improvisational element.

Like these other folk forms, the tradition of jazz improvisation constitutes what guitarist Derek Bailey calls an "idiom," analogous to a linguistic idiom. Ferdinand de Saussure notes that the "term idiom rightly designates language as reflecting the traits peculiar to a community,"10 while Louis Hjelmslev further distinguishes four types of idiomatic commonality or community: vernacular language, national language, regional language, and physiognomy of expression.11 All of these types have parallels in sub-genres of jazz improvisation (cool, Latin jazz, Dixieland, boogie-woogie). "Idiomatic improvisation," Bailey writes, "is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom-such as jazz, flamenco or baroque-and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom."12 The idiom forms a reservoir or foundation from which the improviser extracts components to assemble into an appropriate musical utterance according to the rules that define the idiom. The success of the utterance can be measured by the degree to which it simultaneously fits into the pre-existing idiomatic structure and responds to the unique circumstances of the performance situation. In a word, it communicates. As Bailey emphasizes,

No idiomatic improviser is concerned with improvisation as some sort of separate isolated activity. What they are absolutely concerned about is the idiom: for them improvisation serves the idiom and is the expression of that idiom. But it still remains that one of the main effects of improvisation is on the performer, providing him with a creative involvement and maintaining his commitment. So, in these two functions, improvisation supplies a way of guaranteeing the authenticity of the idiom, which also, avoiding the stranglehold of academic authority, provides the motor for change and continuous development.13

The supreme importance of the governing idiom can be measured by the terminology used by its practitioners: "The word 'improvisation' is actually very little used by improvising musicians. Idiomatic improvisers, in describing what they do, use the name of the idiom. They 'play flamenco' or 'play jazz'; some refer to what they do as just 'playing'" (Bailey xii).

Idiomatic improvisational techniques are the key to the continuity and stability of jazz (and other musical idioms), not just because of the way they form a framework for clear expression and communication among those competent in the idiom, but also because of their pedagogical utility. When musicians learn to "play jazz," they are learning the idiom just as musicians learning to play baroque music or raga learn an idiom, though not necessarily through the same methods. The pedagogic effectiveness of idiomatic techniques is a double-edged sword, however, especially in current jazz:

The tendency to derivativeness and the prevalence of imitative playing in all idiomatic improvisation seems to have produced in jazz a situation where increasingly the music became identified with the playing style of a handful of musicians. Strangely enough, the number of acceptable models appears to get smaller as time goes on. The performing style of the rest, the vast majority of players, is invariably identified by association with or reference to one of the 'great' players on his instrument.... This situation, which can be one of the main drawbacks in any improvised music, stems, of course, from practices which are an intrinsic part of it.... [T]he learning method in any idiomatic improvisation does have obvious dangers. It is clear that the three stages-choosing a master, absorbing his skills through practical imitation, developing an individual style and attitude from that foundation-have a tendency, very often, to be reduced to two stages with the hardest step, the last one, omitted.14

This assessment is particularly relevant to the argument made by defenders of jazz neo-classicism, because it suggests that the younger generation has adopted historical techniques not because of any aesthetic superiority that those techniques represent, but merely because those techniques are the ones that are extensively documented and sufficiently well understood, precisely because they are museum pieces, that they can form a stable basis for pedagogy in music conservatories (another telling name for an aesthetic institution!).15 After all, musicians like the brothers Marsalis and Joshua Redman have received almost as much press for the scholarly credentials they've received from prestigious music schools as they have for the artistry of their playing.

Bailey is certainly neither the first nor the most persuasive person to suggest linguistic analogies for the understanding of jazz improvisation.16 However, he is one of the very few to follow through on the analogy and ask the question, how and why do successful and stable idioms change? Linguists too have asked this question, though rarely since they are primarily interested in stable regularities (synchronic structures, in Saussure's terms). Linguists propose that part of the answer must lie in what they call "idiolects," defined as "those aspects of an individual's speech pattern that cannot be attributed to the influence of the groups to which the individual belongs" or "free variants [that] allow each individual to mark his originality with respect to others (a function of marginal interest to linguists)."17 That is, an idiolect is an idiosyncratic sub-idiom or, more provocatively, a pre-idiom. Bailey does not use a version of the term "idiolect" to refer to this function in music, but instead uses the antithetical term "non-idiomatic improvisation." In comparison to idiomatic improvisational forms like flamenco or traditional jazz, which serve the purpose of providing a stable foundation for the permutation of existing elements according to established rules, "[n]on-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in so-called 'free' improvisations and, while it can be highly stylized, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity...."18

Non-idiomatic or free improvisation is indifferent or hostile to the rules of the existing idiom, and from the point of view of that idiom it can only be a deviation or "error," just as post-bebop developments in jazz are errors from the curatorial point of view. Bailey's entire career as an improviser has been a pursuit of precisely this kind of error. He began playing traditional jazz guitar as a teenager in the early fifties, but his interest soon waned; as he has said, "I was left with the feeling that it wasn't quite my music anyway," that is, it wasn't an idiomatic community to which he felt he belonged and it wasn't an identity he could occupy. By the mid-Sixties he had begun to perform with a group of similarly non-traditional musicians in London, including saxophonist Evan Parker and composer Gavin Bryars. Their experiments coincided with the explosion of non-idiomatic improvisation in American jazz, a movement led by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton that was given the name "free jazz." By the late Sixties the two movements had made contact and were cross-fertilizing each other as they continue to do to this day.19

If, as Bailey suggests, non-idiomatic improvisation is not engaged in representing an identity the way idiomatic improvisation does, then what is it doing? Like an idiolect, a non-idiomatic improvisation is a singular experiment, the injection of difference into a performance. As such it can succeed or fail, just like an idiomatic performance, but according to different standards. The standard for a non-idiomatic performance will not be the creative conformity of the stable idiom, whose range of choices is a pre-determined array dominated by a retrospective temporality, but rather the unforeseen novelty that scrambles the already-known choices and points toward the future for its repetition. The idiolect or non-idiomatic improvisation is the breaking of the rule that puts itself forward as a new rule, to be followed or broken in its turn. Thus the key role of non-idiomatic experimental forms and techniques is to alter or extend the language much as the role of experimental literature and poetry is to alter or extend both what can be said and how. Some of these experiments succeed and are subsequently incorporated into an expanded and transformed idiomatic practice, while others remain peripheral.20 From this point of view, each of the idiomatic sub-genres within jazz, including the ones now privileged by curatorial aesthetics as its high points and essential models, originally took shape as a non-idiomatic approach, as an error. Of course, this is exactly how they were all treated at the point of their emergence: big band arrangements were attacked as fossilizations of the open-ended choruses of the small combos, while bebop was actually denounced as a "heresy" for its technical obscurity and its abandonment of dance rhythms. All those denunciations have themselves been denounced later, as the objects of their scorn became the norm; one can do no better than cite A.B. Spellman's famed putdown aimed at the detractors who labeled Coltrane's music "anti-jazz": "What does anti-jazz mean and who are these ofays who've appointed themselves guardians of last year's blues?"21 All the transgressions have been recuperated, that is, except for the transgressions of the post-bebop innovators, innovators who never allowed themselves to cling to a stable norm. In foregrounding the process of deviation, they forego the possibility of stabilization.

The upshot of this is that there is no historical difference between idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisations at their moments of emergence. The difference appears as their innovations are repeated, codified and stabilized to become new norms replacing the ones the innovations originally violated. Bailey recognizes this:

The only real difference [between idiomatic and non-idiomatic or free improvisation] lies in the opportunities in free improvisation to renew or change the known and so provoke an open-endedness which by definition is not possible in idiomatic improvisation.... Improvisation, unconcerned with any preparatory or residual document, is completely at one with the non-documentary nature of musical performance, and their shared ephemerality gives them a unique compatibility.22

For Bailey, then, all musical performance aspires to the condition of non-idiomatic improvisation in its desire to be living art and not curatorial documentation of the history of art. Precisely because of its engagement with history as an ongoing process and not as a collection of artifacts, his aesthetic is an anti-curatorial, anti-documentary one.


Part Two: Ethic

If Bailey's logic of improvisational idioms offers us an open-ended and non-reductive historical model of jazz development, a diachronic model focused on discontinuity, then Cornelius Cardew's meditation on the ethics of improvisation offers an equally open-ended model for the synchronic side of jazz: ensemble structure and dynamics. Cardew came to jazz improvisation relatively late in his life, in the midst of a successful career as an avant-garde graphic composer23 and teacher, and he brought to it a sensibility formed by the radical discontinuities of modern concert music-the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, and Cardew's teacher Karlheinz Stockhausen.24 However, he had grown wary of the authoritarian, composer-centered structure of concert music, even in the "aleatory" or "open form" versions of it pioneered by Cage and Stockhausen. In the mid-Sixties Cardew became involved with a group of disaffected British jazz musicians (from the same scene that produced Bailey and his colleagues) and together they formed AMM, a free-improvising group that drew on equal parts jazz sensitivity and avant-garde constructivism to produce a wholly new performance practice.

Cardew's seminal article "Toward an Ethic of Improvisation" outlines the model of ensemble structure and dynamics that AMM embodied, and at the same time it suggests that such a model has concrete socio-political consequences in addition to its obvious aesthetic ones. Like Bailey's definition of non-idiomatic improvisation, Cardew's ethic is experimental and not identitarian; as he insists, "We are searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them. The search is conducted in the medium of sound and the at the heart of the experiment."25 In practice, this experimentalism took as its first principles the abandonment not only of the chord changes of bebop (which free jazz performers had already abandoned) and common-practice tonality (which the serialists had already called into question) but also the erasure of the traditional division of labor between melody and accompaniment (that is, between soloists and rhythm section) that most free jazz continued to observe, and the division between composer and performer that the avant-garde continued to cherish. This had an extraordinarily liberating effect on the musicians and on the musical patterns that emerged from their interaction:

This proliferation of sound sources in such a confined space produced a situation where it was often impossible to tell who was producing which sounds-or rather which portions of the single room-filling deluge of sound.... [A]s individuals we were absorbed into a composite activity in which solo playing and any kind of virtuosity were relatively insignificant (ibid).

The result was a radically egalitarian ensemble in which any member could move in any direction at any moment, and no one person or instrument occupied an authoritative center in the production of sound.

The new possibilities opened up by AMM's form of experimentalism moved Cardew to attempt to enunciate the ethical relationships that emerged from their performances, and to that end he offered a list, not of rules, but of "virtues that a musician can develop" through such free-improvisational group effort:

1. Simplicity: "Where everything becomes simple is the most desirable place to be. But [...] the simplicity must contain the memory of how hard it was to achieve."

2. Integrity: "What we do in the actual event is important-not only what we have in mind. Often what we do is what tells us what we have in mind. The difference between making the sound and being the sound."

3. Selflessness: "To do something constructive you have to look beyond yourself. The entire world is your sphere if your vision can encompass it.... You should not be concerned with yourself beyond arranging a mode of life that makes it possible to remain on the line, balanced. Then you can work, look out beyond yourself."

4. Forbearance: "Improvising in a group you have to accept not only the frailties of your fellow musicians, but also your own. Overcoming your instinctual revulsion against whatever is out of tune (in the broadest sense)."

5. Preparedness "for no matter what eventuality...or simply Awakeness.... A great intensity in your anticipation of this or that outcome."

6. Identification with nature: "The best is to lead your life, and the same applies in improvising: like a yachtsman to utilize the interplay of natural forces and currents to steer a course. My attitude is that the musical and real worlds are one. Musicality is a dimension of perfectly ordinary reality. The musician's pursuit is to recognize the musical composition of the world."

7. Acceptance of death: "From a certain point of view improvisation is the highest mode of musical activity, for it is based on the acceptance of music's fatal weakness and essential and most beautiful characteristic-its transience.... The performance of any vital action brings us closer to death; if it didn't it would lack vitality. Life is a force to be used and if necessary used up."26

These "virtues" demand preparedness for unexpected, uncodified or unstabilized connections ("whatever is out of tune") that would otherwise interrupt the performance (#2, 4 and 5), a preparedness that is crucial to non-idiomatic improvisation as Bailey defines it. They also demand a commitment to the autonomy and participation of other people in the performance process (#3, 4 and 6) that is fundamentally a socio-political responsibility. In sum, the degree of performance freedom within the improvisational group, measured by its level of reciprocal respect for active dissent and unresolved dissonance, is for Cardew a measure of its ethical egalitarianism and democratic potential. Finally, the virtue of transience (#7) coincides with Bailey's insistence on the non-documentary nature of live musical creation, the ephemerality that constitutes its paradoxical vitality. All those elements that Bailey presents as means to a theoretical understanding of the historical development of improvised music, Cardew presents from another perspective as practical means of "making it new" in the present moment of performance.

Despite the residual mysticism in some of these formulations, which probably derives from his contemporary interest in Confucianism, Cardew manages here to define a radically immanent ethics of musical performance that looks forward to his later, explicitly materialist writings.27 This immanence stands against the transcendent organizational principles of Anglo-European concert ensembles (like the orchestra, which Brian Eno has described as "a ranked pyramidal hierarchy of the same kind as the armies that existed contemporary" to its invention28) and those stable, idiomatic jazz groups (big bands, bebop combos) that are more closely related to the orchestra hierarchy than many critics acknowledge. It is precisely this immanence that requires the use of the language of ethics, as Gilles Deleuze notes in his Nietzschean account of Spinoza:

Ethics, which is to say, a typology of immanent modes of existence, replaces Morality, which always refers existence to transcendent values. Morality is the judgment of God, the system of judgment. But Ethics overthrows the system of judgment. The opposition of values (Good-Evil) is supplanted by the qualitative difference of modes of existence (good-bad).29

Advocates of the curatorial perspective deploy precisely that transcendent system of moral judgment to defend their model of jazz history. Crouch, for example, contrasts the "spiritual rot, the sadomasochistic rituals" and the "decadence" of contemporary pop culture with the "vital alternative" offered by Marsalis and his neo-classical compatriots, who "are more than sure what the truth is" and thus who must be "the troops of a renaissance."30 If the indisputable truth needs such troops, it can only be to subdue error and the Evil that flourishes in error's wake.

In contrast, Cardew's improvisational ethics commissions no musician-soldiers on the basis of any revelation of cultural truth. The versions of the "Constitution" that he later drew up for the Scratch Orchestra, an even more open ensemble than AMM, grant no privilege to experienced professional musicians over amateurs or beginners, and in fact those texts insist upon the democratic immanence of untutored improvisation over the arid transcendence of codified technique.31 If jazz is truly to be the "democratic art" that Crouch describes, it will have to confront this challenge to the exclusionary "technicracy" chronicled by its curators.


Part Three: Harmolodic32

The most important thing that remains to be done, then, is to set Bailey's diachronic model and Cardew's synchronic one within a metaphysical framework that will allow them to actualize as much of their potentiality (which Deleuze would call "virtuality") as possible. This final requirement brings us to the infamously perplexing "harmolodic" theory of free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Coleman returns us directly to the curatorial theory, not because he represents it or explicitly criticizes it, but because he is the only one of my three theorists whose work is acknowledged by that theory, albeit in a misrecognized form. Murray, for example, lauds Coleman as "one of the most spectacular of the post-Charlie Parker musicians," but in the very next sentence he qualifies his praise to the point of reversal: Coleman's compositions "seem to be better known and better received by concert-goers and patrons of 'new thing' night clubs than by traditional dance-hall, honky-tonk, night-club, and holiday revelers."33 That is, Murray implies that Coleman's music, while deriving its validity from the more authentic earlier forms of African-American music, has lost the broad populist appeal those forms had.

Of course Murray is not the only critic to offer an ambivalent assessment of Coleman's music. Coleman became an infamous figure in jazz almost overnight as a result of the freedom from chord progressions of his earliest recordings and the well-publicized residency of his first quartet (including Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins) at the Five Spot in New York in 1959. In 1961 he organized a double quartet to record his most revolutionary piece to date, the cacophonous 40-minute "Free Jazz" that gave the nascent movement its name. He began to develop the theory of harmolodic shortly thereafter as he experimented with non-jazz ensemble compositions like string quartets and wind quintets. For his 1967 quintet "Forms and Sounds" he devised a system of variable notation that he called "improvise reading," in which the parts are fully composed but the performers "can change the register of their passages, causing the music to sound different and thus changing the form every time it is played."34 This was the first of Coleman's many attempts to create an open framework through which non-improvising musicians could be encouraged to experiment with their performances and thus expand the field of influences from which jazz could draw.

Perhaps the most important milestone on Coleman's path to a comprehensive harmolodic theory was the composition and recording of his orchestral work Skies of America in 1972. This was the first time that the term "harmolodic" appeared in his writings; in the liner notes to the recording, he defined it simply as "harmonic modulation[,] meaning to modulate in range without changing keys."35 This definition corresponds to what many critics had already identified, in his jazz quartet work, as a technique of disregarding the strictly-defined sequence of key changes characteristic of bebop in favor of motivic development across adjacent keys, none of which are used as a stable base or goal.36 Coleman's longtime collaborator Cherry glosses the definition as follows:
We have to know the chord structure perfectly, all the possible intervals, and then play around it.... If I play a C and have it in my mind as the tonic, that's what it will become. If I want it to be a minor third or a major seventh that had a tendency to resolve upward, then the quality of the note will change.37

That is, the function of a note is determined not by the key or chord to which it refers harmonically, but by the constantly mutating melodic line in which it acts. Thus this version of harmolodic theory was an attempt to explicate the idiolect of Coleman's established composition and performance practices, in Bailey's terms an attempt to offer that idiolect as a new idiom that would be available to other jazz and non-jazz musicians.

But Coleman apparently never intended his claims for harmolodic to be limited to the field of musical performance. He later extended the model to cover artistic expression in general, regardless of medium:

The more I use it in my playing and writing, the more I realize that it can be used in almost any kind of expression. You can think harmolodically. You can write fiction and poetry in harmolodic. Harmolodic allows a person to use a multiplicity of elements to express more than one direction at one time. The greatest freedom in harmolodic is human instinct. Harmolodic is the highest instinct that exists in human expression.38

A good example of what Coleman means by this can be seen in his reflections on his contribution to the soundtrack of David Cronenberg's 1991 film adaptation (I use the term loosely) of William S. Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch. Coleman insists that the entire film "is harmolodic, meaning all parts are equal. Its score and script are harmolodic. The actor's sound, scenes, dialogue, objects and colors have equal relation to the art of Naked Lunch."39 I take this to mean that he considers the film to be the result of an active, free-form, real-time collaboration between himself, Cronenberg and Burroughs (an old friend of Coleman's, with whom he appeared in Conrad Rooks' film Chappaqua and with whom he traveled in Morocco), as well as the film's production staff.

Whether it's an accurate description of the film or not, this claim certainly raises the stakes involved in harmolodic, but Coleman doesn't stop there either. As Howard Mandel notes, "Coleman...holds two ideas tenaciously: the primacy of the individual and the possibility of a perfect world modeled on musical rapport."40 Harmolodic theory, then, is a utopian social philosophy as much as it's an avant-garde musical or artistic method, like Cardew's ethics of improvisation. This parallel is worth pursuing at greater length. Cardew's experience with AMM led him beyond the traditional ensemble structure of leaders and accompanists to a much more egalitarian approach, and Coleman's commitment to harmolodic has had a similar effect. He has always refused to accept descriptions of his groups that place him in the center; as he says, "[b]ecause people hear the horn standing out in front, they think that I am doing the soloing, but that's just the sound of the instruments.... I am with a band based upon everyone creating an instant melody, composition, from what people used to call improvising."41 Since everyone creates and therefore composes, no one really leads-or everyone does together. The focus is on the group as a community of equals whose relationships are defined by reciprocity, not the hierarchy of solo and rhythm or melody and accompaniment. Coleman makes a concerted effort to "give them what I'm playing and say, 'You take this and you do anything you want to do with it. If you want to take it apart, put it together, put Silly Putty on it, whatever it will do for you, give it back to me that way, then I'll interpret it from what I hear.'"42

The radical egalitarianism of this conception of ensemble dynamics also characterizes Coleman's attitude toward technique, which resembles Cardew's plans for the Scratch Orchestra. His invitation to "Take this and do anything you want to it" is not directed only at virtuosos but, as he said to Mandel, at

anybody-my band, you, anyone. If you said, 'Ornette, I like your playing music but I have never played. Do you think I could? What instrument?' I think we could get together and find something that you could express, that had something to do with you, that we could play together, and go out and make a performance as good as anyone else. This is what I believe.43

One of the first people to accept this invitation was Coleman's son Denardo, who began playing drums for his father in 1966 when he was only ten years old. Predictably, this was greeted with bafflement and hostility in the jazz press, but Denardo persevered and has been Ornette's principal percussionist since the Seventies. Apparently dynasties in jazz are easier for most critics to accommodate when they are legitimized by prestigious music schools like Juilliard, as in the case of the Marsalis family. Coleman has also worked tirelessly to blend his blues and jazz background not only with European symphonic musical traditions but also indigenous musics from around the world: in the early Seventies he visited the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Morocco to study with and record them, and more recently he has worked for many years with Native American, Indian and Latin American musicians on a culturally inclusive composition to be called The Oldest Language.
John Litweiler concludes his biography of Coleman with an anecdote that may serve as a parable of his harmolodic metaphysics. Litweiler tells the story of a friend who took his ten-year-old son Benjie to visit Coleman during the latter's residence in Manhattan in the early Nineties. The boy expressed a lively interest in the saxophone, so Coleman gave him an impromptu lesson in harmolodic performance. A witness to the scene reported that "It was incredible-at the end of those two hours and a half Benjie was playing saxophone like Ornette. After that lesson, Ornette gave Benjie the saxophone-he said, 'Just keep it, and someday you can give it back to me.'"44 If Coleman's life and work have a motto, that is surely it; just as Bailey took solace in the notion that all music aspires to the freedom of non-idiomatic improvisation, and Cardew affirmed the vitality of uncodified playing to the point of death, so Coleman remains indefatigably committed to a notion of jazz, creativity and community as the circulation of an inexhaustible human gift.



The three figures I have examined here are not the only musicians who have contested the premature closure of the curatorial approach to jazz history and performance. Many others have offered both theoretical and practical alternatives to that closure, alternatives that are more or less compatible with the model I've outlined: the Art Ensemble of Chicago's re(-)vision of the African-American musical canon through the lens of indigenous African and Asian music; Sun Ra's cosmic vision of utopia through everyday musical community; Anthony Braxton's "language experiments" in the "meta-reality of creative music"; Eddie Prévost's conception of "meta-music"; and others.45 Taken together, the work of these musician-theorists constitutes not only a forceful critique of retrospective curatorial logic but also a rich panoply of exemplary counter-cases to the neo-classical aesthetics associated with that logic. The struggle they lead differs from that led by previous generations of jazz innovators only in the extent to which their opponents have succeeded in establishing themselves in positions of institutional authority.

Even this institutionalization is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle on the path to a renewed commitment to what is living in jazz, as the parable of MOMA's expansion suggests. In his introduction to the new edition of his landmark 1966 book Black Music: Four Lives, a study of four under-appreciated jazz musicians that could serve as corrective to the omissions of Burns' documentary film, A.B. Spellman notes that

it is institutions that offer art forms definition and permanence. Without them, the forms lack points of reference that can certify what is important among the work already created.... Institutions declare by their existence that the society values a particular artistic expression enough to devote sufficient resources to it to build a landmark for history.46

Certainly Jazz at Lincoln Center and the many jazz history and performance programs at music schools around the US, to say nothing of the jazz recording industry, have fulfilled this part of their responsibility, albeit incompletely. What remains open to debate is the question of whether these institutions have fulfilled the correlative responsibility that Spellman identifies: to "forward the careers of emerging innovators," especially those innovators who, like the subjects of his book, do not conform to the methods and standards already recognized and codified by the curators. To speak like Michel Foucault, I might say that the apparent closure of jazz history analyzed here is really only a discontinuity in the development of the institutions of jazz historiography, pedagogy and marketing. Such discontinuities are not just points of blockage but also rare opportunities for far-reaching transformation and, perhaps, improvisation.


1 Tomkins, "The Modernist" in The New Yorker Nov.5, 2001, p.81. Unwitting readers should be advised that although it tells an interesting tale about the museum's expansion plans, this essay is basically a mash note addressed to Kirk Varnedoe, MOMA's Director of Collections.

2 For a discussion of the J@LC expansion project, see the interview with J@LC Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, Executive Director Bruce MacCombie and Building Committee Chairman Jonathan Rose on the J@LC website (

3 See for example part three of Crouch's The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race (New York: Pantheon, 1995), especially pp.190-204, and Mark Feeney's and Joe Woods' interviews with Murray in Conversations with Albert Murray (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997), pp.70-77 & 94-109. For fuller historical background to this perspective, see Murray's Stompin' the Blues (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).

4 This credo is clearly enunciated in Crouch's brief essay "True Blue Rebels" in The All-American Skin Game, pp.190-191.

5 Indeed, the post-1960 figure who gets the most cumulative airtime, taking into account both historical footage and new commentary filmed especially for Burns' project, is Wynton Marsalis himself. However, Marsalis, Crouch and Murray, who comment on most of the major figures treated in the documentary, are conspicuously absent from the segments on the post-bebop figures.

6 The term "neo-classical" originally referred to a diffuse movement in twentieth-century concert music to revive the techniques and aesthetics of earlier European music, beginning with eighteenth-century music in the work of Prokofiev (his "Classical" Symphony) and Stravinsky (Pulcinella) and extending later to "neo-baroque" and "neo-Romantic" imitations. In jazz the term has come to mean the more focused movement to return to popularly accessible jazz forms of the past, including big band and especially bebop.

7 See Frank Tirro, Jazz: A History second edition (New York: Norton, 1993), p.405. The convergence between the new jazz institutional "establishment" and the academic musical establishment is not limited to this congruence of award standards; indeed, the whole curatorial model of jazz under discussion here seems to be based on the business model adopted by most American symphony orchestras to recover from the disastrous collapse of their audience base after the Sixties. This model mobilizes almost all performance and pedagogical resources to placate an aging core audience that apparently wants to hear little but the so-called "popular classics" (Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, perhaps some Wagner), and is either hostile or indifferent to "new music" (Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, etc.) unless it conforms to the harmonic basis of eighteenth and nineteenth-century music (like the neo-classical work of Stravinsky and Prokofiev or the "postmodern" tonal music of del Tredici).

8 Indeed, most of jazz history bears witness to jazz musicians' exclusion from all existing establishments, including the commercial establishment that provided them with employment, the jazz clubs, tours and festivals. See Frank Kofsky's caustic analysis of the exploitation of jazz musicians in "The 'Jazz Club': An Adventure in Cockroach Capitalism" in Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), pp.145-154.

9 See Nisenson, Blue: The Murder of Jazz (New York: St. Martin's, 1997), especially chapter one, "The Case for Murder."

10 Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with Arthur Riedlinger (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p.191. Translated by Wade Baskin.

11 Hjelmslev, Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1961), p.115. Translated by Francis J. Whitfield.

12 Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (New York: Da Capo, 1992), pp.xi-xii.

13 Bailey, p.18.

14 Bailey, p.52-53.

15 While most music schools that teach jazz require students to participate in big bands and bebop-style small groups, very few offer students any opportunities for non-idiomatic performance.

16 Indeed, it's been a relatively common analogy throughout jazz history; for an in-depth consideration of the issue, see Paul F. Berliner's magisterial empirical/theoretical study Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994), especially 159-165 and 273-281.

17 Oswald Ducrot and Tzvetan Todorov, Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979), p.57. Translated by Catherine Porter.

18 Bailey xii.

19 See John Litweiler, The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (New York: Da Capo, 1984), pp.257-263. Bailey has performed occasionally with Taylor and often with Braxton, as has his colleague Parker.

20 For a discussion of this logic of idiolect from a more strictly linguistic and literary point of view, see Umberto Eco's A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976), pp.268-276.

21 Spellman cited in LeRoi Jones, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Morrow, 1963), p.235.

22 Bailey, p.142.

23 Graphic composition or notation was a short-lived avant-garde movement that attempted to escape from the limitations of traditional musical notation through the use of other symbol systems (like Stockhausen's plus and minus symbols) or through the use of pictorial designs to stimulate improvisational musical performance without defining the sonic material strictly.

24 Cardew's pedigree is likely to raise hackles among jazz purists who see all attempts at rapprochement between jazz and the Anglo-European avant-garde as efforts to assimilate and neutralize the non-European (African-American, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Latin) elements of jazz; this is a charge that's regularly been made against Cecil Taylor's music. This does not alter the fact that a number of significant African-American jazz musicians have publicly acknowledged their interests in and debts to that avant-garde, most notably Anthony Braxton and Don Cherry. See the interviews in Graham Lock, Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton (New York: Da Capo, 1988), especially pp.91-96, 150-153, as well as Cherry's collaboration with Polish avant-gardist Krzysztof Penderecki on Actions for Free Jazz Orchestra.

25 Cornelius Cardew, "Toward an Ethic of Improvisation" in Treatise Handbook (New York: Edition Peters, 1971), p.xviii.

26 Cardew, p.xx.

27 See Cardew, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism and Other Essays (London: Latimer New Directions, 1974), as well as Paul Griffiths' critical yet sympathetic account in Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945 (New York: Oxford UP, 1995), pp.185-190.

28 Eno, "Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts" in Gregory Battcock, ed., Breaking the Sound Barrier: A Critical Anthology of the New Music (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981), p.130.

29 Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Lights, 1988), p.23. Translated by Robert Hurley.

30 Crouch, pp.190-191.

31 See the drafts published in Cardew, Scratch Music (London: Latimer New Directions, 1974), pp.9-18.

32 This section of the essay constitutes a condensation and extension of my argument in "Composition, Improvisation, Constitution: Forms of Life in the Music of Pierre Boulez and Ornette Coleman" from Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 3:2 (1998), pp.85-92.

33 Murray, Stompin' the Blues, p.228. Like most of Murray's more polemical pronouncements, this one appears in a photo caption and not in the main text. Despite this disparagement, Coleman's music has been showcased in a recent Jazz at Lincoln Center concert series.

34 Coleman, liner notes to Forms and Sounds (New York: RCA, 1968).

35 Coleman, liner notes to Skies of America (New York: Columbia Records, 1972).

36 For a more technical analysis of Coleman's improvising, see Ekkehard Jost's Free Jazz (New York: Da Capo, 1975), chapter 3.

37 Cherry quoted in John Litweiler, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life (New York: Morrow, 1992), p.148.

38 Coleman, "Harmolodic = Highest Instinct: Something to Think About" in Free Spirits 1 (1982), pp.119-120.

39 Coleman, liner notes to Naked Lunch: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Los Angeles: Milan America Recordings, 1991).

40 Mandel, "Ornette Coleman: The Creator as Harmolodic Magician" (an interview with Coleman) in Down Beat October 1978, p.18.

41 Coleman, "The Color of Music" (interview) in Down Beat August 1987, p.17

42 Mandel, "Ornette Coleman: The Creator as Harmolodic Magician," p.17.

43 Mandel, "Ornette Coleman: The Creator as Harmolodic Magician," p.53.

44 Litweiler, Ornette Coleman, p.198.

45 In addition to the texts cited in previous notes, see: Valerie Wilmer, As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (New York: Serpent's Tail, 1977); John F. Szwed, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Pantheon, 1997); Ronald M. Radano, New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993); Prévost, No Sound is Innocent (Harlow, Essex: Copula, 1995).

46 Spellman, Four Lives in the Bebop Business (New York: Limelight, 1985), pp.ix-x. The four musicians profiled are Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Jackie McLean and Herbie Nichols.




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