University of Oklahoma
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
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
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
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 musician...is 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
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
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
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 (http://www.jazzatlincolncenter.org/jalc/facility/interview.html).
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),
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
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
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,
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
42 Mandel, "Ornette Coleman: The Creator as Harmolodic Magician,"
43 Mandel, "Ornette Coleman: The Creator as Harmolodic Magician,"
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.