By Greg Lewis
During the early 19th century, musicians having been inspired by early ragtime were developing a new style of music formally known as jazz. This “swing” style of music held many unique properties that had never been attempted in music beforehand including the art of improvisation. The concept of improvising over a set of chord changes in a “bop” style was quickly becoming a standard practice for musicians, specifically coming out of New Orleans, Chicago, and New York City. Some of the most abstract and beautiful improvisation can be heard the music of Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, and thousands more. But how broad a term is “improvisation”? Where does one draw the line between structured and improvised music?
In Duke Ellington’s article “Duke Ellington Explains Swing”, Ellington opens up to his readers by expressing his thoughts on approaching music. “Your good swing man must have very deep feeling. If the feeling is honest, the music is honest.” (Keeping Time: Ellington Explains Swing p.101) When listening to Duke’s compositions, specifically his phrasing and voicings on the piano, one can easily tell how much emotion he expresses through his instrument. For example, in his tune “In a Sentimental Mood”, his sparse and simple rhythmic phrasing is proof of how emotionally connected one can be to an instrument. The sounds that progress from his piano come across effortlessly, as if he is playing exactly what he feels inside. The communication between each musician makes it easy for the listener to be drawn in, as many emotions are captured through their playing. This is the point that Ellington is trying to make throughout his article, that one must be true to themselves in order to connect with an audience. Many musicians today still strive to achieve this concept that Ellington helped develop.
Later down the road in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, an individualistic saxophonist named Ornette Coleman and his fellow group of musicians including bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins began to take the concept of improvisation to new, unexplored territories. In 1961, Ornette released “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. The boundaries of sound were being pushed as Ornette incorporated more than just “notes” into his playing, but all kinds of different sounds, timbres and instruments. When listening to this album, a more “free” style of playing can be interpreted. This music appeared to stick out from the traditional improvised bop style swing music that Ellington flourished. However, Coleman and many other free jazz players strived to implement a similar structure to the songs they played.
Through this somewhat unconventional era of music, Ornette still kept Ellington’s mindset of deep thought and honesty every time he approached his horn, as he still does today. This album was revisited in a compilation of articles written by some of the musicians involved. For example, Charlie Haden commented on his inner thoughts as this album was recorded. “It’s all about honesty and beauty and communicating beautiful music. And how you go about what’s inside of you.” (Keeping Time: Free Jazz Revisited p. 319) Haden is conveying that a musician can only connect with other musicians/listeners if he or she can find integrity within themselves. Although Ornette’s approach to improvisation was much more spontaneous and almost chaotic at times, is still clear that Duke Ellington’s had a significant mental influence. It is the emotional dissimilarity between the minds of each musician that makes this music so intriguing.
From the very beginning of improvisational music, controversy arose, as many people did not want to hear such unstructured music. This only came across as confusing to many listeners, specifically non-musicians. In “Duke Ellington Explains Swing”, Ellington tells a story about an experience he had playing piano in a concert orchestra. In an attempted to embellish the music written before him, Ellington decided to improvise over a section of the concert music. This idea of Duke’s was nothing but foreign to the composers of the orchestra as well as the audience, therefore completely throwing off the emotion that the piece intended to capture. This resulted in Ellington’s immediate termination. Even today, many question the act of improvisation and whether or not it could be considered art.
The early 1900’s was a time period where most American’s were accustomed to hearing classical music. This genre was considered more “legitimate” in the eyes of the public. What many music critics of this period failed to realize is that musicians such as Duke Ellington devoted much of their time to studying this genre. As part of “Free Jazz Revisited” a magazine critic named John McDonough shared his thoughts on free jazz and its influence on American culture. “But free jazz contained a more subversive metaphor, namely that even progress has limits and that beyond those limits looms an abyss of disintegration. The irony is that jazz did not progress into freedom. It retrogressed into it. It was not an advancement of musical law. It was a rejection of it.” To me, McDonough is showing how close-minded he can be by disregarding the freedom of expression that Ornette Coleman and many other jazz players demonstrated in their playing. This is the same negativity that resulted in Ellington’s termination many years earlier.
America is one of the freest countries in existence, so why should its music have any restrictions? Some of the most abstract and avant-garde beauties in life are not just visual, but audible. The true freedom of America can be heard through the music of Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman, as anyone has the right to express themselves to the fullest extent. These two musicians shared a mindset of honesty, purity, and sincerity, not only when they approached their instruments but with everything they did in their lives.