Teaching Free Improvisation, Part 3 – Resources

I promised to follow up my previous two posts on teaching free improvisation with a list of resources for teachers who want to explore this area and are, perhaps, not already deeply involved in the music as players and listeners.

I’ve provided some suggestions for introducing free improvisation to ensembles, and for teaching them to deal creatively with varied parameters that they might encounter in various existing and future styles of improvised music.

While they’re exploring the playing, it’s also important for students to understand the history of free jazz and free improvised music. This is still rather rarely taught. Most general jazz history texts and courses include the early work of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, describe the last two years of John Coltrane’s music, and they might include sidebars on Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and NY free jazz of the early 60s. But, to my knowledge, there are relatively few courses where any of this music is transcribed and analyzed, as bebop and more mainstream forms of modern jazz routinely are. And while there’s been a profusion of books and academic articles on free jazz subjects since the early 1990s, relatively few of them contain the kind of detailed musical analysis that helps accomplished musicians understand more about the music.

The most important resource, of course, is the music itself. Listening to live performances and both historic and recent recordings is the main way to begin to understand this music. Because of the extreme diversity of sounds and ways of organizing them, from scene to scene, artist to artist, and sometimes from one work to another, deep listening to a wide range of music is essential and far more powerful than any words or notation and analysis, useful as those are.

One effect that wide and deep listening will have is to burst any preconceptions about what free music must sound like. There is really no single, unifying characteristic beyond the absence of predetermined, exact harmonic rhythms and metric formal structures, which is (usually) what gives “free” music its name.  Nearly every possible combination of the parameters discussed in the previous post has occurred in the history of free improvisation, and many more things as well.

If you want to teach this history, or begin to study it yourself, where to begin? In a graduate course I taught seven times from 2002 to 2011 at New England Conservatory, Jazz Styles: Free Jazz and the Avant Garde, I took a partly chronological, partly scene-by-scene approach that I’ll share here.

Here’s a syllabus: JS 581T Syllabus S07

and a listening list: Free Jazz CD Listening Notes-Chase

(I’d be happy to share a larger course packet with anyone who is seriously interested in checking it all out.)

I began the course with some antecedents of free jazz (the New Thing, avant-garde jazz, the New Black Music, creative music — it’s had many names). I’d often begin with a discussion of what was free in free jazz, and point out that the kind of regularity and predictability of phrase lengths, harmonic rhythm, and resolution that is taken for granted in standard jazz forms has rarely occurred in composed music in any era; composers have always been free to vary phrases rhythmically and metrically. There were movements toward freedom from traditional forms in many arts of the late 19th and 20th centuries: poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, theater, architecture, composed music. And many traditions of improvisation, including some African-American ones, have free or open forms, although they tend to have predetermined tonal material: for example, some rural blues (in a key, and with some predetermined lyrics and patterns of musical language, but open form), and music like this:

Ed Young Fife & Drum Corps, Newport Jazz Festival, sometime around 1965-66


I love that example, both because it was such an amazing performance and surviving cultural tradition (apparently related to African musics and British military fife and drum music in ways I would like to know more about), and because it raises a lot of questions about how radical and unprecedented Ornette Coleman’s decision really was, when he decided to improvise using the general characteristics of a composition but without a predetermined form.

There are accounts of free improvising by jazz musicians going back at least to the 1940s, and a few early recordings: Clyde Hart and Roy Eldridge playing free improvisations which may have been privately recorded, for example, and Yusef Lateef recalled free sessions in Detroit. The two surviving tracks by Lennie Tristano from 1949 (and some of his own later overdubbed solo pieces); a few pieces involving combinations of Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers, Teddy Charles, and Shelly Manne; Chico Hamilton’s “Free Form” (1956; thanks to Mark Gridley for this); Coleman Hawkins’ solo “Picasso” (not on a discernible standard form despite some claims to the contrary); and several Sun Ra pieces all predate Ornette Coleman’s and Cecil Taylor’s first free-form recordings. And there are quite a few solo pieces and passages (intros, open solos) that suggest the possibility of free jazz.

The main thread begins in the late 1950s with roughly simultaneous but independent work by Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra (often left out of this history, which I think is wrong), blossoms in New York in the early 1960s, in Chicago with the Experimental Band and AACM; spreads to several countries of Europe, St. Louis and BAG, and back to Los Angeles where Ornette Coleman started; and proliferates with many variations around the world from the late 1960s to the present. A lifetime isn’t really long enough to know all of this music. I’m still regularly discovering amazing recordings from 1965 that I’ve never heard of, while trying to keep up with the great work of my contemporaries and the next generations.

CD and LP notes, discographies, and interviews with the artists (often in old jazz magazines) can be very helpful in understanding timelines, connections, and intentions and thoughts behind the music, as well as anecdotes and opinions that help illustrate the microcultures of the different periods, scenes, and cohorts of musicians. Sometimes these are the best sources. There are many books on the subject, too, most of them written in the past 25 years.

Joe Morris’s 2012 book, Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music (Riti), gives an overview of free improvised musics from the perspective of an innovative musician with decades of playing and teaching experience in diverse scenes, and a lifetime of deep listening, using his own words and categories. I recommend it. There’s nothing else quite like it. The book is informative for listeners, but it’s particularly addressed to musicians who want to play this music.

Joe Morris-Perpetual Frontier 2012

Another overview, also by an important free improvising guitarist — one of the first — is this famous and widely-read one, Derek Bailey’s Improvisation, also recommended:

Derek Bailey-Improvisation

Here’s a smattering of books on the subject that I’ve found worth reading (and a few I will read soon):

Free Jazz Books 1

(Some more books missing here because they’re in my office or basement: Steve Lacy: Conversations, ed. Jason Weiss (Duke); Bob Ostertag, Creative Life; the Arcana series (ed. John Zorn); David Borgo, Sync or Swarm; Ajay Heble, Landing on the Wrong Note; Rafi Zabor, The Bear; Eugene Chadbourne, I Hate the Man Who Runs this Bar, old issues of The Improvisor….)

Spines: Free Jazz Books 2-spines

Free Jazz Books 3-spines 2

Specifically about Sun Ra (plus Hartmut Geerken and Chris Trent’s Omniverse, which wouldn’t fit): Sun Ra Books - minus Omniverse

Here are some books that are meant to help musicians get into improvising through structured approaches to free improvisation, with specific suggestions for structures and games. I mentioned Tom Hall’s inspiring book and website in Part 1.

Improvisation Books

Eugene Friesen’s book has some suggestions that include freer playing:

Eugene Friesen-Improvisation for Classical Musicans

Most of the important, influential work in free jazz is available in audio form only, but I find video especially engaging in a classroom setting, especially for students who are new to the music. They do better with listening alone or in small groups, while a class can really engage with a video and get a sense of the artist as a person, and pick up important clues about their technique and physical approach to the instrument, group interaction, use of notation and/or visual cues if any, and their self-presentation, relationship to the audience, and reception. None of these things are more important than the resulting sounds, but they are all parts of the story. I try to approach the subject in a multifaceted way and touch on all the aspects of ethnomusicological study (who, where, when, how, why; economics, ritual, audience, etc.), including how meaning is created, as well as jazz practice and music theory and analysis. My goal, which is probably unattainable so far, is to keep all these facets of musical experience in dialogue with one another in the course, because that’s how the music exists in the culture and minds of the musicians and audiences.

Here are some VHS tapes I use: Free Jazz VHS

and DVDs: Free Jazz DVDs 1

Free Jazz DVDs 2

It’s one thing to learn about free improvisation history and practices from someone like me, a musician who learned in conventional ways from school bands to college music study, while also playing bebop, modern jazz, R&B, Latin music, etc. on gigs, along with free jazz and free improvised music as one of several areas of study and performance throughout my career. Many of us who teach this in jazz programs have decades of experience in the music, but also have a kind of professional versatility that necessarily entails a lack of total commitment to this art form above all others. That versatility is valuable in teaching, but it’s another thing for students to also learn directly from someone who is living in this music all the time. I think it’s important for a jazz program to bring in guest artists (and/or artists in residence or permanent faculty members) who are deeply committed to free music, and not only people who came to it, say, after a mature professional career in post-bebop jazz (not to say that those artists don’t also have a lot to offer). If you don’t give students the opportunity to learn from the real original sources and cultural insiders of this music, there are “unknown unknowns” that they’ll never experience. Things that are taken for granted in musical thinking and doing in a college ensemble or on a jazz gig may be quite different for artists from another scene — as I’ve seen in guest artist residencies by Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Jerome Cooper, Roscoe Mitchell,  Eugene Chadbourne, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Gerry Hemingway, Steve Lacy, Fred Frith, and others.

A relatively unexplored area of the history of free jazz and free improvisation is the way that practices are disseminated and taught. A few musicians — Anthony Braxton, for example — have created a large body of written work about how their music works. But most of the instructions and feedback to collaborators has occurred in rehearsals that are very rarely documented, and often little notated music survives. We get glimpses of rehearsals in some documentaries, and a few rehearsal tapes are privately shared, but I know as a musician that most of the process is undocumented, yet the process is really important and is not necessarily transparent or easily surmised by listening to the results. A lot more research (oral history, audio and film documentation, manuscript preservation) should be done on how music is taught, learned, rehearsed, and prepared. Guest artists who prepare a concert with students can bring some surprising new knowledge about what goes into making their music.

There have been dozens of very influential college professors of free improvisation and related musical approaches; for the last fifty years, many of the musicians pursuing this have come from institutions where someone was teaching the music. Sometimes their approaches are strongly shaped by the values and practices of those teachers. Joe Maneri, Bill Dixon, Milford Graves, Ran Blake, Anthony Braxton, Kenny Werner, Wadada Leo Smith, and Ra Kalam Bob Moses are a few examples of teachers with very strong and distinct approaches to musical value and practice that have influenced many students who have gone on to become significant artists, carrying forward certain aspects of what they learned. This is another subject that deserves a lot more documentation and study. This dissertation looks like a good start: https://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1095&context=etd_diss

Another aspect of teaching free improvisation that I haven’t mentioned yet is the private lesson. Teaching people to improvise jazz solos on standard forms and predetermined chord changes is a fairly well-developed (though loosely, informally agreed-upon) practice. There are books and other evidence of jazz curriculum going back at least to the late 1920s, and current common practice in formal lessons goes back at least 70 years to Lennie Tristano’s methods, which are nearly universal now: working on instrumental technique; transcribing solos, singing and playing them; composing model solos and tunes; practicing patterns for fluency and flexibility; learning tunes (in 12 keys); ear training; learning piano and voice-leading; using information from classical theory and repertoire (Bach, Chopin, etc.); and lots of playing. I’m not aware of any broad agreement on how to teach free improvisers in private lessons, but there are rigorous and methodical teachers who combine instrumental technique and fluency (including extended techniques), creative composition and improvisation assignments, listening and transcribing and/or memorization, improvising using direct models or inspirations; and just playing and discussing what happens.

I came up with this brief list of practice suggestions for students who had completed my Jazz Styles: Free Jazz & the Avant Garde course, to suggest ways in which they could devise their own practice routines to gain fluency in the techniques they heard in the music they studied. It’s just a start.

Practice suggestions-free-Allan Chase 2019

This is an application of the parametric approach I wrote about in Part 2. (The idea of looking at music in terms of variables is common in the analysis of composed new music, especially post-1945. Another source Jan LaRue’s Guidelines for Style Analysis, and this guide that’s printed in the inside cover: Guidelines for Style Analysis-Jan LaRue.)

Finally, I promised to share a list of free jazz playalongs. Yes, I’m both serious and joking. They do exist, and the pros and cons of playalongs for improvisation practice are well known to everyone in jazz: the pro is more time spent practicing improvising with something resembling a real accompaniment with piano, bass, and drums doing their normal instrumental roles, so you can gain fluency and confidence, and learn repertoire. You could do all this with a metronome or alone, but the feedback of hearing the changes can be helpful. The con is that jazz is interactive, a constant dialogue among improvisers, and the playalong encourages one to hear one’s solo as a separate layer that doesn’t depend on new information from the accompanists. One can choose to be conscious and use playalongs judiciously without succumbing to their downside, and that’s what thousands of jazz musicians do, me included. I resisted them when I was a student, but it was a self-defeatingly purist stance that slowed down my development. They are useful. I like to make up challenging exercises for myself while using them.

So, are free jazz playalongs also useful? That’s a bit more debatable since they aren’t helping you learn repertoire or check that you’re making the changes and didn’t drop a beat or bar in the form of a tune. I’ve been asked to do some kind of free playing over existing tracks in the studio a few times, including parts of a recent duo CD with Ra Kalam Bob Moses, Shamanic Soliloquies (available on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, Apple Music; info here: https://www.allanchase.com/discography). But that’s really rare.

I find parts of these are fun and interesting to play with. And, like I said, they exist, so you should know about them.

The first and least-known is former Berklee librarian and noted free improviser, composer, and bassist Jon Voigt’s self-produced CD:

John Voigt Free Jazz Playalong CD cover

This has some wonderful textures to play with. It’s really something.

Then there’s Kenny Werner’s Aebersold book and CD, Free Play, which is also nicely done and fun to play with:

Free Play-Aebersold-Kenny Werner

Kenny Werner-Free Play Aebersold contents

Hal Leonard produced a playalong of Ornette Coleman tunes, but there’s no free jazz here: it’s all tunes on set, standard forms from Ornette’s first two albums (Something Else!!!! and Tomorrow is the Question) and the rhythm section plays them just like any other jazz tunes:

Hal Leonard Ornette Playalong

Hal Leonard Ornette Coleman playalong credits

Hal Leonard Ornette Coleman playalong contents

For modal improvisation (which is not what we’re discussing here, but it could be a useful step, especially for younger musicians and beginners), this is one of the best playalongs I’ve heard — the time and sound are better than usual, and the tracks are simple and pleasant accompaniments. I use some of the vamp tracks in ear training clinics, too, for call-and-response, sing-then-play activities:

Miles Of Modes copy

Miles of Modes Aebersold contents

I’d be happy to discuss my experience in learning, playing, researching, and teaching this music, leading a program with frequent guest artists, or any other aspect of this subject with present or future educators and musicians. I hope more and more teachers will incorporate this important aspect of improvised jazz and jazz-related music into their curriculum.

I’ll close this long three-part dissertation for now with some wisdom from the excellent, adventurous and versatile saxophonist Scott Robinson about the accessibility of creative improvised music:

In the Statement of Purpose, I said that ‘creative and challenging music is not for an elite few with some special knowledge, training or insight, but for anyone’… rather than everyone. This music is not for everyone, and that’s fine. But it does welcome anyone, anyone who chooses to take a creative stance as a listener and see if they can get with it. So, the door is wide open. Some will come in and some won’t … Adventurous music may be one of the less-travelled rooms of the house, but if the door is open and unlocked then it’s no more inaccessible than the more-frequented rooms.”



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