Cecil Taylor’s Education & Student Writings

Cecil Taylor yearbook photo, 1951.jpg

About twenty years ago, when I was in my fourth year as chair of the jazz studies program at New England Conservatory as NEC celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its jazz program, NEC staff writer Rob Schmieder uncovered some interesting history in the archives that shed light on, among many other things, Cecil Taylor’s studies at NEC. He and NEC’s librarian Jean Morrow shared some documents with me at the time that added some tantalizing details, and those have now been filled out much more in the past few months by NEC archivist Maryalice Perrin-Mohr and letters donated by the estate of the late composer and NEC faculty member Robert Ceely, who was a fellow student and friend of Cecil Taylor’s when they studied together at NEC.

Anyone sharing these items should credit them as follows:

All: Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives

Article: Schmieder, Rob, “Caravan: 30 Years of Jazz at NEC,” Notes, v. 26 no. 1 (Winter 2000), Boston: New England Conservatory. (Individual photos are credited in the PDF.)

Program: Concert programs, 1950-1951. Boston: New England Conservatory. Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives

The headlines from this information, for those few who care about such details of jazz history and biography, are:

  • He was a student in the mostly-forgotten NEC Popular Music program (at one time called the School of Popular Music, and later informally called the Pop School) and majored in Arranging. Most of his private lessons were in arranging, not piano. His course work included the sort of core classroom music theory that all music majors’ programs have in common: two years of basic harmony, introduction to counterpoint, survey of music history, etc.; plus courses specific to the Popular Music: Arranging major.
  • Contrary to much (most?) writing about Cecil Taylor’s educational background, he was not admitted to NEC as a classical pianist and did not particularly study classical piano at a high level as a focus of his studies there. Also, he was not particularly engaged in the study of composition, 20th-century literature, or new music academically, although he was interested and probably well-informed, and was friends with Ceely and probably other composers.
  • It seems likely he took one influential course in contemporary music, however, and he would have been aware of Messiaen’s music in particular due to that course and teacher, and an important Boston and NEC visit by Messiaen. On the other hand, similarities between Messiaen’s (or other contemporary composers’) and Taylor’s music have been exaggerated, and if they are significant at all, they are not overwhelming or deep. While self-analysis by artists is not always entirely reliable or complete, I see no reason to doubt Taylor’s own basic account of how he assimilated elements of jazz and contemporary classical music.
  • While he was a student, he co-authored a series of columns called “Pop Notes” in a student publication. His interests were clearly in modern jazz piano. (I’ll share scans of those below, courtesy of the NEC archives.)
  • Likewise, his letters to his classmate, composer Robert Ceely, are also full of discussion of current trends in jazz.

All of this lends credence to Cecil Taylor’s own version of his story, both about the nature of his studies at NEC and about his attitude toward and use of material and influences from jazz and contemporary composition, as quoted in the early extended discussions on him in Joe Goldberg’s Jazz Masters of the Fifties (1965) and A. B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1966). But it seems that many later writers, perhaps building upon one another’s assumptions, probably resulting from the combination of aspects of the surface of Taylor’s music with stereotypes about what early 1950s study in a conservatory like NEC must have meant, have constructed a narrative that results in statements like this:

“A graduate of the New England Conservatory, he was rigorously trained in classical composition and performance, and could fire off precise references to Webern, Xenakis, and, yes, Ligeti.” – Alex Ross, The New Yorker, April 10, 2018

Cecil Taylor at New England Conservatory, 1947-51, and The School of Popular Music

Taylor is frank about his Popular Music: Arranging study in Four Lives (and, although it includes less detail about NEC and Boston, in the even more often overlooked chapter in Jazz Masters of the Fifties). He said he inquired about changing majors to Composition and was rebuffed by the department chair. “The head of the Composition Department was such a bigot that he wouldn’t let me into the department….The Composition Department was the best…in the school, and one of the best among the East Coast schools…But that department head, he must have figured that he already had one Negro and that was enough…Even when he was trying to be nice, he was a racist” (Four Lives, p. 55). Robert Ceely, who arrived at NEC later but overlapped with Taylor and spent a lot of time with him, remembered Taylor’s version of this similarly. It’s not known (so far) what scores Cecil Taylor was able to present to support his application to change to the Composition major. He quotes the Composition chair as saying “’Your music is all right, but it’s mood music. That’s okay as long as it’s not “Mood Indigo.”’” The Composition Department chair during Cecil Taylor’s study at NEC was his Elementary Composition, Harmony IV, and Counterpoint III teacher Carl McKinley (1895-1966), an organist and composer who had had an award-winning tone poem, The Blue Flower, premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1924.

(However, Taylor seems not to have been frank about the years of his study, which were 1947-51. It was and is common for performers and artists to misstate their years of birth and schooling, exaggerating their youth, and it appears that Taylor, in the 1950s and ‘60s, may have shaved four years off his age and dates of attendance at NEC. In Four Lives, he’s quoted as saying “I think it was 1951 when I went up to Boston….In 1952, I went to the New England Conservatory” [p. 54]. And the Feather and Feather/Gitler Encyclopedias of Jazz…, which relied significantly on questionnaires submitted by the subjects, listed his birthdate at 1933 when it was 1929.)

Cecil Taylor studied at NEC for eight semesters, from fall 1947 through his graduation on June 19, 1951 with the Diploma in Popular Music in Arranging. (Not a Bachelor of Music degree, but a diploma, which has fewer requirements.)

The Popular Music program at NEC persisted for something like 15 years from its start in 1942, although it is little remembered and has been overshadowed in memory and institutional history by NEC President Gunther Schuller’s historic creation of an accredited jazz degree program in 1969 with founding chair Dr. Carl Atkins (celebrating its 50th year this fall, including a tribute to Cecil Taylor) and the Third Stream (now Contemporary Improvisation) program with founding chair Ran Blake.

NEC writer Rob Schmieder wrote about the history of the Popular Music program here (see the sidebar on p. 9) as part of an overview of the NEC Jazz program’s 30th anniversary in 1999-2000: 

30 Years of Jazz at NEC, Notes, v. 26 no. 1, Winter 2000

Schmieder, Rob, “Caravan: 30 Years of Jazz at NEC,” Notes, v. 26 no. 1 (Winter 2000), Boston: New England Conservatory. (Individual photos are credited in the PDF.)

Twenty-three Popular Music faculty members were listed in the 1948 yearbook. https://archive.org/details/neume1948newe/page/36

Here are two brochures describing the program and faculty from Cecil Taylor’s first and last years in the program:

Popular music, 1947-48

Popular music, 1950-1951

Around the same time, Lawrence Berk had founded Schillinger House (which was to become Berklee School of Music and later, Berklee College of Music) a few blocks away in 1945, also teaching jazz and popular music arranging. Both programs, and similar ones in other U.S. cities, were absorbing an influx of (suddenly, mostly male) students after World War 2 and with the help of the GI Bill. Students of the two institutions knew one another and intermingled in the Boston jazz and commercial music gig scenes. (Richard Vacca’s The Boston Jazz Chronicles is the best single source for information on the thriving jazz scene of the time.)

When Cecil Taylor began his studies at NEC, the chair of the Popular Music program was Ruby Newman, assisted by Sam Marcus and G. Wright Biggs. During Taylor’s last two years of study, the chair was G. Wright Biggs. (When the NEC Popular Music school closed, Sam Marcus went on to open the independent School of Contemporary Music in Kenmore Square, Boston. It continued until the early 1980s, I believe. My friend, ROVA saxophonist Steve Adams, is an alum. Their curriculum overlapped significantly with that of Berklee and other schools that teach standard arranging techniques and systematic approaches to jazz harmony.)

The 1947-48 NEC catalog shows his as a three-year program, but Taylor was enrolled for four years, although he only repeated one course (Orchestration 2) and had probably transferred some credits from his previous studies at New York Musical College, and/or tested out of some first-semester courses. (Taylor started at NEC in Harmony 2 and Counterpoint 2, but at the first level of other courses like Solfege, Keyboard Harmony, Orchestration, and History of Music.)

A typed registration card is in the NEC archives, showing all of Cecil Taylor’s courses and teachers (but not grades) by semester.

Taylor took two years of private piano lessons (not four; piano performance was not his major, although piano was his principal instrument) with Barbara Ann Chambers for his first semester (Fall 1947; she had just graduated in Music Education the previous spring and was no longer listed as a faculty member in the Spring 1948 yearbook) and Alexandra V. Batylda for the next three semesters (Spring 1948, Fall 1948, Spring 1949). These may have been half-hour or half-time lessons; the registration code is not completely transparent but it suggests 38 hours over the academic year. The influential Margaret Chaloff, who taught several major jazz pianists in and outside of NEC, was on the faculty during this time, but was not Cecil’s NEC teacher. http://adobeairstream.com/art/the-last-time-i-saw-madame-chaloff/

He had three years of private (Popular Music) arranging lessons, years two and three with Loring Briggs (1919-2008), and year four with Loring’s brother, the Popular Music program chair G. Wright Biggs (Jr.; 1910-1994). There were also courses in English Composition and Physics, “Form & Acc.” (accompaniment? – not a course name I’d expect; something to look into further), Vocal Ensemble, Woodwind Class (it’s common for composer-arrangers as well as music educators to take basic instrumental technique classes), and Pop Choral Writing with chair G. Wright Biggs. (“One of the things a teacher did tell him was that no one could possibly sing his vocal arrangement of Why Was I Born, his choice for a graduation exercise.” [Goldberg, Jazz Masters of the Fifties, p. 218]. Taylor took Pop Choral Writing in his last year.)

Cecil Taylor did have at least one of his pieces played on a major annual concert of the Popular Music department. A few weeks before his graduation, on May 14, 1951, Taylor’s composition “The Game” was performed by the Cecil Taylor Sextet at Jordan Hall, between an arrangement of “Stella by Starlight” for orchestra and vocal quintet, and a Lerner & Lane song. (To my knowledge, this is the only NEC concert program from the time that shows Taylor’s name that has been located so far.)

Cecil Taylor, The Game, 5.14.1951

Concert programs, 1950-1951. Boston: New England Conservatory. Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives

If he took a course that covered 20th-century composers’ work, it was probably “Cont. Mus. Cook.” (the period indicating the name is shortened) in 1950-51, which was probably a course in Contemporary (Classical) Music taught by Francis Judd Cooke (the only person I can find in faculty lists whose name includes or resembles Cook.), one of the most influential teachers on the faculty. (Taylor’s friend Bob Ceely recalls Cooke as “the best teacher I ever had.” http://www.ceelymusic.com/Biography.htm ) Cooke’s students included many future composers and teachers of music theory and composition, including current and recent Berklee and NEC faculty members. Long-time Berklee composition professor John Bavicchi described him as “much more esoteric in his musical tastes” as compared to Carl McKinley, who he describes as “a very conservative composer.” (https://libraries.mit.edu/music-oral-history/interviews/john-bavicchi-6302006/ ) Bavicchi says Cooke was particularly interested in contemporary music, especially Messiaen, and also mentions Irving Fine and Hill (?).

Prior to his taking this course, in the late fall of Taylor’s third year at NEC, November and December of 1949, Olivier Messiaen visited Boston. There were ten rehearsals of his Turangalîla-Symphonie for its December 2nd and 3rd premier with the BSO conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Symphony Hall, across the street from NEC, with pianist Yvonne Loriod, and Ginette Martenot playing the ondes Martenot. They visited Walter Piston’s class at Harvard, giving an analytical discussion of the new symphony commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, then in his last season conducting the BSO. At Koussevitsky’s house, Loriod played Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (1944), a piece sometimes mentioned in connection with Cecil Taylor when people compare aspects of his style to Messiaen’s, because certain passages and movements have a surface resemblance to some of Taylor’s best-known gestures in texture and intervallic shape. (Some of this information comes from “Messiaen, Koussevitsky and the USA” by Nigel Simeone in The Musical Times, Vol. 149, No. 1905, Winter 2008.)

A program in the NEC archives shows that Messiaen’s Quartet “For the End of Time” was played “in honor of the composer” by a quartet (including Francis Judd Cooke on cello) in an NEC recital hall (probably Williams Hall) on December 4, 1949. Presumably Messiaen was on campus for this, the day after the Turangalîla premieres.

All of this must have made quite an impression on any NEC students interested in new music. NEC was and is very close to the BSO, with the faculty including orchestra members.

Most of the comparisons of Cecil Taylor’s music with specific 20th-century composers’ music or musical languages seem facile – they are based on vague impressions of dissonance, atonality or harmonic ambiguity, use of clusters, pointillism, disjunct textures, and/or rhythmic complexity. (Interestingly, Henry Cowell and Charles Ives are rarely on the list, while Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Webern, Stravinsky, and Bartók are all often mentioned.)

Connections to Messiaen are somewhat better informed, but again, it’s at most a surface resemblance to certain gestures and pianistic textures, not to the actual pitch material or rhythms – and certainly not to the performance style and rhythm. Pieces that evoke that surface resemblance include some of the bird-call-inspired ones, like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=212_gddQRAU and the 6th movement of Vingt regardshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovMnmIoZh74&t=1354s

Messiaen’s music employs certain techniques that are well documented and generally pretty easy to analyze and locate in his scores. He was as transparent as any composer in documenting and publishing his ideas (in French in 1944, translated to English in 1956). (https://monoskop.org/images/5/50/Messiaen_Olivier_The_Technique_of_My_Musical_Language.pdf ) Some of his materials are attractive and accessible to modern jazz musicians – partly for the simple reason that symmetrical scales like the whole-tone and octatonic diminished scales have been part of jazz vocabulary for decades (whole-tone since 1926 if not earlier) and the “modes of limited transposition” are a handy, effective way to introduce symmetry and ambiguity, and/or disrupt tonality’s asymmetry.

My own perception, informed by Taylor’s own accounts as well as knowledge of his music and the alleged sources, is that Taylor was aware of and interested in developments in composed music, as he was of jazz, as well as dance and other art forms. He was raised in New York by a mother who emphasized exposure to the arts, took classical piano lessons as a young person, knew an orchestral percussionist, attended two major music schools for at least five formative years, had at least one good friend who was a composer (and probably more), and later worked with Buell Neidlinger, a bassist who played both contemporary classical music and jazz (traditional and avant-garde). It would be impossible for him not to be aware of and affected by contemporary classical music – among many other things.

Cecil Taylor, quoted in 1965 in Joe Goldberg’s Jazz Masters of the Fifties, says “the problem… ‘is to utilize the energies of the European composers, their technique, so to speak, consciously and blend this with the traditional music of the American Negro, and to create a new energy. And was it unique? No. Historically not. This is what has always happened. Ellington did it’” (pp. 214-5). As Taylor points out here and elsewhere, there was a long dialogue between European and Euro-American 20th-century composers and African-American jazz (and other world musics), each adapting elements from the other to use to their own purposes.

At the same time, he was primarily identified with and interested in jazz. His columns and letters, shared below, are full of engagement with jazz. His extended interviews in print and in audio or film form all emphasize his feeling of inspiration, connection, and extension of the work of jazz musicians who interested him. He mentions an early interest in Dave Brubeck, particularly the density or dissonance of his chords (evident in early ‘50s recordings), Horace Silver (including his dissonant low-register left-hand playing), Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington (especially, as composer and pianist), Lennie Tristano (early on), Richard Twardzik, and Jaki Byard.

I believe Jaki Byard (1922-1999, 7 years older than Taylor) may have been a particularly visceral influence on Taylor’s playing as well as an intellectual and artistic influence on his ideas about modern jazz piano. People who remember that time say that Jaki “held court” and informally taught the young pianists, including Twardzik and Taylor. A rare, unreleased recording I heard (at a Byard festival, April 13, 2014 at WPI) of Jaki doing what seems to be a free improvisation for solo piano in the 1950s strongly suggests a connection, given that Taylor certainly heard Jaki live often. On more accessible recordings, there are occasional examples of Jaki doing things that suggest a possible connection. A live Boston recording with Jackie McLean from the 1970s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtH1HMqve30 ; Jaki’s solo begins at 4:15; thanks to Michael Weiss for this example), or the free improvisation by Jaki, Reggie Workman, and Alan Dawson on the 1965 Berlin Piano Workshop DVD (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhBFk54qBNk ) give glimpses of what may have been elements of Jaki’s style as early as the late 1940s or early ‘50s, as suggested by the elusive tape. There are aspects of Jaki’s touch and articulation in pieces like this that remind me physically of Cecil Taylor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAmIkf-WYZ0 . I hear elements of both Taylor’s and Twardzik’s approach to sound (attack, duration, release: touch) in Jaki’s playing in these and other examples, but this is hard to quantify and impossible to prove; it’s just an impression and a hypothesis that he may well have been a strong influence, perhaps even stronger than Cecil realized. Often, as musicians, hearing something, especially live and up close, can leave a lifelong ideokinetic impression that is manifested at a subconscious level and affects our sonic imagination and how we play physically.

Having read most of the controversy over Cecil Taylor’s music as it appeared in print from the 1950s up to the commentary after his death April 5, 2018, I see two or three ways that false impressions about his conservatory study and his relationship to contemporary classical composition have been used.

One argument is that his purportedly deep academic knowledge and classical technique made him more impressive, presumably as compared to Ornette Coleman, the other most discussed free jazz musician of the late 1950s. Certainly, he had more formal academic training than some members of the jazz avant-garde. But Cecil Taylor was far from the only jazz musician studying at NEC at the time, let alone an exception in the wider world of jazz. Many jazz musicians were pursuing some kind of formal study, and being in a Popular Music Arranging major in a post-WW2 program was quite typical of his generation. Andy McGhee (tenor saxophone soloist with Lionel Hampton), Rollins Griffith (pianist who recorded in Boston with Charlie Parker), and others were in the same NEC program with Taylor. Roger Kellaway, Dick Johnson, and probably Richard Twardzik were NEC students as well. Steve Kuhn was studying at Harvard. Alumni of Boston Conservatory, a few blocks away, included Don Redman (decades earlier), Slam Stewart, Gigi Gryce, Sam Rivers, Makanda Ken McIntyre, and in a summer program, Roy Haynes. Many jazz musicians were studying music theory a few blocks from NEC at Schillinger House, later Berklee. Similar programs existed in Chicago and other major cities. Miles Davis attended Juilliard for at least a year (1944-45), and Phil Woods graduated from Juilliard with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1952. Many more jazz musicians learned the same content of a standard college music education in the Army and Navy schools of music. Musicians who weren’t fully enrolled in a music college program were often taking lessons at music schools like Granoff in Philadelphia (where John Coltrane and Benny Golson studied with guitarist-arranger Dennis Sandole), or with private teachers. Many post-WW2 modern jazz arrangers studied with contemporary classical composers, including Schoenberg (see Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz for more on this). And Charlie Parker famously inquired about studying with Stefan Wolpe and Edgard Varèse — and told Cecil Taylor directly that he hoped to go to Europe to “learn music,” according to one of the letters below. In the world of avant-garde and free jazz, Sun Ra had studied a conventional college music curriculum at Alabama A&M in 1935-36 (possibly for two years); the music of Scriabin, then a fairly modern composer, was included. Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, and members of the AACM took community college music theory and composition courses. Dewey Redman earned a master’s degree from North Texas, and Julius Hemphill studied there as well. Many members of the jazz avant-garde were comparably “conservatory-trained:” that is, taught the elements of traditional Western music theory, history, and instrumental technique through a conventional college curriculum.

Another way that Cecil Taylor’s “conservatory training” is deployed in arguments is to mark him as an outsider in the jazz tradition, someone who lost or never had a connection with the traditional elements of African-American culture. His classical background is exaggerated (without acknowledgement of what he actually studied at NEC, or the context in which many other jazz musicians had similar educational backgrounds), and used to purportedly explain why his music is unacceptably different, and dismiss it as not an authentic part of jazz.

A third version of this is to exaggerate his classical training, then use it against him, arguing some version of “If he’s a rigorously conservatory-trained composer and classical pianist, then why doesn’t he conform to these expectations?”

Of course, there are also many sympathetic and nuanced discussions of Cecil Taylor in print as well, but an accurate discussion of his academic background has often (not always) been lost in the discussion there as well, even though he describes it fairly clearly in Four Lives.

One thing I’m not disputing is Cecil Taylor’s prodigious piano technique. Whether or not he was “trained” (a strange word for learning to play music) as a classical pianist via a full conservatory program, he had a complete mastery of the piano for his purposes. I had the opportunity to listen to Cecil Taylor practice when I visited my friend Tom Cora’s loft at 96 Chambers Street in New York City, where I often stayed when visiting the city in the 1980s. Cecil Taylor lived upstairs in the early ‘80s and I could hear him practicing: relentless arpeggios over the range of the piano is mainly what I remember, and for a long time. Endurance, speed, fluency, hands that know where every note is, subtle dynamic control of sound: all are relevant to Cecil Taylor’s music and he was very, very good at playing it.

This is also true of many other jazz and improvising pianists, of course. Most (though not quite all) of the major pianists in jazz have had substantial exposure to classical technique and repertoire through private lessons, adapted it to their own ends, practiced a great deal, and played their music very well from both in terms of physical skill and musicality.


Sidebar: Conservatory ≠ Conservative

The word “conservatory” seems to play into this biographical trope, taking the implication that the word itself is apparently connected to the conservation of old music, and thus making Cecil Taylor’s NEC study ironic or setting up an image of exceptional rebellion. While Cecil Taylor would probably have been an exceptional rebel in any context or institution, that has nothing to do with “conservatory.” The word conservatorio for a performing arts school dates to 16th-century Italy, and what was being conserved was the safety and “virtue” of the students, not the music, and certainly not old music. Early conservatories (ospedali, cori, conservatori), were institutions in which foundlings — abandoned, orphaned, or illegitimate children, often girls, at risk of being drawn into lives of prostitution and exploitation — were taught to be “cultured,” perhaps marriageable members of mainstream society, with a focus on gaining skills in music and other arts. Conservatories then spread through European cities. (Musicologist Dr. Robert Labaree, an NEC faculty member, was the first to tell me this in the mid-1990s.)

In 1843, at the Leipzig Conservatory, Mendelssohn formulated a curriculum to produce educated performers who understood the music they were playing, balancing private instrumental instruction with group classes. There were good educational and economic reasons for replacing purely individual study and apprenticeship with a balanced program of private lessons plus master classes and group study. The Leipzig model was imitated around the world and was influential on American conservatories, eight of which opened in the three years after the Civil War (1865-8: Oberlin, Boston, Cincinnati, New England, Chicago Musical College, Peabody). The Boston and New England Conservatories, among others, admitted African-American students much earlier than many U.S. colleges, and taught men and women together from the beginning. The basic curriculum of conservatories is much the same today in schools of Western classical (and, with modifications, popular and jazz) music around the world, with necessary updates in areas like contemporary musical styles and technology.

The word “conservatory” in a school’s name tells us nothing about conservatism, tradition, or a historical atmosphere. The schools called “conservatory” are not in a different category from other colleges of music. What is more significant is whether they are independent schools of music or performing arts, or part of a university, especially a state university, and therefore subject to its rules and budget. In either case, though, all U.S. colleges of music are subject to regional accreditation agency policies which enforce certain curricular standards. Music schools, whether they’re called “School” (Julliard, Eastman, Colburn, Arizona State, etc.), “Institute of Music” (Peabody, Cleveland, Curtis), “Conservatory” (Boston, New England, Oberlin), or “College of Music” (Berklee, University of North Texas) all teach many of the same things in roughly the same ways. In fact, conservatories, or private music schools, are places where artist-teachers can be hired without necessarily having advanced (or any) degrees, and where aural and oral traditions are at the center of education, through the private lesson and ensemble. If there’s a type of Western academic institution that is antithetical to oral cultural traditions, embodied knowledge, and artistic freedom, it would be the university on the (former) Ivy League model, where performance is or was relegated to a non-curricular, non-credit “student activity” and taught by adjunct instructors or even people in non-academic staff positions. Universities are in a process of change, often led by ethnomusicology professors or those in other social sciences who question Eurocentric value systems and discrimination against other musics and forms of expertise, so that tracks for “professors of practice” allow, for example, jazz musicians or non-Western traditional musicians (and other artists) to teach on an equal footing with other professors.


After a few years of intermittent gigs, including some with well-known musicians as described in Four Lives and Jazz Masters of the Fifties, Cecil Taylor began his recording career with an album produced by Tom Wilson for Wilson’s Transition label, based in Cambridge, and interest in his music grew. There were some notable highlights to his recording career and public recognition between 1956 and ’66, but also some difficult years. By 1969, Taylor was beginning to be recognized as a great innovator and musician and to reap some of the benefits of that recognition: college teaching positions, more and better concert opportunities and working conditions, more recording opportunities, and eventually high-profile collaborations, a White House performance, a MacArthur fellowship, etc.


Cecil Taylor’s “Pop Notes” Columns

While he was a student at NEC, Cecil Taylor co-authored the “Pop Notes” column in the student paper, The Melodic Line, taking over the column from classmate and fellow jazz pianist Rollins Griffith (who had called the column “Calling All Cats.”) The columns are signed “The Two C’s.” It’s not clear who the other C is. I suspected it might be Taylor’s friend, the composition student Robert Ceely, but Ceely’s widow, the novelist Jonatha Ceely, said it wasn’t him, and Ceely’s dates of attendance at NEC don’t correspond with the dates of the column (1949-50). Looking over the student body at the time, no obvious answer jumps out.

Taylor and his co-author devote all of the columns to jazz. The four columns I’ve seen discuss recent performances by modern jazz figures who Taylor later acknowledged as important: Mary Lou Williams and Lennie Tristano. The first two are from 1949, the last two from 1950.

Cecil Taylor, Pop Notes, Melodic Line, 1949, 1

Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives

Cecil Taylor, Pop Notes, Melodic Line, 1949, 2

Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives

Cecil Taylor, Pop Notes, Melodic Line, 1950, 1

Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives

Cecil Taylor, Pop Notes Melodic Line, 1950, 2

Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives

Cecil Taylor’s letters to Bob Ceely

Taylor’s friend Robert (Bob) Ceely was later an influential and prominent member of the New England Conservatory faculty from 1966 to 2003, serving as a Composition teacher and founder of the electronic music studio, which he ran alone for decades. (The studio has been run by Ceely’s former student, electronic composer John Mallia, since about 2004.) Ceely discussed his relationship with Taylor and their listening in a brief autobiography on his website: http://www.ceelymusic.com/Biography.html

NEC’s obituary for Robert Ceely, 2015: https://necmusic.edu/news/death-robert-ceely

Seven of Cecil Taylor’s letters to Bob Ceely were donated to the NEC archives. To the extent I can read the handwriting, which I found difficult, I’ve transcribed four and attached them here. They give some insight into his interests, early work as a jazz pianist, and thoughts on developing his own style.

Cecil Taylor Letters to Robert Ceely-Edited

Courtesy of the New England Conservatory Archives

Suggestions for further study and documentation of Cecil Taylor’s music

After having listened to most of the recordings, watched the videos, and read the interviews, what more can we learn about Cecil Taylor’s music? I think the most important thing for both current understanding and posterity is to record oral histories with the musicians Cecil worked with and taught. The best sources of information for what is not yet fully understood about Taylor’s music are the musicians who worked with him.

It’s getting late for this, but it would be very interesting to hear from anyone who remembers Cecil Taylor’s student arrangements or early compositions like “The Game,” or any of his music before his first recordings in 1956, and to find scores if any are preserved.

Three of the accounts I’ve found most informative are descriptions of his teaching, including two from musicians who worked with him as students.

• John Litweiler, “Needs and Acts: Cecil Taylor in Wisconsin,” Downbeat, October 14, 1971  

• Peter Rothbart, “Cecil Taylor at the Creative Music Studio: Orchestrating the Collective Consciousness,” Downbeat, April 1980

• Karen Borca interview, Jazz Inside magazine, January-February 2018: http://www.jazzinsidemagazine.com/LIBERTY/JazzInsideMagazine-2018-01-Web.pdf

On the other hand, Taylor’s great long-time collaborator, drummer Andrew Cyrille, reports that Taylor said little or nothing to him about what to play (https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/a-lot-of-energy-remembering-cecil-taylor-1929-2018/ ), which is important information, too.

Of course, the revelations here have limited usefulness and can’t explain all of Taylor’s musical ideas. His work with larger ensembles using his note letter-name graphic notation is just one aspect of his bandleading and composition or structured improvisation work, one that was obviously experienced by more people with shorter and looser connections to his work. But working with students and other musicians who were new to his music required him to articulate things that perhaps didn’t need to be said in the same way to his usual musicians, allowing some insight into his goals and values about what to play when and how. These are things that are not always transparent from the recorded or performed result, or in notated transcriptions that involve a selective process of what to represent and how, given the practical limitations of notation and its tendency to privilege fundamental pitches and metric rhythms over other aspects of sound and music. It’s very possible to make connections and find patterns in the analysis of transcriptions that were not intentional, conscious, or communicated among musicians, while missing other aspects that are intentional. Unintended or unconscious patterns may still be significant to the listener and contribute to the effect of the music. But it’s also musically and historically interesting to know how the music was thought about, planned, described, rehearsed, and intentionally made, even if it’s not essential to know those things in order to receive feelings and ideas through the music itself. The time to document those things, in Cecil Taylor’s music as well as many others of his generation and the next one, is running out.

This upcoming conference, which I just learned about ten days before it begins while writing this, sounds like a big, important step in the right direction. Work prevents me from attending, but I look forward to hearing about it and reading the papers. https://unitstructures.commons.gc.cuny.edu/


Since posting this, I’ve learned of a few things I’d like to share:

Christopher Meeder’s M.A. thesis, “Cecil Taylor: His Early Life and Music, 1929-66” (Rutgers Graduate Program in Jazz History and Research, May 2003) is recommended and contains the results of the some of the same research I’ve presented here, plus, of course, much additional information.

Ben Young is writing a biography of Cecil Taylor and has also done independent research using the NEC archival material I referenced here, plus additional interviews with subjects including Cecil Taylor’s college roommate Henry Duckham. Others, including Professor Eric Charry of Wesleyan University (CT), have interviewed Duckham on the subject as well.

Another source of insight into Cecil Taylor’s work with students, about a 1985 Banff workshop, is an essay by Mark Miller, collected in his book A Certain Respect for Tradition (2006) and previously printed in The Banff Letters and Coda magazine.

Dr. Lewis Porter pointed out that the June 1951 NEC Commencement program shows a fellow graduate with “C” initials, Clement V. Charbonneau, who could possibly be the co-author of the “Pop Notes” columns (one of “The Two C’s”), although no additional information about him seems to suggest (or contradict) this, so far.

I’m looking forward to learning more of what is shared in this week’s CUNY conference, “Unit Structures: The Art of Cecil Taylor” (October 23, 2019; see link above).

I will try to transcribe the remaining letters and will post them here when I do.

Bill Evans on Miles Davis and Kind of Blue

I’ve been looking forward to sharing this informative interview with Bill Evans for a long time. It seems to me that it contains some valuable and possibly unique insights and details about the compositions and recording of Kind of Blue and Evans’s views on and relationship with Miles Davis.

The interview was broadcast on July 4, 1979, shortly after it was recorded (at Bill Evans’s apartment, exact date unknown) as part of the 126-hour Miles Davis Festival on WKCR FM, the Columbia University station in New York City. There are other interviews from the festival online, including an equally interesting Phil Schaap interview of Jimmy Cobb: http://www.philschaapjazz.com/radio/

I’m not aware of another source that gives this much first-hand detail about the compositions, how they were made and taught, what was written down by whom, and what parts were spontaneously created.

Despite a handful of memory slips or inaccurate details, I feel Bill Evans is as reliable a source in this interview as anyone could reasonably be expected to be 20 years after a recording session. He recalled that the album was recorded in one afternoon (“as far as I can remember”), when it was actually two sessions about seven weeks apart. But no one involved knew what Kind of Blue was going to be when those record dates happened. They were significant sessions, since Evans was called back to the band he had left, but each was also just another day in the studio for busy musicians, and many such days in jazz musicians’ careers led to unreleased material. (I wonder if McCoy Tyner remembers he did a Milt Jackson recording date on the same day as A Love Supreme.* Of course, there was more than one attempt at recording A Love Supreme, and they didn’t know that was the one then, either.)

Evans says the album was entirely first takes, and consisted of the only complete takes, which was commonly believed at the time, although we now know that there’s a complete alternate take of “Flamenco Sketches.” He doesn’t mention that the line used as an introduction to “So What” was written by Gil Evans, but it’s possible he never knew that, or didn’t think to mention it. The story of “Blue in Green” has been told in a little more detail elsewhere — see my footnote** at the bottom of this post.

Here it is. Enjoy!


My transcription in PDF form: Bill Evans Interview WKCR 7.4.79c

Bill Evans Interview

Interview taped by Bill Goldberg at Bill Evans’s Fort Lee, NJ apartment, not at radio studio

Interviewer: William Goldberg; shared with his written permission

2nd Interviewer: Eddie Karp (according to Ashley Kahn)

Only known broadcast: July 4, 1979 on WKCR-FM, New York City as part of the 126-hour Miles Davis Festival

From an audio cassette taped off the air live by Lewis Nash, listening in Bronxville NY. Digitized from a copy of the cassette in late 1990s. Transcribed by Allan Chase, 3/24/19-5/8/19.

[Interjections “um,” “uh,” “you know,” and some repeated words omitted from transcription.]

[?] = unintelligible word(s)

[X:YZ] = minutes and seconds on audio recording

INTERVIEWER WILLIAM (BILL) GOLDBERG: And [in] this portion of the Miles Davis Festival, we’re fortunate to have with us pianist-composer Bill Evans, and Bill was with Miles in the late fifties, and, well, he was on that classic recording Kind of Blue, which is still probably one of the best-selling jazz records. And, [it’s] funny, yesterday, I was calling up these record stores, ‘cause I’m doing this research on what was the best-selling things for this organization, NYC Jazz, and, other than the George Bensons and those…

BILL EVANS: Yeah, Kind of Blue is it, that’s what I understand, yeah. It certainly has been a strong album, and an album I was very proud to be part of.

INTERVIEWER: In fact, 20 years ago, did you think it would become such a model…important, I mean.

BILL EVANS: No, I thought it’s really, it had to be a good record with the personnel that was involved, and, also, I think that was perhaps the first time that Miles had ever recorded an album where it was largely his compositions, you know. And, there was a good feeling on the date, but I really had no idea, and I don’t think anybody did, that it would have the influence or the duration that it did, because you just go and you do, you know, you do your thing. But of course the people involved were pretty gigantic when you stop and think of it. Miles and Cannonball and Coltrane and Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, and Wynton Kelly was on one track, which is a beautiful track, too. Like, uh, I love, I think Miles, yeah, I think Miles’ blues solo on that track is one of my favorite solos of his. Uh, so y’know that would predictably make it somehow, but you can’t really tell. I don’t know what it was, really, y’know? It just seemed to click.


INTERVIEWER: A lot has been said about the use of modes [and less?] traditional chord changes…

BILL EVANS: Yeah, mm-hmm. Yeah, that may have had something to do with it: just the fact that there were new kind of challenges to play off of, and there was a simplicity about the charts that was remarkable, too. Like, “Freddie the Freeloader,” “So What” and “All Blues,” there was nothing written out on. On “So What,” I think the introduction was written out single line, and Paul and I played it and added a little harmony to it. Other than that, the charts were just spoken, just saying like “play this figure,” “you play this note, you play this note.”

And I sketched out “Blue in Green,” which was my tune, and I sketched out the melody and the changes to it for the guys, and “Flamenco Sketches” was something that Miles and I did together that morning before the date. I went by his apartment and he had liked “Peace Piece” that I did and he said he’d like to do that. I thought maybe instead of doing one ostinato, we could move through two or three or four or five different levels that would relate to each other and make a cycle, and he agreed, and we worked at it at the piano until we arrived at the five levels that we used. And I wrote those levels out for the guys, you know, that was all just little sketches, and, but other than that, it was a very simple thing that he came in with conceptually and sketch, you know, the little sketches I made, so that a lot — all, all of it was more or less created out of the musicians themselves, and all the things that were added, now, like on “All Blues” you know the little fluttering figure I played at the beginning is just something I throw in, just like, anybody will add as jazz players to it, to a thing. But Miles had that ability to create a kind of simple figure, like on “So What” or “All Blues,” that still generates a complete and positive reference off of which you can play and still relate to something which is unique, see? And so even though “All Blues” is a blues, it’s a particular kind of blues, it has a particular kind of structure, and it’s all contained in the chart, really.


INTERVIEWER: Right. It’s like, on “All Blues” it seems like there’s certain simple ideas that Miles uses like particularly in his chorus at the end of the piece [unintelligible?] so simple, but so beautiful, so perfect just to have the idea to do that.

BILL EVANS: Yeah, that’s a tremendous maturity, and yeah, it is, it certainly is. He can play just one note, a line which maybe, talking about [sings a simple rhythm: quarter notes on the beat with a repeated pitch].

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, exactly, that’s it.

BILL EVANS: Or, there are a couple of places on “Freddie the Freeloader” where just one note contains so much meaning that you just can hardly believe it. And that’s what he got to, I guess, by this time. But that’s kind of a picture of the date, and it was all done in one afternoon as far as I can remember. And the other thing was that the first complete performance of each thing is what you’re hearing, like the, Miles ran over the charts maybe a couple times, say “do this, do that,” and then he laid out a structure, like you solo first or whatever. Sometimes during a take we wouldn’t even know that. He would walk around behind and say to you [in a softer voice] “Take two choruses,” or “You play next.” Or, you know, whatever. And he would lay out a thing like on “All Blues,” say like “Play the chart and then before each soloist, the figure will serve as the little vamp, to enter into the next soloist.” And that’s all, everybody hears and absorbs it, and once we had the chart straight, the rest was up for grabs, and then we would play it and the first time we’d played each thing through, that was the take that’s on the record, so there are no complete outtakes. So it’s kind of remarkable from that standpoint, too, and I think maybe that accounts for some of the real freshness. ‘Cause first take feelings are generally, if they’re anywhere near right, they’re generally the best, and if you don’t take that one, generally you take a dip emotionally. You go down, and then you have to start working your way up. It’s really a professional, laborious process of bringing yourself back up, and you can often get to a superior take that way, but it becomes a lot of work, but if you can get that first fresh take and it’s good enough, generally that’s a real good one. And that may account for some of the success of this album, that all of those takes are the first takes.


INTERVIEWER: You had spoken in your liner notes about comparing those sessions to Japanese paintings in which you have to lightly draw or else it breaks through the parchment.

BILL EVANS: Yeah. I was comparing jazz in general, or the jazz discipline, to that kind of thing because you can’t go back. And it’s a remarkable discipline. For people that are considered to be the most unstable, undisciplined members of society, the fact is that they bring to bear a kind of a discipline on their work that is practically unparalleled. And you can’t, like if you compose, you could sit down, if you don’t feel like it today, come back tomorrow, and after six months you might have ten minutes of music. But in jazz, it’s gotta be “bing” and that’s it. So, I love the idea of it. I think it locks into a kind of a mental creative process that has implications far beyond the people that even are doing it are aware, because the longer you do it and the more you develop that art, the more you’re locking into a process that is almost subconscious. It’s speaking from some levels of yourself that you’re not even aware of. Who knows? We don’t have any idea really maybe what we’re even saying. I think we’re part of a even perhaps an artistic and social goal as members of a jazz tradition that we have no idea what it might be either. But I think one thing we do know is it’s a good thing, because we intuitively committed to ourselves to it for that reason.


INTERVIEWER: When did you first hear Miles?

BILL EVANS: Oh, I first heard Miles on the very first records he made. You know, “Billie’s Bounce” and those things. And Miles is my favorite kind of artist. There’s a certain kind of people that are more or less late arrivers, you can – even though he was certainly on the scene and known and respected – you can hear him building his abilities from the beginning very consciously and very aware of every note he played, theoretically and motivically and everything. And it seems like those kind of people that have to really develop more analytically and consciously and dig into themselves and more or less the late arrivers, they don’t have the kind of facility — I know Miles has spoken about how he didn’t have the facility that a lot of trumpet players had, and fast tempos and all this stuff, and Bird would just tell him “Just get out there and do it,” but that kind of person, when they finally do arrive at their own expressive level, to me, seem to contain so much more. I find that Tony Bennett affects me the same way as a singer. He’s a guy that has always worked hard to dig deeper into himself and to look into music and he respects music a great deal and that same kind of thing happens. Now there are always a lot of early arrivers that have great facility. And these guys say “God, he’s only 15 and listen to that young guy play, man, he’s all over the horn and he seems to have it covered.” But often those people, and I’m saying this because maybe some people will be listening that have those feelings, and I certainly, myself, I’m kind of a late arriver. I knew a lot of people with those kind of facilities, and they don’t know what to do with it often. They don’t have the ability to discard and add, and what they really do is reflect the scene and it’s a marvelous talent that they have, and I love to hear them play, but as real contributors and so forth they don’t add up that much. So often the person that has to go through a more laborious, long, digging, analytical process finally arrives at something which is much more precious.


INTERVIEWER: Art Blakey said a few months ago that Miles was a stylist.

BILL EVANS: A stylist?

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, he was describing him as that, rather than a technician.

BILL EVANS: Well, that’s a simple way to say it. I think that’s like downplaying it a little bit. If anybody that’s a stylist, if they’re truly a stylist, if they’re not just an eccentric. Some people try to be a stylist by being eccentric, and that’s not really being a stylist. But Miles is truly a stylist, but that’s mainly because he’s a strong, independent personality, and does things his own way, and always has, and just what we were talking about. So that is right, he is a stylist. But that’s kind of a touchy notion.

INTERVIEWER: That “stylist” almost seems to have like a rather limiting kind of quality to it.

BILL EVANS: Sometimes, some of these things like, style’s an easy thing to get. Style’s the hardest thing to get and it’s not something you really strive for. I’m sure that Miles never really strived to be a stylist. He just strived to be himself, to learn, to develop, and to express a strong, independent personality. And at the end of it, it had identity and that’s why he’s a stylist. But somebody might say, “Wow, I could be a stylist by just reaching out and being strange,” or reaching out and being different, or novel, and of course that’s a mistake.


INTERVIEWER: I think one thing that, in listening to the music of Miles through the years, that comes through, is that like technically or just as a trumpeter he does so much, it’s not; I mean like some people relate primarily to his muted style, and certain things that he was doing then. As he moved into the sixties, he started to really get, more of, move away from that a little bit and just smoke, in every sense of the word.

BILL EVANS: Technique we always think of as being a thing having to do with fastness, too, you know, and technique is, in its highest sense, is the ability to handle musical materials. In that sense, Miles is one of the all-time master technicians, in that he could play something which is an entirely original conception over something that’s very ordinary. So, there are different ways to look at it, too. And actually, he is virtuosic, certainly, and in the best sense of the word. You could get to a point where if you played any more notes it would be funny. So, I mean, how far can you go in that direction? You understand what I’m talking about.

INTERVIEWER: Did Miles listen much other jazz or some of different styles in the late fifties?

BILL EVANS: Miles was very much an independent person, like, I know that when I was hanging out with him, he liked people as different as, well he was very influenced by Ahmad Jamal for a while. And he loved Blossom Dearie, who I love also. He would get things from people like that he could throw into his own work, and you would hardly know where it was coming from. And I don’t know who all he listened to, but that’s the way he would sort of pick up things, and I don’t think; I think he certainly did listen. He’s a guy that will turn his mind toward certain areas of music or certain people and decide that there’s somebody or something or an area of music that he can learn from, and then he will. He’s very shrewd in that sense, in that perceptive. And certainly some of his greatest talents are as a leader and as a person that can perceive talent and potential in people, which is proven out by all of the wonderful talents that have gone through his group. And I don’t think we would have had Coltrane or known Coltrane’s potential or the great contributions that he’s made, except for Miles and Miles’ belief in his potential. Because at the beginning — then, I was around when the group started — most people wondered why Miles had Coltrane in the group. He was more or less withdrawn, plus sort of off to the side of the bandstand, sort of half, not fumbling exactly, but just sort of searching. And, but Miles really knew, somehow, the depth and the potential development that Coltrane had coming, and just gave him all the room, just gave him all the room, man. And that’s the genius of his leadership in that he doesn’t say very much, and he gets things done like that, he allows, puts certain talents together and allows them to work on each other and work on the music, and somehow Miles will occasionally just give you one little clue. Like he might come over to the piano and say “Right here, I want this sound.” Now if you know music and all, you know a lot of the implications of what that means in the total structure. That’s going to affect other things that happen. But it turns out to be a very key thing, something that changes the character of the whole thing. For instance, on “Green Dolphin Street,” the vamp changes — on the original changes of course aren’t that way — the vamp changes would be like a major 7th up a minor third, down a half tone, down a half tone. It’s something he leaned over and said “I want this here.” Now, of course that gives the total thing another character. And “Put Your Little Foot Right Out,” which never got a lot of airplay, was on the Jazz Track album with “Green Dolphin Street.” He showed me one change on that which gave that whole structure a different thing. Now those are two of perhaps four or five things that he ever said to me about [?] music, you know what I mean. [Laughs.] It wasn’t one of those things where he’s always saying “Play this, play that, do it this way, do it that way.” But, that to me is a lot, a great deal of his genius. He’s not just a stylist or a great jazz player, he’s a great leader, and he’s served a marvelous capacity to bring many outstanding talents out and gave them the confidence and brought them out, and they probably didn’t even know that Miles was doing it. I wonder sometimes whether they really did.


INTERVIEWER: That sounds like, when we were coming over here, on the train, talking about charisma, the notion of, I think what you said almost defines that notion, being able to communicate like that without speaking, without telling anyone what to do.

BILL EVANS: Yeah, it’s sort of like a magic thing. Miles is the kind of person that if you have a conversation with him, you tend to remember every word that’s been said. It’s true, he has a charisma. He’s a very paradoxical and many-sided person, and if you were to take any number of things of his — acts or things he said out of context — you could be completely on the wrong track, because he could say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow, for reasons that have to do with momentary response, or defense mechanisms, or who knows what. So in some ways he’s gotten a bad rap many times. For instance that whole thing about turning his back on the audience and everything. I just don’t understand any of that at all. First of all, what do you want from a creative musician? He’s up there giving you his soul and you want him to do the acrobatics, stand on his head and what?

INTERVIEWER: There’s a film out where he plays “So What” and almost as intense as seeing a live concert, just watching him, he’s so, he’s thinking so hard about the solo, just watching him with the other members of the group solo.


2nd INTERVIEWER, EDDIE KARP: It’s really a, seeing him perform, I saw him perform at the Bottom Line I guess was about three years ago. It was one of his last performances with his group, before it kind of went into, before he stopped performing publicly. And my first reaction was that this music cannot be captured on record. It seemed like, the intensity, that he, his leadership on stage was so phenomenal, it was subtle but so strong, that it didn’t seem like it could be captured on record.


BILL EVANS: Yes, true. [interjecting] Well, we all feel that way. Unfortunately, many of our best, yeah, performances are out there in the universe someplace, and you still as professionals have to go in at ten o’clock on Wednesday and make a record, and hope that every few records you might catch a really good day. And the rest of it is being professional, and certainly as professionals you do reach a high degree of performance in the area that you’re trying to work, but those special times, you don’t know when they’re gonna happen, and unfortunately we don’t get too many of them on record.


INTERVIEWER: I was talking to agent Helen Keane the other day. She mentioned that you had just talked to Miles.

BILL EVANS: Yeah, well, I had been talking to Philly Joe and the rumors go around. Philly had said he heard that Miles was dying, and these things come out once in a while. I didn’t have Miles’ number because he changes it quite frequently. And I know that I don’t like anybody to come knocking on my door without calling, so I hadn’t seen him in a long time for that reason. But what Philly said alarmed me, so Philly says, “I’ll meet you over there.” I said, “Great.” So I went over there expecting Joe to be there already, but Joe hadn’t arrived, and didn’t during the time I was visiting. But I rang the bell and it was alright because Miles was up and was glad to hear from me, and Gil was there that day, and he just looked great and seemed in great spirits. So it was all just rumor. But he seemed to feel that he wasn’t ready to come out and play, even though I somewhat prevailed upon him that the world was waiting for him and he didn’t seem to have the inclination to come out and play. But I understand that Gil and he are involved in some kind of a project now to record, or to record and tour, or something. Now, whether or not it will happen, I don’t know.


INTERVIEWER: I was told on Tuesday, just a rumor that’s flying around, that Miles was in a studio.

BILL EVANS: Well, that’s what I’ve been hearing too, and I think it may be true because, first of all, I don’t; Miles is a player and I can’t imagine him not playing. I mean, this may be just a long break, for what reason, I don’t know. He may want to come back with something entirely new or entirely old, as far as I know. But I can’t imagine him not playing ‘cause I think that his soul is fed by playing and it may be that he was feeling a little unsatisfied in his soul with what was happening at some point or whatever; I don’t know what his reasons are, but I’m sure he’ll be back.

INTERVIEWER: Did he tell you any times about what he was looking for in his music, especially maybe in the late sixties when he was…

BILL EVANS: No, we never talked about things like that, and I don’t think Miles talks about things like that with anybody. I think you just have to perceive it from what he’s playing and what he’s feeling and sense and know kind of where it’s at somehow. I think it’s all in the music anyhow. I think there was a point, in my own opinion, where he made a turn, reaching for a large audience, I don’t know, or what, with the bands, and I have often wanted to speak to Miles about that period and find out how he felt about it, what he thought he possibly had developed or learned or whether that was a direction he’d like to go farther in or what. And he might talk to me about that kind of thing, but I’ve been curious about it because I didn’t completely sympathize with some of the music he got into. But anyhow, that’s, you can’t second-guess Miles. He’s always gonna surprise you and then prove himself right in the long run.


INTERVIEWER: Well, we know you’re in a hurry, and we’ve been here and it’s been a really fascinating, great conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it, and we’ve been talking to Bill Evans and before we let you off, is there anything else you’d like to say about Miles or any [?] of the unbelievable [?] in his career that [?]?

BILL EVANS: Well, I often have said this, but I’ll say it again, that the most beneficial thing that happened to me in that association was that it confirmed my own identity to myself at a time when it would have been easy for me to go in certain directions that attracted a lot of critical and public attention, like sort of avant garde, and I was, at that time, more or less, in the avant garde, and could function in Third Stream and avant garde, and the kind of attention you got sometimes could almost turn your head and you start perhaps thinking, well, maybe this is the direction, but being with the band and the real honest personalities involved really helped confirm my own identity, and made me realize that being myself was the only place to be. That’s about it.

INTERVIEWER: OK, well, thank you very much. [?]

[?] the scene and a lot of new information and really.


About this interview and recording:

As far as I know, this interview has been rarely heard since it was broadcast on WKCR on July 4, 1979 and it seems not to be available online until now. Dr. Greg Smith has his own copy, probably taped off the air by someone else, and he played it for the graduate musicology seminars on Bill Evans (the subject of his Harvard PhD dissertation) that he taught at New England Conservatory. Ashley Kahn, author of an authoritative and enjoyable book on Kind of Blue, quotes from the interview and, I believe, draws conclusions in his book from it (at least partly). He may have heard it in the WKCR archives. And I put a CD-R of it on reserve at the NEC library for my own Jazz Styles classes to listen to in a few semesters between 1997 and 2008.

The provenance of this recording is an interesting jazz history footnote in itself. In the summer of 1979, my good friend from Phoenix, the great drummer Lewis Nash (then 20 years old) was staying with the family of a friend of his in Bronxville NY, and studying with Freddie Waits, Billy Hart, and Andrew Cyrille, and hearing as much music as possible. I was living in Philadelphia, starting a PhD program at Penn in Music History and Theory that I soon decided was not for me. We were both living away from Phoenix for the first time as adults, and I took the train to NYC as much as I could to hear music. We heard Jimmy Cobb on one amazing evening at the Tin Palace (a double bill of Dewey Redman’s and Clifford Jordan’s quartets) and Philly Joe Jones there on another night. Lewis was excited about hearing as much as possible of the 126-hour Miles Davis Festival on WKCR and recorded three interviews on his portable cassette recorder placed near a clock radio in the bedroom where he was staying, if I recall correctly.

When we were both back in Phoenix and playing as a duo that fall, Lewis made me a copy of the two cassettes, one with the Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb interviews, and one with two sides of Lester Bowie. We both listened to these interviews so much that we memorized them. (Lester Bowie’s was like a favorite comedy record — hilarious as well as insightful. The audio is below.) I still have the cassettes and I digitized them when I got a CD burner and was teaching jazz history at NEC.

For years, I wasn’t sure about whose recordings these were and how to respond to many requests to share them. Ashley Kahn told me the interviewer was Bill Goldberg and that he was an MD in the Boston area. I found him through Facebook; he told me he recorded the interview himself, away from WKCR, and gave me written permission to share it. He didn’t have a copy, so I sent him a CD-R of it. So, I’m sharing it here.


*Thanks to Jukkis Uotila for pointing out McCoy Tyner’s two recordings of December 9, 1964 to me: https://www.jazzdisco.org/milt-jackson/catalog/#limelight-lm-82006

**About the composer credit for “Blue in Green:” Bill Evans said more than once that he wrote it at Miles’ request based on two chords suggested by Miles (quoted as G minor to A augmented). Aural evidence and Bill’s solo piano intro on Chet Baker’s Chet album track “Alone Together” (prior to Kind of Blue) tend to support Bill Evans’ role. Miles didn’t challenge Bill Evans’s composer credit for the tune on Portrait in Jazz and later recordings of the tune, as far as we know. I have a note saying “they may have argued about it once,” but I don’t recall the source — probably hearsay from someone with secondhand knowledge. I haven’t heard the studio chatter, but I’ve been told it’s Miles giving the instructions on the tune in the studio. (Is this specifically about the changing harmonic rhythm, double and quadruple time? Is this studio chatter audible on 50th Anniversary Legacy Edition multi-disc set? [UPDATE 5.18.19: I first heard the 50th Anniversary CD set after writing this. The only commentary I can hear regarding the form and harmonic rhythm of “Blue in Green” is given by Bill Evans. Bonus track 12 on CD 1 seems to capture him in the middle of instructing the band. Evans’ words “long meter” are audible — the only thing I can hear clearly on the subject.]) Bill Evans used the three levels of harmonic rhythm in his own later performances, too (Portrait in Jazz takes 2 and 3; Blue in Green live 8/74 version). If the melody of “Blue in Green” is taken to be the line that Bill Evans plays in the first chorus on Portrait in Jazz, then it appears most clearly in the final piano statement on Kind of Blue, and Miles’ first theme statement is related but not very literal: some notes left out, some changed, some added. It could be an interpretation of Bill’s written melody, if there was a written melody; Miles played some standards about this abstractly in that period. On the other hand, it’s possible the theme was just a suggestion at the time of Kind of Blue, Miles improvising after hearing Bill run through the tune. That seems (almost) equally plausible to me. [UPDATE: Miles plays the first few bars more literally on the false start, adding to the likelihood that he may have been reading the melody.]

Miles may have said once in an interview that it was Bill Evans’ tune. Miles: The Autobiography says Miles claims everything on Kind of Blue is his, not a collaboration with Bill Evans. (However,  Miles: The Autobiography is notoriously unreliable; someone would have to check the interview tapes for Miles’ exact words, if this is drawn from his words — Miles said he never wrote nor read the book.)

The Miles Davis official website, as of 2012, implied credit to Bill Evans, but the words there are lacking in musical and historical accuracy and/or clarity, e.g. “He also borrowed from Bill Evans, the principal creator of this album, the kind of blue that is reflected in ‘Blue In Green.'” The principal creator of this album? That absurdly overstates even the most generous accounts of Bill Evans’ role, including his own account in this interview.

The Harry Fox Agency Songfile, used for research on mechanical royalties, lists “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis (as of 2012), not by Bill Evans.

http://www.milesdavis.com/us/node/333 [accessed 2012]

http://www.milesdavis.com/us/music/kind-blue-deluxe-50th-anniversary-collectors- edition [accessed 2012]

— Allan Chase

Bonus tracks:

Lester Bowie on Miles Davis, 1979, Part 1 Audio:

Lester Bowie on Miles Davis, 1979, Part 2 Audio:

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 Folk 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.”



Teaching Free Improvisation, Part 2 – Parameters for Exploration

I have a few more thoughts to share about teaching, learning, and doing free improvisation, in anticipation of our Jazz Education Network Conference panel discussion today (Saturday, January 12, 2019, 2:00 PM in Reno — Sierra Room, for anyone who is at the JEN conference).

As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s a range of approaches to free-improvised music and several, maybe many, musical subcultures with differing aesthetics, assumptions (stated or unstated) or tendencies, and approaches to playing together.

If you’re a visiting artist, or perhaps an artist in residence, hired to teach what you do, share your values — what you like and believe — and your job is to involve students in your works, then what I’m suggesting here may not apply to you. I think that’s a valid and important kind of teaching, and a worthwhile experience for students to have. If that’s your role, then you’re not responsible for representing the diversity of possibilities as much as diving deeply into the way you work and sharing that with students.

Another kind of teaching, which it’s been my role to do as a teacher and support as an administrator, is to expose students to a range of possibilities and try to prepare them to be flexible so they have the tools to make their own artistic choices and to navigate the music worlds of the present and the unknown future. That requires a kind of questioning overview and some analytical thinking about what the characteristics of different musics are, then designing experiences so students can explore them. I don’t feel I should be telling students there’s one true or best way to improvise or give structure to music. I can give artistic feedback on what they do, but I feel I owe them exposure to and experience in a wider palette of options. And since I’ve participated in and studied different scenes and approaches as a student, musician, and researcher/teacher, I want to share not just my favorites, but all the wonderful possibilities that are out there, as much as I can.

Looking at the music from different angles, identifying parameters of musical structure and sound in time, and then varying them, can do several things:

  • Clarify our hearing and thinking about music,
  • Help us understand different approaches and aesthetics,
  • Suggest creative possibilities to consider,
  • Suggest skills to practice, and
  • Prepare one for participating in different possible ensembles, traditions, musical cultures, and future developments.

Here are some parameters and thoughts about them in relation to free improvised music. There may be a lot more of these that are equally important, but I’ll start with some obvious parameters in which I’ve encountered wide differences of taste and practice myself in working with free (form) improvisation with other musicians from a variety of scenes and backgrounds:

Duration of pieces: This is one of the most contentious and varied areas, and one I find is surprisingly rarely discussed in advance in some parts of the free jazz and free improvisation world.

(With many of these things, improvising musicians often feel a reluctance to talk too much, or at all, not wanting to introduce inhibiting expectations or dominance of one person over another. But sometimes big questions hang in the air about what is expected or wanted, and sometimes something really is expected or wanted: long durations or short ones, for example.)

Some musicians are very bothered when a potential ending is ignored, bypassed, or elided into another passage by others in the group. They are thinking that the music can consist of movements or pieces, several or many per set. Some improvisers are very open to what might be called miniatures: pieces as short as a minute or less, even. They often value the ability to find endings greatly, and the endings themselves create a lot of musical interest.

Another widespread point of view is that the need for flow (or ebb and flow), long arcs of energy, immersion in the creative process over time, going deeper, not breaking the trance, etc. (there are many ways of feeling or talking about it) is primary. Endings can even be seen as a failure to keep the music going. A natural ending should be bridged by someone who keeps the music moving forward. There’s often an assumed, but sometimes unstated, duration for a set or concert, however: 45 minutes or an hour for a set, 2 hours for a concert, for example. There are also some who might play much longer in some situations, and value that.

Sometimes, these are really incompatible points of view that can cause friction in a group, and skills at communication and conflict resolution are needed to resolve them. As a teacher, I’d propose making students aware of this range of practices and musical meanings or intentions, and listen to music with them in mind. In an educational setting, at least, you can talk openly about these things and try many variations. There are real skills and challenges involved in playing concise, crystalline improvisations vs. playing multiple long solos in a set, each maintaining momentum and building over many minutes.

Related to this is the ability to be aware of duration. Knowing how clock time is passing is an important musical skill, with a practical side in recording, giving concerts, and bandleading. This awareness of time is not at all to be taken for granted. When I started teaching free improvisation at Berklee in 1983, I would give each of my eight ensemble members a one-minute solo improvisation to start the class, or as the second activity after a group improvisation. I would secretly time them. Some — and these were fairly to very strong, experienced jazz students — played for as long as eight minutes but, when asked, said they thought it was a little under one minute. Gradually, the group developed a better sense of clock time and how it is altered by musical material. (At first, it can be hard to process the fact that a two-and-a-half-minute modal drone introduction to a 12-minute modal jazz piece, for example, is the same length as “Paperback Writer,” or two Bach 2-part inventions. The experience of musical time has a lot to do with the pace of change and information flow, as well as inner physical and psychological experience, like adrenaline and anxiety.)

I should point out that there are also artists whose work includes both extremes, from miniatures to very long pieces. This difference of duration can be specific to pieces or projects, or it can be a characteristic of an artist, band, or style in general.

Continuity vs. discontinuity: This is related to duration of pieces and sections, but not quite the same. How long do instrumental combinations, textures and densities, general dynamic levels, and areas of musical material stay roughly the same, and how much and how often do they change? Free improvised music of recent decades contains some real extremes in approaches to continuity, from rapid jump cuts to long drones, and from extreme dynamic contrasts to whole concerts of ear-damaging or barely audible music. A lot of music is in the middle of these extremes but is still varied in its degree of continuity across different parameters.

Repetition and imitation (as in imitative counterpoint) are two aspects of continuity about which there are wide-ranging opinions and practices. Thinking of examples, at one end, with much repetition you might have certain pieces by The Necks or Third Person (Tom Cora, Samm Bennett, and an invited guest), parts of Jerome Cooper’s The Unpredictability of Predictability, or the beginning of Roscoe Mitchell’s famous live interpretation of his piece “Nonaah.” Examples of the other extreme (if I remember correctly) might be Roscoe Mitchell’s “The Flow of Things” or the Joe Maneri quartets, with very little apparent repetition.

Solos and accompaniment vs. group improvisation: Some groups tend to organize their playing into sequences of solos, where one artist is featured in a texture and duration that resembles a solo and accompaniment in a more traditional jazz group — or a soloist with accompaniment in any style (song, concerto, etc.). On the other hand, some improvised music has constantly changing roles and people quickly move from foreground to background and back, or play in varying equal contrapuntal combinations. Again, this could be an area for contention: “Why do you keep interrupting my solos?” vs. “Play with me, let’s get into something; don’t hang back just because I’m playing energetically.” In an educational setting, you can explore all these extremes and the middle ground, and listen to a variety of approaches and discuss them.

Rhythm section (and other instrumental) roles: There are bands and styles in free jazz where the instrumental roles are quite close to those in post-bebop modern jazz, or other musics with rhythm sections: the drums rarely stop, except possibly for a bass solo or an introduction; the bass rarely stops while the drums are playing, except for drum solos; etc. On the other hand, there are bands and styles where all possibilities of orchestration are pursued: in a quintet of two horns, piano, bass, and drums, you might be as likely to hear a duet of only the horns, or drums and piano without bass, as any other combination.

Note that the difference is really created by not playing. Unless you’re a conductor or visually cuing bandleader, or you’ve provided a compositional structure in advance, you can’t change the basic orchestration while improvising except by laying out yourself. When you stop playing for a substantial period of time, longer than a breath (possibly much longer), it has an impact on the sound of the ensemble and the listeners’ perception of orchestration.

Sometimes these two extremes are represented by the phrases “free jazz” (more traditional rhythm section roles) vs. “free improvisation” or “new improvised music” (more varied roles and more laying out)— names without “jazz” in them. But it’s not always that simple or clear what is intended when people first get together.

Rhythm, pulse, and meter: The area of the timing of musical events and how they relate to one another is another parameter with wide variation in improvised music. Some groups and artists are very open to things being in a shared groove, including a steady metric cycle (like 4/4 swing or funk, for example). Some are open to playing in a shared pulse or tempo, but want flexibility to change the meter and move where “1” is. Others strongly prefer to play in free time all or most of the time. And others are quite specific about this, varying it widely from one piece to another. There are ideologies and issues of identity and relationship to history and culture around pulse, meter, and free time that are worth discussing deeply.

“Free time” is not just one thing. There are many variations and ways of playing it. It’s not necessarily the same as classical rubato, or multiple people doing their own rubato playing, although that is one possibility. People deeply immersed in free jazz have a lot to say about free time, and there’s a lot to learn about it, and several kinds.

One key element has to do with whether the figures and gestures are played with their own internal sense of rhythmic momentum and expressive intensity. In my eight years of playing with the great Rashied Ali, John Coltrane’s last drummer and one of the handful of drummers who helped create this style (with Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille, and a few others), I learned a lot about this. He said everything he played was “in time,” and closely related to his studies with Philly Joe Jones and jazz in general, and, to him, all the free-time pieces had a basic tempo. I offered the observation that his approach to rhythm, which John Coltrane called “multi-directional,” was analogous to looking at the real world through a kaleidoscope: everything is what it is, but it’s broken up, changing, etc., and he at least partially agreed. Jazz players may find alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons’ playing with Cecil Taylor and others to exemplify this as well. To explore this, try playing figures in time, but in your own time, or as if they were in time, but shifting among tempos from phrase to phrase, in both mathematically clear and fuzzier ratios. Play with the articulation and dynamic shape that you would use for any rhythmic figure.

The effect of a group of people each playing with their own rhythmic intention and intensity, whether each part is continuous in tempo or not, is very different from that of a group where some or all are playing more like classical rubato, which can have its own beauty or compelling character. Some groups have both, or multiple, kinds of free time going on together. It may take time and listening and playing experience to fully appreciate this.

Unpulsed space and pointillism is another kind of free time that may or may not overlap with the others.

And, of course, tempo (agreed upon or contrapuntally individual, shifting or steady), note durations (and how varied or consistent they are), density (amount of activity over time in one part and in the ensemble as a whole), and the ratio of rests to sounds are all factors that have a huge role in the effect of music.

Pitch material (on the short-term, phrase or motive scale): Another important aspect of the musical surface is how familiar or unfamiliar, diatonic or chromatic or microtonal, tonal or atonal in implications, conjunct or disjunct, directional or zig-zagging, jazz-like or not, blues-related or not, etc. the melodic figures (and their inflections and expressive elements) are. And over what period of time? Are tonal implications constantly being undermined by “Viennese triads” (014 interval sets, like C Db E), tritones, and chromatic intervals of a major 7th or larger? Or are there phrases that are tonal or jazz-like but modulate every few seconds?

Pitch material (on the longer-term, passage or movement or piece scale): Does the pitch material stay in a tonal or modal area, or at least maintain a tonic or pedal tone, for a fairly long while, and does it modulate sometimes? If so, how often? And if it modulates, how (by pivot or abruptly?), what are the key relationships and their distances or number of common tones? What is the rate of chromatic circulation? (I think that useful term comes from composer/teacher Stefan Wolpe: how often are we hearing all 12 notes, or most of them?)

Timbre, register, dynamics, and instrumental techniques: Some styles, players, or pieces use nearly constant extended techniques, including ambiguously-pitched or unpitched noise elements, while others really work with the usual twelve pitches of Western equal-tempered music and the conventionally-produced tones of instruments. Are dynamic ranges and registers extreme or moderate, disjunct or smooth? Are pitches colored by growls, bends, etc., and are these recognizably connected to the expressive language of a traditional music, like earlier jazz, or not?

More parameters will come to mind, and for each, you can think of them as a field with extremes, like a spectrum from ultraviolet through the visible colors to infrared, and experiment with them in all combinations.

Many of these parameters can be observed on the local, moment-to-moment level, and then they multiply when one considers their rate and range of change over time, the direction(s) of that change, etc. Multiple vectors all changing at different rates among the players in an ensemble, listening and reacting to one another musically and imaginatively, coming together and diverging in conscious but somewhat unexpected ways, with a bit of random surprise and quick conscious musical reaction to it, all add up to an endless proliferation of engaging musical forms.

Really, all of this examination of parameters is no less applicable to traditional forms and tonal or modal music, composed or improvised. You can analyze (or practice playing) a bebop solo on a standard form and changes the usual way, in terms of certain melody-harmony relationships and chord resolutions, but also in terms of density, use of registral space over time, chromatic circulation, or any other parameter, and then see what happens when you vary it.

You can take or leave this analytical language and parametric way of thinking. If you use it, I suggest using it judiciously. It is breaking something into parts mentally when the thing itself is really a unique whole. If you do analysis, it’s important to remember that the category is never the thing, and nothing is totally reducible to words and concepts. This is a tool to help us question assumptions, move out of our comfort zones and try unfamiliar things, and/or to better understand and communicate about aspects of free music (or any music). I think of this analysis as being in service of creative inquiry and an enriched experience and appreciation, not an end in itself.

In Part 3, I’ll share a short list of practice suggestions and links to some books, ebooks, recordings, and other resources.

Teaching free improvisation: some thoughts and exercises

I’d like to start this blog by sharing some ideas about teaching free improvisation to musicians who are new to it. I have one exercise, “Forest Duos,” that has proved to be an effective introduction to some of the key elements of group improvisation and choices one has as an improviser: listening, making transitions and endings, choosing material, choosing among varieties of interaction (the spectrum from imitative counterpoint to independence and contrast; use of space), development, flow, free and metric rhythm, dynamics, timbre, etc.

I’ll be part of a panel discussion on this subject at the 2019 JEN (Jazz Education Network) Conference in Reno with Ryan Meagher (organizer) , Dawn Clement, Ralph Alessi, and Samantha Boshnack. It’s called “Coloring Outside the Lines: How We Can Encourage Our Students to Truly Explore Improvisation,” and it’s Saturday, January 12, 2019, 2:00 PM – 2:50 PM in Sierra EL.

Here’s a handout I prepared for a similar panel on teaching free improvisation from the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) conference in New Orleans in January 2000. Graham Collier and Ed Sarath were also on the panel. This one-page summary includes some listening suggestions and some beginning ensemble teaching techniques:

Teaching Group Free Improvisation – IAJE 2000

Here’s a full explanation of my Forest Duos idea. It’s both an exercise with step-by-step instructions, and a composition or framework that can be used in performance:

Forest Duos – Group Improvisation – Chase – 2019

And here is a sample template and a blank template for use in structuring a Forest Duos performance.

Forest Duos – Sample Template – Chase

Forest Duos Blank Template – Chase

Forest Duos Blank Template – Chase – Word Doc to Download

As I say in the Forest Duos document, this evolved out of my studies with some of the great innovators in free jazz and free improvisation at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY, from my work with Tom Hall and other members of Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet over almost four decades of playing together, and from my work with student ensembles, mostly septets and octets: Berklee “large avant-garde ensembles” (1983-88), NEC Duo Ensembles (2003-9), and particularly this graduate ensemble I taught at New England Conservatory in 1995-6 (who helped name the elements like Forest, etc.):

chase nec ensemble 1995-96b

(The ensemble that first worked on Forest Duos and helped develop the idea. Back row: Joel Springer, Thomson Kneeland, Joe Karten, Zach Buell, Russell Mofsky. Front row: Eric Rasmussen, Allan Chase, JC Sanford. Not pictured: Satoko Fujii (piano). NEC 1995-6.)

When we talk about teaching free improvisation, a few frequently asked questions are:

What is free improvisation? The phrase is a commonly-used shorthand for improvisation that is open in form, where the form is improvised or flexible rather than specified in detail in advance; also, usually, there is no precondition about tonal or modal harmony. It doesn’t mean there can’t be any agreed-upon structure, any criteria or values, or any predetermined (stated or understood) guidelines for playing together, or that “anything goes.” Free jazz is usually used for music that has more characteristics of jazz — for example, in the roles of rhythm section instruments, or the way a composed theme is used — but has an improvised form (not specified choruses of predetermined length) and/or freedom to move anywhere tonally.

• How can you teach something that you can’t evaluate? What basis could you have for assessment of free improvisation in an educational setting? This question seems to be based on the premise that bebop improvisation is the norm in jazz education, and it is measurably right or wrong (the student is making the chord changes or not). There’s some truth to that, although simply making the changes is a small part of the art of bebop improvisation. But many things are taught where the form and details are not predetermined or strictly measurable as right or wrong: contemporary classical composition, creative writing, abstract visual art, modern dance choreography, and many other things. Teachers are not afraid to teach these subjects because they can’t assess every aspect of them quantitatively. If you’re concerned about assessment and measurable learning outcomes, you can make a grading rubric that weighs musical aspects — success in achieving the goals of the piece or project — as well as participation, effort, improvement, and productivity, as you might for a visual art or writing assignment in a class where students may have a range of ability and experience.

• How can we do this while maintaining control of the classroom? I think this is determined largely by the messages the teacher conveys. If the teacher or leader says this is serious but fun, a creative but structured experience, and we’re going to make something interesting, and gives the right amount of structure (process, duration, roles to play), then students can get started on a positive track, and they’ll respond well to greater freedom later. On the other hand, if the teacher is apologetic, anxious, disrespectful of the music (a free section was often called a “freakout” when I was a young jazz student in the early 1970s, with predictable results), or implies that something out of control is about to happen, then the results will probably reflect those expectations that the teacher has created.

Who likes this music? Not all jazz educators have learned to listen to and appreciate free jazz and free improvised musics. Some have a tolerance or sincere liking for Ornette Coleman’s early quartets and/or the freer music of contemporary players who have ostensibly “proven themselves” in post-bebop harmonically determined music — the Wayne Shorter Quartet, David Liebman, Joe Lovano, some ECM artists, etc. — but they may not “get” the music of Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, the AACM, or the European free improvisation scenes, for example. It’s important to know that the appreciation of this music is gained by listening and curiosity. Learning about the historical and cultural context and the artists’ biographies can help, too. You don’t have to like this, or any style of music, but it is a significant 60-year-old tradition at this point (free jazz has been around for more than half the history of recorded jazz) and there’s a worldwide audience for it which I would estimate is as large or larger than the audience for, say, traditional bebop instrumental jazz today. For example, the Big Ears Festival takes over Knoxville, Tennessee for four days each year with multiple simultaneous sold-out theaters full of people listening to a Milford Graves solo drum set concert, Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Roscoe Mitchell’s quartet, the ROVA saxophone quartet and guests playing “Ascension,” and dozens of others. The Moers Festival in Germany, Victoriaville in Quebec, and several others have been successful for decades, as are many small record labels and publications dedicated to this music. There are free improvisation venues and scenes in almost every major city, and in some small cities around the world. It’s a small portion of the music industry, of course (as is jazz as a whole), but it’s vibrant and ongoing, and comparable in size to many other traditional and avant-garde music scenes.

I think it’s important to point out that “free improvisation” and the related “free jazz” are not single styles of music. There have been, and are, subcultures of free improvisors and free jazz players that have developed quite distinct aesthetics, practices, and materials, and often they don’t interact with one another easily. The differences, it seems to me, are bigger than, for example, the differences among the swing-era players and New York and Los Angeles bebop players who appeared together on Jazz at the Philharmonic jam sessions. They shared a repertoire and enough assumptions about form, harmony, instrumental roles, and interaction to play music effectively together, even without rehearsal. Major innovators of free jazz and free improvised music coming out of jazz — for example, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and John Zorn  — have rarely performed with one another and have quite different musical ideas and repertoires. There are many prominent circles of players in free jazz and free improvisation that have had little overlap of players over decades. Some of this is social and geographical, but it’s also because they have different ideas about music. There have been some interesting encounters between these groups, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

I don’t use the term “non-idiomatic improvisation“* because, as others have pointed out, if it’s recognizably, audibly a thing, then it has musical characteristics (including the absence of certain common musical elements) and is an idiom or style. Everything I can think of that’s been called “non-idiomatic” has sounded like post-1945 new music in the international (initially European and American) style due to a tendency to avoid tonal, conjunct, conventionally metric material. There are also certain recognizable traits in the pace and types of interaction and development over time. Often subgroups of improvisers within this field have very specific ideas about repetition, development, imitation, and metric agreement, or the avoidance of them. It seems a little inaccurate and perhaps self-flattering to suggest that this recognizable body of music is the only one that is not idiomatic. But categories and names for musical styles (including, of course, “classical” and “jazz”) are always incomplete and contentious and their boundaries are fuzzy, as they should be. The names of musical styles are just nicknames for loose groups of musics that have a family resemblance to one another.

I’ll write about teaching the history and analysis of free jazz, and about the music of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra (the subject of my M.A. thesis) in future posts. I’ll also try to follow up with a list of further resources for teachers: books, websites, listening materials, colleagues’ ideas…and free jazz playalongs (yes, they exist).

See also: allanchase.com

*Page is from Davey Williams, Solo Gig: Essential Curiosities in Musical Free Improvisation (CreateSpace, 2011)