The Sound of Avant Garde Jazz: Stream 35 Hours of Experimental Jazz by Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane & More

Jazz has become institutionalized, for both good and ill. On the upside, it has found a permanent home in prestigious performing arts centers like Jazz at Lincoln Center, where its memory will be preserved for generations. High priests like Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, and Herbie Hancock pass on the traditions to young jazz acolytes at universities. The American art form has achieved the level of respectability that some of its most innovative practitioners, such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, had always sought, the recognition of the high art world.

On the other hand, we too easily forget how dangerous jazz used to be—how thoroughly cutting edge and disturbing to middlebrow sensibilities. But of course, jazz has passed through many cultural cycles, with each generation of artists shocking its elders by pushing against musical decorum. Late 40s and 50s bebop gave us the lean, mean combo as a challenge to the big band swing era, and produced superstar improvisers who veered thrillingly off script in every performance. But this incarnation of jazz, too, threatened to become staid as the sixties neared.

And so a handful of artists created, to take the title of Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking 1959 album, “the shape of jazz to come,” free jazz, which represented, writes Chris Kelsey, “a final break with the music’s roots as a popular art form, casting it in an alternative role as an experimental art music.” The sixties saw profound innovation in jazz, as artists like Coleman, Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, and others expanded its possibilities. But to read this music as solely experimenting “along the lines of the European ‘classical’ avant-garde” is to ignore the deep cultural wellspring from which it came.

As Amiri Baraka wrote in the liner notes for a 1965 compilation, The New Wave in Jazz, avant-garde jazz was a “touch stone of the new world,” a form that transcended the conditions of slavery, miseducation, and social control; it was the “music of contemporary black culture.”

The people who make this music are intellectuals or mystics or both. The black rhythm energy blues feeling (sensibility) is projected into the area of reflection, intentionally. As Expression…where each term is (equally) co-respondent.

     Projection over sustained periods (more time given, and time proposes a history for expression, hence it becomes reflective projection.

     Arbitrariness of Form (variety in nature)

     Intention of performance as a Learning experience

These were the distinctive “new world” qualities of experimental jazz. Its hip signifiers, Baraka wrote, mark it as “an invention of Black Lives”; it is not music to lull and soothe but to instruct, with force, if necessary. “Getting hit in the head with a stick,” he writes with a wink, “can do you as much good as meditating.” It might be hard for us to hear, now that the music has been so thoroughly enshrined in academic departments and conservatories, but avant-garde jazz once had the power to thoroughly shock and surprise, as the statement of a culture both in dialogue with and revolt against oppressive traditional forms.

In the playlist above, The Sound of Avant-Garde Jazz, you recover a sense of the music’s edginess with recordings from some of its most experimental gurus, including Coleman, Sun Ra, McCoy Tyner, Yusef Lateef, Alice Coltrane, and many, many more. The playlist spans the last 60 years or so, featuring later white adopters like Pat Metheny, John Zorn, and Bill Frisell, and including rocking electric jazz from diverse, eclectic bands like Tony Williams’ Lifetime, whose “Proto-Cosmos,” at the top, epitomizes the expansive range of 70s fusion. The overall experience of this comprehensive playlist may not only shake up your preconceptions of jazz, but may, as Baraka writes, change your preconditioned sense of “the normal feeling of adventure.”

The playlist offers up 350 tracks, and runs 35 hours. If you need Spotify’s free software, download it here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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