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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear 2,000 Record­ings of the Most Essen­tial Jazz Songs: A Huge Playlist for Your Jazz Edu­ca­tion

Langston Hugh­es Cre­ates a List of His 100 Favorite Jazz Record­ings: Hear 80+ of Them in a Big Playlist

The His­to­ry of Spir­i­tu­al Jazz: Hear a Tran­scen­dent 12-Hour Mix Fea­tur­ing John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Her­bie Han­cock & More

Her­bie Han­cock to Teach His First Online Course on Jazz 

The Night When Char­lie Park­er Played for Igor Stravin­sky (1951) 

Hear Ornette Cole­man Col­lab­o­rate with Lou Reed, Which Lou Called “One of My Great­est Moments”

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

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