Per Caritatem

Max Roach Freedom Now 1960Free jazz, the New Thing, or the New Black Music as it was variously called exploded on the scene in the latter part of the twentieth century.[1] As is widely known, several prominent musicians such as Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Archie Shepp were influenced by the philosophy and teachings of the Black Power movement, which departed in important ways from earlier civil rights groups. As John D. Baskerville observes, the rallying cry of the black nationalists was not King’s “We Shall Overcome,” but “Black Power.” This new generation of black activists boldly proclaimed black pride and were outspoken advocates for the political and economic empowerment of black people. For example, black nationalists argued that America’s capitalistic (and racist) system “was a colonial system in which the colonized people are the Blacks.” Given this unjust social context, they urged African Americans to “gain control of the economic institutions in their community to build a Black economic power base.”[2] Through establishing black leadership and economic power, African Americans could better determine their futures and resist white exploitative practices.

Jazz musicians attuned to the message of Black Power devised innovative strategies to subvert and transgress white-imposed barriers. Having experienced for some time their own “colonized status” in America’s white-owned music industry, they developed what is often referred to as the “loft movement.” White club owners had little interest or patience with the New Black Music, as it was ill suited for their chief goal, namely, to turn the highest profit possible. For example, a single free jazz composition might last an hour or more depending upon the length of each improvised solo. Such extended forms and prolonged solos allowed the performers to develop and expand their musical ideas “in real time.” However, the club owners preferred shorter, “prepackaged” sets, as they “made their money by requiring a minimum number of drinks per set per customer. The more sets a group played, the more drinks could be sold.”[3] Additionally, quite often the drinks were highly priced, making it difficult for political activists, students, less affluent African Americans, artists, and others interested in the New Thing to support the musicians’ efforts. Not only were the profits funneled to the club owners, but the musicians also had little control over the direction of their art and over the audiences they wished to reach. Consequently, the loft movement was born as a way around the white dominated club scene. In short, musicians opened up their lofts (large apartments) as performance sites and charged their audiences modest fees. Thus, they were able to create a space where artistic expression (rather than profit) was foremost and to establish their own leadership and economic priority. Moreover, since by and large the lofts were located in black communities, the musicians had more say in determining their audience.

My second example of how jazz musicians transgress boundaries is more explicitly musical in nature. Here I focus on John Coltrane’s transformation of the popular Broadway tune, “My Favorite Things.” In order to grasp the cultural and sociopolitical dimensions of Coltrane’s version of the tune, we must consider some of the racialized musical discourses at play at the time. White control of the music industry meant that highly talented black jazz musicians were underpaid and were often denied prestigious performance venues. Moreover, it was frequently the case that black musicians’ talent exceeded their white counterparts, as is displayed by the fact that white musicians openly sought to imitate and internalize African American musicians’ melodic lines, rhythmic phrasings and patterns, and literally memorized improvised solos by jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and McCoy Tyner.[4] Given this background, when Coltrane’s version with its sophisticated structural, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic modifications musically surpassed the original and culturally popular tune, the ramifications went beyond the aesthetic sphere and likewise impacted the sociopolitical realm.

Musically speaking, for example, the multilayered, polyrhythmic “feel” created by the drums, piano, and bass resulted in a complete alteration of the tune’s character. In Coltrane’s version, the construction and placement of rhythmic motifs in the vamp section superimposes a six metric feel rather than emphasizing the tune’s original ¾ time signature. In addition, the vamp section’s six feel contrasts with a different rhythmic pattern in the A section, which both supports the melody and returns the groove to a strong ¾ emphasis.[5] Such rhythmic complexity is completely absent from the original tune whose form and overall rhythmic quality come across as pedestrian. Rather than bind themselves to the original tune’s formal limitations, Coltrane and his group take the composition’s oversimplified and constricting structures as their point of departure and then bend, explode, and re-create them, producing something far more interesting musically than the original. The fact that African American jazz musicians of the Civil Rights Era actively transformed mainstream European-American compositions—not to mention artistically upstaged their white counterparts—carries with it social, political, and cultural significance. Such actions are, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. would say,  “signifyin(g)” acts.  In brief, Gates’s idea of musical signification is that the music itself has the capacity to “speak” ironically and strategically to social, political, and economic concerns and thus to function as musical expressions of “black double-voicedness” and repetition with a “signal difference.”[6] Lastly and building on Gates’s notion of signifying, Monson highlights how Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” employs European American musical standards for its own strategic aims. In other words, Coltrane’s transformed piece with its extended harmonies and polyrhythmic textures—both of which are musical qualities esteemed by modern and contemporary Western classical composers—not only outshines the original when evaluated by jazz aesthetical standards but also illustrates how jazz musicians can “invoke selectively some of the hegemonic standards of Western classical music in their favor.”[7]

My final example of a musical transgressive act with sociopolitical overtones is found in the freedom of improvised jazz solos—a freedom that promotes both individual expression and that enables one to alter structures. For example, turning again to Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” the musicians’ extended solos allow for high levels of individual creative expression, yet the solos themselves are both constituted in conversation with the other performances (rhythm section, pianist, etc.) and have the ability to modify the structural parameters of the tune. After all, an improvised jazz solo can continue (at least in theory) as long as the improviser (and the group) desire. Moreover, a solo can take a tune in completely unexpected and “unwritten” directions via melodic superimpositions and rhythmic motifs introduced extemporaneously and taken up by the group as a whole. Not only does the kind of improvisation associated with jazz make each performance of the same tune unique, but it also highlights the capacity of jazz to create a flexible rather than rigidly static and restrictive form. Here we have a musical act of freedom analogous to and expressive of African Americans’ desire for social, political, and economic emancipation from the white-imposed, constraining structures that daily dominated their existence.


[1] See also, Robin D. G. Kelley, “Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde.”

[2] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 487.

[3] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 488.

[4] I do not mean to suggest that imitation in itself automatically translates into the superiority of the imitated over the imitator. Rather, the idea in this context is that African Americans were the both the key leaders and innovators of jazz and that their musical contributions fundamentally shaped a musical aesthetic that was (and still is) sought by their white counterparts. For a detailed discussion of the “blackening” of American mainstream music and the dominance of African American aesthetics in jazz, see Monson, Freedom Sounds.

[5] Monson, “Doubleness and Jazz Improvisation,” pp. 296–97.

[6] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, p. 51. See also, chapter 2 of the same work.

[7] Monson, Saying Something, p. 120.