A history of Jazz Music

by Piero Scaruffi
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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.
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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")

Free jazz: free drumming

Perhaps no other instrument changed so much as the drums during the free-jazz era. The idea that percussion was merely for time keeping was turned upside down. Percussion became a component of the sound just like any melodic instrument. Basically, the free-jazz era discovered that harmony is not necessarily only built around melodies. As the gurus of free-jazz indulged more and more boldly with dissonance, percussive sounds did not sound anymore like a different dimension of music and increasingly gained peer status in the harmonic process.

One of the instruments that was more affected by the conceptual revolution of free jazz was the drums. Setting the example for others, Oklahoma-born Jimmy "Sunny" Murray, who moved to New York in 1956 and played with Cecil Taylor in 1959-62 and with Albert Ayler in 1964-67, revolutionized the role of the drums by abandoning the traditional time-keeping role in favor of a sound-making role (mostly by cymbals and snare). Basically the drums became percussion instruments whose role was to create sound (and, ultimately, contribute to the polyphony) as much as any other instrument. They differed from, say, a trumpet or a saxophone only insofar as the timbre of a wooden or metallic percussion is different from the timbre of an instrument that had been traditionally used for melodic purposes. The fact that melodic instruments were increasingly used to produce dissonance helped blurred the border. Removing the time-keeping instrument constituted, of course, a major boost to the abstraction of the music, making it even more difficult to find traces of blues or gospel or swing or anything else in the overall performance.
Murray's own recordings were more faithful to free jazz than most of the pioneers of the genre: Sunny's Time Now (november 1965), with the stellar cast of Albert Ayler, trumpeter Don Cherry and bassists Henry Grimes and Lewis Worrell unleashed in the jams Virtue and Justice; Sunny Murray Quintet (july 1966), featuring trumpet, saxophone, bass and percussion in a side-long four-movement improvisation (Phase 1, 2, 3, 4); Sunny Murray (december 1968), featuring saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, bass and piano; Big Chief (january 1969), with a similar line-up; Homage to Africa (august 1969), the manifesto of his pan-African free-jazz, with vocalist Jeanne Lee, saxophonist Archie Shepp, pianist Dave Burrell, bassist Alan Silva, Malachi Favors on balafon and two percussionists, one of his most effective ensembles ever improvising in the 17-minute Suns 0f Africa and the ten-minute R.I.P.; Sunshine (august 1969), with the 14-minute Flower Trane performed by an ensemble with Burrell, Silva, trumpeter Lester Bowie, four saxophonists (including Roscoe Mitchell and Archie Shepp).

The evolution from hard-bop drumming to abstract drumming was symbolized by Michigan-born drummer Elvin Jones, the younger brother of pianist Hank and trumpeter Thad, who had moved to New York in 1955 playing on important recordings by Sonny Rollins (1957) and Miles Davis (1960). His groundbreaking work was done with John Coltrane's quartet (1960-65), particularly in their extended duet passages, although his heart always remained with hard-bop. Jones virtually liberated the hands and the feet, that seemed to play four different lines while contributing to create the unity of the piece.

New Orleans-born drummer Ed Blackwell, who relocated to Los Angeles in 1951, became a member of Ornette Coleman's legendary quartet of 1960 with trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden and moved with them to New York, an association that was going to mark the rest of his life. After backing Eric Dolhy (1961) and Archie Shepp (1965-67), Blackwell was with Ornette Coleman till at least 1979 (in the group Old And New Dreams), and with Cherry from Complete Communion (1965) till at least 1985, when they formed the group Nu. Blackwell was the natural link between the bebop drumming of Kenny Clarke, the hard-bop drumming of Art Blakey, the proto-free drumming of Elvin Jones and folk drumming from rhythm'n'blues to African and Asian music. Blackwell was a key personality in transforming the drums into a versatile instrument, away from the purely tempo-keeping role and back to the primordial all-encompassing function. Hardly a virtuoso in the old sense of the word, Blackwell was a master of shifting tempos and timbral texturing.

Milford Graves, the percussionist who held together the improvisations of the New York Art Quartet (november 1964), was perhaps the boldest of the free-jazz drummers. He recorded Percussion Ensemble (july 1965) with another percussionist, Sunny Morgan, and then a live session with pianist Don Pullen, documented on At Yale University (april 1966) and Nommo (april 1966). These albums were about dissonance and soundscape, not about melody and rhythm. Graves became one of the most reclusive musicians of his time, rarely documented on record: a percussion duo with Andrew Cyrille, Dialogue Of The Drums (january 1974) Babi (march 1976), with reed players Arthur Doyle and Hugh Glover, Meditation Among Us (july 1977), with Mototeru Takagui on tenor, Kaoru Abe on alto, Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, and Toshiyuki Tsuchitori on percussion. He add to wait till the end of the century before he could release solo albums such as Grand Unification (october 1997) and Stories (june 2000) that fully represent his vision. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Philadelphia native Robert "Rashied Ali" Patterson, who in 1966 replaced Elvin Jones in John Coltrane's group, was one of the drummers who liberated the percussive instrument from its time-keeping cliches and made true "free jazz" possible. Faithful to Coltrane's legacy, Ali recorded bold and colossal improvisations on New Directions in Modern Music (1971), for a quartet with alto saxophone, violin and piano, and Duo Exchange (1972), a duet with tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe, before forming a Quintet (1973) with the young guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer that indulged in Ali's 17-minute Address and Ulmer's 18-minute Theme for Captain Black. His feverish, polytonal drumming turning each jam into a cosmic journey. TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Andrew Cyrille demonstrated his blend of noisy, tribal and spacey drumming on a solo percussion album, What About? (august 1969), and on the percussion duet with Milford Graves of Dialogue of the Drums (january 1974). In 1975 Cyrille formed a quartet with tenor saxophonist David Ware, that delivered the 21-minute Spiegelgasse on Metamusician's Stomp (september 1978). TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.