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What Is Free Form Jazz?

What Is Free Form Jazz?
Michael T. Dennis

Free form jazz, also known as free jazz, is a style of music that emerged in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. It is a loosely defined movement that includes many different musical styles, all of which place an emphasis on improvisation and a deconstruction of earlier jazz styles.


Free form jazz rose to prominence in the 1950s as a reaction to the status quo in jazz music. The conventional form at the time was known as modal jazz, in which musicians followed established musical patterns, or modes. Jazz musicians of the 1950s saw these patterns as limitations on their expressive creativity and sought new forms in which experimentation and improvisation were encouraged.

In the mid 1950s, saxophonist Ornette Coleman recorded on the Contemporary record label and produced what are commonly cited as the first pieces of free form jazz. Meanwhile, the records "Jazz Advance" and "Looking Ahead" by Cecil Taylor were commercially successful, establishing free jazz as a popular new form.

Major Figures

Ornette Coleman's 1960 album "Free Jazz" gave the movement its name. Other figures associated with the free form jazz movement include Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, Bill Dixon, Sun Ra and Eric Dolphy. Bassist Charles Mingus included elements of free jazz in many of his compositions, often coming as improvised solos within a more structured piece of music. In Europe, free jazz was popularized by saxophonist Joe Harriott. Jeanne Lee is notable for being one of few free jazz vocalists in what is otherwise primarily an instrumental genre.


Free form jazz defies most attempts to apply a simple definition. It defies traditional melodic patterns and harmonic structures. Instead, a spirit of spontaneous improvisation sets the tone and takes on the characteristics of the musical style of whichever free jazz artist is under consideration. The genre is also known for incorporating different rhythmic tempos, including sections of acceleration or ritardando (i.e., slowing down). Some free jazz is based on previously composed melodies, whereas other musicians prefer to improvise even those most basic elements. To some purists, the term "free form jazz" is reserved for music that contains no previously composed elements.


Some of the earliest free jazz performers saw themselves as historians, bringing jazz music back to its primitive roots and away from the structured, formal attributes it had acquired in the 1930s and 1940s. In particular, John Coltrane professed the link between his music and his religious beliefs. Black performers formed the majority of free jazz players and generally saw jazz as a fundamentally African American, or just African, musical form. These cultural views were extended by musicians who saw a spiritual element to free jazz. Sun Ra's "Angels & Demons At Play" included tracks with spiritual themes. For them, the improvisation on which free jazz was based was about finding inspiration and transcendence in music.


Reaching its peak in the 1960s, free form jazz evolved into a number of newer musical forms. In the 1970s, free jazz led to the establishment of downtown jazz and loft jazz, both based in New York. The emergence of rock and roll brought new musical possibilities to free jazz musicians, and many members of the younger free jazz generation borrowed heavily from rock and pop styles. Moving beyond his position as a free form jazz pioneer, Ornette Coleman formed the band Prime Time in the 1970s to experiment with electronic music and further stretch the definition of jazz.

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