[Note: This essay is basically a position paper, intended to define
my own perspective on an existing controversy. I am well aware of
the schematic nature of my account of the curatorial perspective
that I criticize herein; I intend to develop that aspect of the
essay further as a result of the panel's discussions. In any case
I hope that I have managed to present a position that is substantial
enough to be worth arguing about, as the analytical philosophers
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is currently in the
midst of a monumental expansion project whose history, if the journalists
are to be believed, may be read as a parable that can shed some
light on the problem of jazz's history and its continuing vitality.
According to a recent New Yorker article by Calvin Tomkins, the
problem that MOMA faced in the Nineties was the one implied by its
very name: what is "modern art," and what are its historical
limits? Practically, this problem of definition or identity arose
in response to a shortage of exhibition space in the museum, and
was posed on the theoretical plane as "the question of when
the museum should stop buying new art.... A few trustees argued
for cutting off at the year 2000, and making MOMA the definitive
museum of twentieth-century art."1 Just as the date would mark
the chronological end of the modern era, so the turn to postmodernism
would mark the formal limit of modern art. The adoption of this
rather rigidly chronometric solution to the theoretical problem
of the identity of modern art would have effectively allowed the
museum to stop collecting new art and hence would have solved the
practical problem of lack of new exhibition space at the same time.
However, none of the museum's principals signed on to this proposal
either theoretically or practically, but instead made "a new
commitment" to the "modernist faith" (presumably
in something like its Poundian version, "Make it new")
in the form of a huge architectural project to expand the museum
so that it can continue to collect new works into the 21st century,
and a massive fund-raising campaign to pay for the billion-dollar
However a spectator might feel about the viability of MOMA's resolution
to its identity crisis, she would have to acknowledge both its ambition
and, more importantly for the argument that follows, its dogged
contemporaneity. The museum has refused to become strictly retrospective,
which means it has refused, paradoxically, to become a museum in
the normal sense: an institution dedicated to the preservation and
study of extinct forms of life, knowledge and practice. In this
way, MOMA has taken an approach to its curatorial field that is
diametrically opposed to that taken by another New York cultural
institution that has recently begun to raise money for facility
expansion, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Program, to the equally modern
art that constitutes its field.2 Other jazz history and pedagogy
programs around the country, as well as the jazz recording industry,
have followed its ideological lead. These jazz institutions have,
with very few exceptions, adopted a strictly retrospective definition
of the music, one whose effective cultural hegemony was both clearly
embodied in and further disseminated by Ken Burns' massive 18-hour
documentary Jazz, which first aired in early 2001. This film will
help us to formulate the question that is the point of departure
for what follows: is jazz still a living part of art and culture
in the present, or is it now only part of the history of art? Through
both its content and its structure, Burns' documentary seems to
imply that jazz is no longer a living art form but rather a collection
of historically fixed artifacts, museum relics that can best be
appropriated through the kind of curatorial logic that Artistic
Director Wynton Marsalis' work at Lincoln Center (and on recordings)
represents. Since Marsalis, abetted by critics and Lincoln Center
artistic advisors Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, was Burns' primary
consultant on the film, this implication should surprise no one.
Burns' Jazz has been widely recognized as a landmark in the history
of jazz studies, but what has been less widely noticed is the fact
that it's also a powerful piece of propaganda for one particular
version of jazz history. This version of jazz history, long associated
with Murray and Crouch,3 sees the main line of jazz development
as the evolution of the music from its hybrid Southern origins through
its recognition as the quintessential form of American popular music
between 1920 and 1950 to the climax of its artistic achievement
in bebop. This much is relatively uncontroversial, and Burns' documentary
dramatizes this story quite effectively, though rather hagiographically,
in its first nine episodes. The consequences its promoters draw
from this model, however, constitute the bone of contention for
this paper. If one accepts the tendentious claim that jazz reached
its highest point in bebop, then it would seem to follow that the
sequence of musical developments that took place after bebop would
constitute at best a slackening of invention and at worst a wholesale
decomposition of the form. This is in fact what many proponents
of the curatorial perspective argue, explicitly or implicitly: they
view all of the identifiable post-bebop schools of jazz-third stream,
free jazz, open form, energy music, free improv, fusion, acid jazz-as
deviations or aberrations that, by adopting alienatingly avant-garde
and/or crudely populist performance practices, alienated jazz's
mass audience and allowed its place as America's most popular music
to be usurped by rock and rap.4 Burns' documentary reflects this
perspective in its basic structure: after an opening episode dedicated
to nineteenth and early twentieth century roots, it allots fifteen
of its eighteen hours (eight of its ten episodes) to the first fifty
years of jazz (roughly 1910 to 1960), and only a single 90-minute
episode to the last forty years from 1960 to the present. Further
evidence of this disproportion can been seen in the coverage of
specific figures: the series contains biographical accounts of major
early figures like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman
and Charlie Parker that could, with a little re-sequencing, stand
alone as feature-length films in their own right, while comparably
significant post-1960 figures like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman
are handled in hasty fifteen-minute (or shorter) segments.5
Supporters of the curatorial model often point to the commercial
success of a younger, "neo-classical" generation of jazz
musicians, including the Marsalis brothers, Joshua Redman and others,
who have consciously adopted big-band or bebop-era performance practices
(specifically, elaborately orchestrated compositions for traditionally
organized large ensembles or harmonic improvisation on chord sequences
for traditional small ensembles like quartets) as evidence of the
validity of their view.6 Since jazz sales now account for a smaller
percentage of overall music sales than "classical" (i.e.,
Euro-American scored orchestral and chamber music of all historical
periods) does, though each is less than five percent of the total,
this argument is unpersuasive. These supporters also note the critical
success of these players, though by "critical" they generally
mean "establishment," in the sense that Wynton Marsalis'
1997 Pulitzer Prize in Music (for Blood on the Fields) is a prize
governed by the standards of the academic compositional establishment
and not by those of jazz at any era in its history (compare Marsalis'
award to the awkward "special citation" that the Pulitzer
Committee gave to Duke Ellington in 1965).7
The convergence of all this institutional, media and commercial
power in an unprecedented and monolithic jazz establishment that
promotes a equally monolithic version of jazz history is troubling
to many historians and critics, as it should be.8 It amounts to
a gesture of premature closure that, if left unchallenged and consequently
taken seriously by enough performers and listeners, could signal
the end of jazz as a living, developing art form and its effective
replacement by the pastiche-driven, neo-classical "afterlife"
that many critics are already calling "postmodern jazz."
Some critics go even further than this; Eric Nisenson, for example,
subtitled his polemic on this issue "the murder of jazz."9
I don't think that the situation has degenerated that far, though
I do believe that the problems Nisenson and other critics have diagnosed
will be difficult to solve. But if they are not solved, then Nisenson's
prediction may well come true and we will be left with only the
museum exhibits and the various schools of "undead" neo-classical
or postmodern jazz. As an alternative to the restrictive closure
of this curatorial model, I would like to propose a critical matrix
that I believe can help us identify and understand those functional
elements of contemporary jazz that are still alive, still open and
generating new modes of sonic and performance organization. This
matrix is derived from the ideas of three musicians whose works
offer not only sophisticated theoretical models for understanding
the challenges facing jazz historiography, but also compelling practical
resolutions to the dilemmas that perplex active performers: free
jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, open form composer Cornelius Cardew,
and free improv mainstay Derek Bailey.
Part One: Idiomatic
First, it is important to focus on the central and defining characteristic
of jazz within its historical context: improvisation, the creation
of new sonic structures and relationships in the real time of performance.
Now, improvisation is not unique to jazz, not even in the history
of western music-baroque practices of ornamentation and the realization
of figured bass constitute important precedents, even though they
clearly have no direct bearing on jazz techniques. The importance
of jazz improvisation in this cultural context was its re-activation
and elaboration of long-dormant creative possibilities. From the
point of view of world musical culture as a whole, jazz improvisation
is even less anomalous: in fact, most folk or indigenous musical
traditions around the world, from raga to flamenco, contain a strong
Like these other folk forms, the tradition of jazz improvisation
constitutes what guitarist Derek Bailey calls an "idiom,"
analogous to a linguistic idiom. Ferdinand de Saussure notes that
the "term idiom rightly designates language as reflecting the
traits peculiar to a community,"10 while Louis Hjelmslev further
distinguishes four types of idiomatic commonality or community:
vernacular language, national language, regional language, and physiognomy
of expression.11 All of these types have parallels in sub-genres
of jazz improvisation (cool, Latin jazz, Dixieland, boogie-woogie).
"Idiomatic improvisation," Bailey writes, "is mainly
concerned with the expression of an idiom-such as jazz, flamenco
or baroque-and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom."12
The idiom forms a reservoir or foundation from which the improviser
extracts components to assemble into an appropriate musical utterance
according to the rules that define the idiom. The success of the
utterance can be measured by the degree to which it simultaneously
fits into the pre-existing idiomatic structure and responds to the
unique circumstances of the performance situation. In a word, it
communicates. As Bailey emphasizes,
No idiomatic improviser is concerned with improvisation as some
sort of separate isolated activity. What they are absolutely concerned
about is the idiom: for them improvisation serves the idiom and
is the expression of that idiom. But it still remains that one of
the main effects of improvisation is on the performer, providing
him with a creative involvement and maintaining his commitment.
So, in these two functions, improvisation supplies a way of guaranteeing
the authenticity of the idiom, which also, avoiding the stranglehold
of academic authority, provides the motor for change and continuous
The supreme importance of the governing idiom can be measured by
the terminology used by its practitioners: "The word 'improvisation'
is actually very little used by improvising musicians. Idiomatic
improvisers, in describing what they do, use the name of the idiom.
They 'play flamenco' or 'play jazz'; some refer to what they do
as just 'playing'" (Bailey xii).
Idiomatic improvisational techniques are the key to the continuity
and stability of jazz (and other musical idioms), not just because
of the way they form a framework for clear expression and communication
among those competent in the idiom, but also because of their pedagogical
utility. When musicians learn to "play jazz," they are
learning the idiom just as musicians learning to play baroque music
or raga learn an idiom, though not necessarily through the same
methods. The pedagogic effectiveness of idiomatic techniques is
a double-edged sword, however, especially in current jazz:
The tendency to derivativeness and the prevalence of imitative playing
in all idiomatic improvisation seems to have produced in jazz a
situation where increasingly the music became identified with the
playing style of a handful of musicians. Strangely enough, the number
of acceptable models appears to get smaller as time goes on. The
performing style of the rest, the vast majority of players, is invariably
identified by association with or reference to one of the 'great'
players on his instrument.... This situation, which can be one of
the main drawbacks in any improvised music, stems, of course, from
practices which are an intrinsic part of it.... [T]he learning method
in any idiomatic improvisation does have obvious dangers. It is
clear that the three stages-choosing a master, absorbing his skills
through practical imitation, developing an individual style and
attitude from that foundation-have a tendency, very often, to be
reduced to two stages with the hardest step, the last one, omitted.14
This assessment is particularly relevant to the argument made by
defenders of jazz neo-classicism, because it suggests that the younger
generation has adopted historical techniques not because of any
aesthetic superiority that those techniques represent, but merely
because those techniques are the ones that are extensively documented
and sufficiently well understood, precisely because they are museum
pieces, that they can form a stable basis for pedagogy in music
conservatories (another telling name for an aesthetic institution!).15
After all, musicians like the brothers Marsalis and Joshua Redman
have received almost as much press for the scholarly credentials
they've received from prestigious music schools as they have for
the artistry of their playing.
Bailey is certainly neither the first nor the most persuasive person
to suggest linguistic analogies for the understanding of jazz improvisation.16
However, he is one of the very few to follow through on the analogy
and ask the question, how and why do successful and stable idioms
change? Linguists too have asked this question, though rarely since
they are primarily interested in stable regularities (synchronic
structures, in Saussure's terms). Linguists propose that part of
the answer must lie in what they call "idiolects," defined
as "those aspects of an individual's speech pattern that cannot
be attributed to the influence of the groups to which the individual
belongs" or "free variants [that] allow each individual
to mark his originality with respect to others (a function of marginal
interest to linguists)."17 That is, an idiolect is an idiosyncratic
sub-idiom or, more provocatively, a pre-idiom. Bailey does not use
a version of the term "idiolect" to refer to this function
in music, but instead uses the antithetical term "non-idiomatic
improvisation." In comparison to idiomatic improvisational
forms like flamenco or traditional jazz, which serve the purpose
of providing a stable foundation for the permutation of existing
elements according to established rules, "[n]on-idiomatic improvisation
has other concerns and is most usually found in so-called 'free'
improvisations and, while it can be highly stylized, is not usually
tied to representing an idiomatic identity...."18
Non-idiomatic or free improvisation is indifferent or hostile to
the rules of the existing idiom, and from the point of view of that
idiom it can only be a deviation or "error," just as post-bebop
developments in jazz are errors from the curatorial point of view.
Bailey's entire career as an improviser has been a pursuit of precisely
this kind of error. He began playing traditional jazz guitar as
a teenager in the early fifties, but his interest soon waned; as
he has said, "I was left with the feeling that it wasn't quite
my music anyway," that is, it wasn't an idiomatic community
to which he felt he belonged and it wasn't an identity he could
occupy. By the mid-Sixties he had begun to perform with a group
of similarly non-traditional musicians in London, including saxophonist
Evan Parker and composer Gavin Bryars. Their experiments coincided
with the explosion of non-idiomatic improvisation in American jazz,
a movement led by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton
that was given the name "free jazz." By the late Sixties
the two movements had made contact and were cross-fertilizing each
other as they continue to do to this day.19
If, as Bailey suggests, non-idiomatic improvisation is not engaged
in representing an identity the way idiomatic improvisation does,
then what is it doing? Like an idiolect, a non-idiomatic improvisation
is a singular experiment, the injection of difference into a performance.
As such it can succeed or fail, just like an idiomatic performance,
but according to different standards. The standard for a non-idiomatic
performance will not be the creative conformity of the stable idiom,
whose range of choices is a pre-determined array dominated by a
retrospective temporality, but rather the unforeseen novelty that
scrambles the already-known choices and points toward the future
for its repetition. The idiolect or non-idiomatic improvisation
is the breaking of the rule that puts itself forward as a new rule,
to be followed or broken in its turn. Thus the key role of non-idiomatic
experimental forms and techniques is to alter or extend the language
much as the role of experimental literature and poetry is to alter
or extend both what can be said and how. Some of these experiments
succeed and are subsequently incorporated into an expanded and transformed
idiomatic practice, while others remain peripheral.20 From this
point of view, each of the idiomatic sub-genres within jazz, including
the ones now privileged by curatorial aesthetics as its high points
and essential models, originally took shape as a non-idiomatic approach,
as an error. Of course, this is exactly how they were all treated
at the point of their emergence: big band arrangements were attacked
as fossilizations of the open-ended choruses of the small combos,
while bebop was actually denounced as a "heresy" for its
technical obscurity and its abandonment of dance rhythms. All those
denunciations have themselves been denounced later, as the objects
of their scorn became the norm; one can do no better than cite A.B.
Spellman's famed putdown aimed at the detractors who labeled Coltrane's
music "anti-jazz": "What does anti-jazz mean and
who are these ofays who've appointed themselves guardians of last
year's blues?"21 All the transgressions have been recuperated,
that is, except for the transgressions of the post-bebop innovators,
innovators who never allowed themselves to cling to a stable norm.
In foregrounding the process of deviation, they forego the possibility
The upshot of this is that there is no historical difference between
idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisations at their moments of emergence.
The difference appears as their innovations are repeated, codified
and stabilized to become new norms replacing the ones the innovations
originally violated. Bailey recognizes this:
The only real difference [between idiomatic and non-idiomatic or
free improvisation] lies in the opportunities in free improvisation
to renew or change the known and so provoke an open-endedness which
by definition is not possible in idiomatic improvisation.... Improvisation,
unconcerned with any preparatory or residual document, is completely
at one with the non-documentary nature of musical performance, and
their shared ephemerality gives them a unique compatibility.22
For Bailey, then, all musical performance aspires to the condition
of non-idiomatic improvisation in its desire to be living art and
not curatorial documentation of the history of art. Precisely because
of its engagement with history as an ongoing process and not as
a collection of artifacts, his aesthetic is an anti-curatorial,
Part Two: Ethic
If Bailey's logic of improvisational idioms offers us an open-ended
and non-reductive historical model of jazz development, a diachronic
model focused on discontinuity, then Cornelius Cardew's meditation
on the ethics of improvisation offers an equally open-ended model
for the synchronic side of jazz: ensemble structure and dynamics.
Cardew came to jazz improvisation relatively late in his life, in
the midst of a successful career as an avant-garde graphic composer23
and teacher, and he brought to it a sensibility formed by the radical
discontinuities of modern concert music-the innovations of Arnold
Schoenberg, John Cage, and Cardew's teacher Karlheinz Stockhausen.24
However, he had grown wary of the authoritarian, composer-centered
structure of concert music, even in the "aleatory" or
"open form" versions of it pioneered by Cage and Stockhausen.
In the mid-Sixties Cardew became involved with a group of disaffected
British jazz musicians (from the same scene that produced Bailey
and his colleagues) and together they formed AMM, a free-improvising
group that drew on equal parts jazz sensitivity and avant-garde
constructivism to produce a wholly new performance practice.
Cardew's seminal article "Toward an Ethic of Improvisation"
outlines the model of ensemble structure and dynamics that AMM embodied,
and at the same time it suggests that such a model has concrete
socio-political consequences in addition to its obvious aesthetic
ones. Like Bailey's definition of non-idiomatic improvisation, Cardew's
ethic is experimental and not identitarian; as he insists, "We
are searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them,
rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them.
The search is conducted in the medium of sound and the musician...is
at the heart of the experiment."25 In practice, this experimentalism
took as its first principles the abandonment not only of the chord
changes of bebop (which free jazz performers had already abandoned)
and common-practice tonality (which the serialists had already called
into question) but also the erasure of the traditional division
of labor between melody and accompaniment (that is, between soloists
and rhythm section) that most free jazz continued to observe, and
the division between composer and performer that the avant-garde
continued to cherish. This had an extraordinarily liberating effect
on the musicians and on the musical patterns that emerged from their
This proliferation of sound sources in such a confined space produced
a situation where it was often impossible to tell who was producing
which sounds-or rather which portions of the single room-filling
deluge of sound.... [A]s individuals we were absorbed into a composite
activity in which solo playing and any kind of virtuosity were relatively
The result was a radically egalitarian ensemble in which any member
could move in any direction at any moment, and no one person or
instrument occupied an authoritative center in the production of
The new possibilities opened up by AMM's form of experimentalism
moved Cardew to attempt to enunciate the ethical relationships that
emerged from their performances, and to that end he offered a list,
not of rules, but of "virtues that a musician can develop"
through such free-improvisational group effort:
1. Simplicity: "Where everything becomes simple is the most
desirable place to be. But [...] the simplicity must contain the
memory of how hard it was to achieve."
2. Integrity: "What we do in the actual event is important-not
only what we have in mind. Often what we do is what tells us what
we have in mind. The difference between making the sound and being
3. Selflessness: "To do something constructive you have to
look beyond yourself. The entire world is your sphere if your vision
can encompass it.... You should not be concerned with yourself beyond
arranging a mode of life that makes it possible to remain on the
line, balanced. Then you can work, look out beyond yourself."
4. Forbearance: "Improvising in a group you have to accept
not only the frailties of your fellow musicians, but also your own.
Overcoming your instinctual revulsion against whatever is out of
tune (in the broadest sense)."
5. Preparedness "for no matter what eventuality...or simply
Awakeness.... A great intensity in your anticipation of this or
6. Identification with nature: "The best is to lead your life,
and the same applies in improvising: like a yachtsman to utilize
the interplay of natural forces and currents to steer a course.
My attitude is that the musical and real worlds are one. Musicality
is a dimension of perfectly ordinary reality. The musician's pursuit
is to recognize the musical composition of the world."
7. Acceptance of death: "From a certain point of view improvisation
is the highest mode of musical activity, for it is based on the
acceptance of music's fatal weakness and essential and most beautiful
characteristic-its transience.... The performance of any vital action
brings us closer to death; if it didn't it would lack vitality.
Life is a force to be used and if necessary used up."26
These "virtues" demand preparedness for unexpected, uncodified
or unstabilized connections ("whatever is out of tune")
that would otherwise interrupt the performance (#2, 4 and 5), a
preparedness that is crucial to non-idiomatic improvisation as Bailey
defines it. They also demand a commitment to the autonomy and participation
of other people in the performance process (#3, 4 and 6) that is
fundamentally a socio-political responsibility. In sum, the degree
of performance freedom within the improvisational group, measured
by its level of reciprocal respect for active dissent and unresolved
dissonance, is for Cardew a measure of its ethical egalitarianism
and democratic potential. Finally, the virtue of transience (#7)
coincides with Bailey's insistence on the non-documentary nature
of live musical creation, the ephemerality that constitutes its
paradoxical vitality. All those elements that Bailey presents as
means to a theoretical understanding of the historical development
of improvised music, Cardew presents from another perspective as
practical means of "making it new" in the present moment
Despite the residual mysticism in some of these formulations, which
probably derives from his contemporary interest in Confucianism,
Cardew manages here to define a radically immanent ethics of musical
performance that looks forward to his later, explicitly materialist
writings.27 This immanence stands against the transcendent organizational
principles of Anglo-European concert ensembles (like the orchestra,
which Brian Eno has described as "a ranked pyramidal hierarchy
of the same kind as the armies that existed contemporary" to
its invention28) and those stable, idiomatic jazz groups (big bands,
bebop combos) that are more closely related to the orchestra hierarchy
than many critics acknowledge. It is precisely this immanence that
requires the use of the language of ethics, as Gilles Deleuze notes
in his Nietzschean account of Spinoza:
Ethics, which is to say, a typology of immanent modes of existence,
replaces Morality, which always refers existence to transcendent
values. Morality is the judgment of God, the system of judgment.
But Ethics overthrows the system of judgment. The opposition of
values (Good-Evil) is supplanted by the qualitative difference of
modes of existence (good-bad).29
Advocates of the curatorial perspective deploy precisely that transcendent
system of moral judgment to defend their model of jazz history.
Crouch, for example, contrasts the "spiritual rot, the sadomasochistic
rituals" and the "decadence" of contemporary pop
culture with the "vital alternative" offered by Marsalis
and his neo-classical compatriots, who "are more than sure
what the truth is" and thus who must be "the troops of
a renaissance."30 If the indisputable truth needs such troops,
it can only be to subdue error and the Evil that flourishes in error's
In contrast, Cardew's improvisational ethics commissions no musician-soldiers
on the basis of any revelation of cultural truth. The versions of
the "Constitution" that he later drew up for the Scratch
Orchestra, an even more open ensemble than AMM, grant no privilege
to experienced professional musicians over amateurs or beginners,
and in fact those texts insist upon the democratic immanence of
untutored improvisation over the arid transcendence of codified
technique.31 If jazz is truly to be the "democratic art"
that Crouch describes, it will have to confront this challenge to
the exclusionary "technicracy" chronicled by its curators.
Part Three: Harmolodic32
The most important thing that remains to be done, then, is to
set Bailey's diachronic model and Cardew's synchronic one within
a metaphysical framework that will allow them to actualize as much
of their potentiality (which Deleuze would call "virtuality")
as possible. This final requirement brings us to the infamously
perplexing "harmolodic" theory of free jazz saxophonist
Ornette Coleman. Coleman returns us directly to the curatorial theory,
not because he represents it or explicitly criticizes it, but because
he is the only one of my three theorists whose work is acknowledged
by that theory, albeit in a misrecognized form. Murray, for example,
lauds Coleman as "one of the most spectacular of the post-Charlie
Parker musicians," but in the very next sentence he qualifies
his praise to the point of reversal: Coleman's compositions "seem
to be better known and better received by concert-goers and patrons
of 'new thing' night clubs than by traditional dance-hall, honky-tonk,
night-club, and holiday revelers."33 That is, Murray implies
that Coleman's music, while deriving its validity from the more
authentic earlier forms of African-American music, has lost the
broad populist appeal those forms had.
Of course Murray is not the only critic to offer an ambivalent assessment
of Coleman's music. Coleman became an infamous figure in jazz almost
overnight as a result of the freedom from chord progressions of
his earliest recordings and the well-publicized residency of his
first quartet (including Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins)
at the Five Spot in New York in 1959. In 1961 he organized a double
quartet to record his most revolutionary piece to date, the cacophonous
40-minute "Free Jazz" that gave the nascent movement its
name. He began to develop the theory of harmolodic shortly thereafter
as he experimented with non-jazz ensemble compositions like string
quartets and wind quintets. For his 1967 quintet "Forms and
Sounds" he devised a system of variable notation that he called
"improvise reading," in which the parts are fully composed
but the performers "can change the register of their passages,
causing the music to sound different and thus changing the form
every time it is played."34 This was the first of Coleman's
many attempts to create an open framework through which non-improvising
musicians could be encouraged to experiment with their performances
and thus expand the field of influences from which jazz could draw.
Perhaps the most important milestone on Coleman's path to a comprehensive
harmolodic theory was the composition and recording of his orchestral
work Skies of America in 1972. This was the first time that the
term "harmolodic" appeared in his writings; in the liner
notes to the recording, he defined it simply as "harmonic modulation[,]
meaning to modulate in range without changing keys."35 This
definition corresponds to what many critics had already identified,
in his jazz quartet work, as a technique of disregarding the strictly-defined
sequence of key changes characteristic of bebop in favor of motivic
development across adjacent keys, none of which are used as a stable
base or goal.36 Coleman's longtime collaborator Cherry glosses the
definition as follows:
We have to know the chord structure perfectly, all the possible
intervals, and then play around it.... If I play a C and have it
in my mind as the tonic, that's what it will become. If I want it
to be a minor third or a major seventh that had a tendency to resolve
upward, then the quality of the note will change.37
That is, the function of a note is determined not by the key or
chord to which it refers harmonically, but by the constantly mutating
melodic line in which it acts. Thus this version of harmolodic theory
was an attempt to explicate the idiolect of Coleman's established
composition and performance practices, in Bailey's terms an attempt
to offer that idiolect as a new idiom that would be available to
other jazz and non-jazz musicians.
But Coleman apparently never intended his claims for harmolodic
to be limited to the field of musical performance. He later extended
the model to cover artistic expression in general, regardless of
The more I use it in my playing and writing, the more I realize
that it can be used in almost any kind of expression. You can think
harmolodically. You can write fiction and poetry in harmolodic.
Harmolodic allows a person to use a multiplicity of elements to
express more than one direction at one time. The greatest freedom
in harmolodic is human instinct. Harmolodic is the highest instinct
that exists in human expression.38
A good example of what Coleman means by this can be seen in his
reflections on his contribution to the soundtrack of David Cronenberg's
1991 film adaptation (I use the term loosely) of William S. Burroughs'
novel Naked Lunch. Coleman insists that the entire film "is
harmolodic, meaning all parts are equal. Its score and script are
harmolodic. The actor's sound, scenes, dialogue, objects and colors
have equal relation to the art of Naked Lunch."39 I take this
to mean that he considers the film to be the result of an active,
free-form, real-time collaboration between himself, Cronenberg and
Burroughs (an old friend of Coleman's, with whom he appeared in
Conrad Rooks' film Chappaqua and with whom he traveled in Morocco),
as well as the film's production staff.
Whether it's an accurate description of the film or not, this claim
certainly raises the stakes involved in harmolodic, but Coleman
doesn't stop there either. As Howard Mandel notes, "Coleman...holds
two ideas tenaciously: the primacy of the individual and the possibility
of a perfect world modeled on musical rapport."40 Harmolodic
theory, then, is a utopian social philosophy as much as it's an
avant-garde musical or artistic method, like Cardew's ethics of
improvisation. This parallel is worth pursuing at greater length.
Cardew's experience with AMM led him beyond the traditional ensemble
structure of leaders and accompanists to a much more egalitarian
approach, and Coleman's commitment to harmolodic has had a similar
effect. He has always refused to accept descriptions of his groups
that place him in the center; as he says, "[b]ecause people
hear the horn standing out in front, they think that I am doing
the soloing, but that's just the sound of the instruments.... I
am with a band based upon everyone creating an instant melody, composition,
from what people used to call improvising."41 Since everyone
creates and therefore composes, no one really leads-or everyone
does together. The focus is on the group as a community of equals
whose relationships are defined by reciprocity, not the hierarchy
of solo and rhythm or melody and accompaniment. Coleman makes a
concerted effort to "give them what I'm playing and say, 'You
take this and you do anything you want to do with it. If you want
to take it apart, put it together, put Silly Putty on it, whatever
it will do for you, give it back to me that way, then I'll interpret
it from what I hear.'"42
The radical egalitarianism of this conception of ensemble dynamics
also characterizes Coleman's attitude toward technique, which resembles
Cardew's plans for the Scratch Orchestra. His invitation to "Take
this and do anything you want to it" is not directed only at
virtuosos but, as he said to Mandel, at
anybody-my band, you, anyone. If you said, 'Ornette, I like your
playing music but I have never played. Do you think I could? What
instrument?' I think we could get together and find something that
you could express, that had something to do with you, that we could
play together, and go out and make a performance as good as anyone
else. This is what I believe.43
One of the first people to accept this invitation was Coleman's
son Denardo, who began playing drums for his father in 1966 when
he was only ten years old. Predictably, this was greeted with bafflement
and hostility in the jazz press, but Denardo persevered and has
been Ornette's principal percussionist since the Seventies. Apparently
dynasties in jazz are easier for most critics to accommodate when
they are legitimized by prestigious music schools like Juilliard,
as in the case of the Marsalis family. Coleman has also worked tirelessly
to blend his blues and jazz background not only with European symphonic
musical traditions but also indigenous musics from around the world:
in the early Seventies he visited the Master Musicians of Jajouka
in Morocco to study with and record them, and more recently he has
worked for many years with Native American, Indian and Latin American
musicians on a culturally inclusive composition to be called The
John Litweiler concludes his biography of Coleman with an anecdote
that may serve as a parable of his harmolodic metaphysics. Litweiler
tells the story of a friend who took his ten-year-old son Benjie
to visit Coleman during the latter's residence in Manhattan in the
early Nineties. The boy expressed a lively interest in the saxophone,
so Coleman gave him an impromptu lesson in harmolodic performance.
A witness to the scene reported that "It was incredible-at
the end of those two hours and a half Benjie was playing saxophone
like Ornette. After that lesson, Ornette gave Benjie the saxophone-he
said, 'Just keep it, and someday you can give it back to me.'"44
If Coleman's life and work have a motto, that is surely it; just
as Bailey took solace in the notion that all music aspires to the
freedom of non-idiomatic improvisation, and Cardew affirmed the
vitality of uncodified playing to the point of death, so Coleman
remains indefatigably committed to a notion of jazz, creativity
and community as the circulation of an inexhaustible human gift.
The three figures I have examined here are not the only musicians
who have contested the premature closure of the curatorial approach
to jazz history and performance. Many others have offered both theoretical
and practical alternatives to that closure, alternatives that are
more or less compatible with the model I've outlined: the Art Ensemble
of Chicago's re(-)vision of the African-American musical canon through
the lens of indigenous African and Asian music; Sun Ra's cosmic
vision of utopia through everyday musical community; Anthony Braxton's
"language experiments" in the "meta-reality of creative
music"; Eddie Prévost's conception of "meta-music";
and others.45 Taken together, the work of these musician-theorists
constitutes not only a forceful critique of retrospective curatorial
logic but also a rich panoply of exemplary counter-cases to the
neo-classical aesthetics associated with that logic. The struggle
they lead differs from that led by previous generations of jazz
innovators only in the extent to which their opponents have succeeded
in establishing themselves in positions of institutional authority.
Even this institutionalization is not necessarily an insurmountable
obstacle on the path to a renewed commitment to what is living in
jazz, as the parable of MOMA's expansion suggests. In his introduction
to the new edition of his landmark 1966 book Black Music: Four Lives,
a study of four under-appreciated jazz musicians that could serve
as corrective to the omissions of Burns' documentary film, A.B.
Spellman notes that
it is institutions that offer art forms definition and permanence.
Without them, the forms lack points of reference that can certify
what is important among the work already created.... Institutions
declare by their existence that the society values a particular
artistic expression enough to devote sufficient resources to it
to build a landmark for history.46
Certainly Jazz at Lincoln Center and the many jazz history and
performance programs at music schools around the US, to say nothing
of the jazz recording industry, have fulfilled this part of their
responsibility, albeit incompletely. What remains open to debate
is the question of whether these institutions have fulfilled the
correlative responsibility that Spellman identifies: to "forward
the careers of emerging innovators," especially those innovators
who, like the subjects of his book, do not conform to the methods
and standards already recognized and codified by the curators. To
speak like Michel Foucault, I might say that the apparent closure
of jazz history analyzed here is really only a discontinuity in
the development of the institutions of jazz historiography, pedagogy
and marketing. Such discontinuities are not just points of blockage
but also rare opportunities for far-reaching transformation and,
1 Tomkins, "The Modernist" in The New Yorker Nov.5, 2001,
p.81. Unwitting readers should be advised that although it tells
an interesting tale about the museum's expansion plans, this essay
is basically a mash note addressed to Kirk Varnedoe, MOMA's Director
2 For a discussion of the J@LC expansion project, see the interview
with J@LC Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, Executive Director
Bruce MacCombie and Building Committee Chairman Jonathan Rose on
the J@LC website (http://www.jazzatlincolncenter.org/jalc/facility/interview.html).
3 See for example part three of Crouch's The All-American Skin Game,
or, The Decoy of Race (New York: Pantheon, 1995), especially pp.190-204,
and Mark Feeney's and Joe Woods' interviews with Murray in Conversations
with Albert Murray (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997), pp.70-77
& 94-109. For fuller historical background to this perspective,
see Murray's Stompin' the Blues (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).
4 This credo is clearly enunciated in Crouch's brief essay "True
Blue Rebels" in The All-American Skin Game, pp.190-191.
5 Indeed, the post-1960 figure who gets the most cumulative airtime,
taking into account both historical footage and new commentary filmed
especially for Burns' project, is Wynton Marsalis himself. However,
Marsalis, Crouch and Murray, who comment on most of the major figures
treated in the documentary, are conspicuously absent from the segments
on the post-bebop figures.
6 The term "neo-classical" originally referred to a diffuse
movement in twentieth-century concert music to revive the techniques
and aesthetics of earlier European music, beginning with eighteenth-century
music in the work of Prokofiev (his "Classical" Symphony)
and Stravinsky (Pulcinella) and extending later to "neo-baroque"
and "neo-Romantic" imitations. In jazz the term has come
to mean the more focused movement to return to popularly accessible
jazz forms of the past, including big band and especially bebop.
7 See Frank Tirro, Jazz: A History second edition (New York: Norton,
1993), p.405. The convergence between the new jazz institutional
"establishment" and the academic musical establishment
is not limited to this congruence of award standards; indeed, the
whole curatorial model of jazz under discussion here seems to be
based on the business model adopted by most American symphony orchestras
to recover from the disastrous collapse of their audience base after
the Sixties. This model mobilizes almost all performance and pedagogical
resources to placate an aging core audience that apparently wants
to hear little but the so-called "popular classics" (Vivaldi,
Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, perhaps
some Wagner), and is either hostile or indifferent to "new
music" (Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, etc.)
unless it conforms to the harmonic basis of eighteenth and nineteenth-century
music (like the neo-classical work of Stravinsky and Prokofiev or
the "postmodern" tonal music of del Tredici).
8 Indeed, most of jazz history bears witness to jazz musicians'
exclusion from all existing establishments, including the commercial
establishment that provided them with employment, the jazz clubs,
tours and festivals. See Frank Kofsky's caustic analysis of the
exploitation of jazz musicians in "The 'Jazz Club': An Adventure
in Cockroach Capitalism" in Black Nationalism and the Revolution
in Music (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), pp.145-154.
9 See Nisenson, Blue: The Murder of Jazz (New York: St. Martin's,
1997), especially chapter one, "The Case for Murder."
10 Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and
Albert Sechehaye with Arthur Riedlinger (New York: McGraw-Hill,
1966), p.191. Translated by Wade Baskin.
11 Hjelmslev, Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (Madison: U of
Wisconsin P, 1961), p.115. Translated by Francis J. Whitfield.
12 Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music
(New York: Da Capo, 1992), pp.xi-xii.
13 Bailey, p.18.
14 Bailey, p.52-53.
15 While most music schools that teach jazz require students to
participate in big bands and bebop-style small groups, very few
offer students any opportunities for non-idiomatic performance.
16 Indeed, it's been a relatively common analogy throughout jazz
history; for an in-depth consideration of the issue, see Paul F.
Berliner's magisterial empirical/theoretical study Thinking in Jazz:
The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994),
especially 159-165 and 273-281.
17 Oswald Ducrot and Tzvetan Todorov, Encyclopedic Dictionary of
the Sciences of Language (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979), p.57.
Translated by Catherine Porter.
18 Bailey xii.
19 See John Litweiler, The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (New
York: Da Capo, 1984), pp.257-263. Bailey has performed occasionally
with Taylor and often with Braxton, as has his colleague Parker.
20 For a discussion of this logic of idiolect from a more strictly
linguistic and literary point of view, see Umberto Eco's A Theory
of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976), pp.268-276.
21 Spellman cited in LeRoi Jones, Blues People: Negro Music in White
America (New York: Morrow, 1963), p.235.
22 Bailey, p.142.
23 Graphic composition or notation was a short-lived avant-garde
movement that attempted to escape from the limitations of traditional
musical notation through the use of other symbol systems (like Stockhausen's
plus and minus symbols) or through the use of pictorial designs
to stimulate improvisational musical performance without defining
the sonic material strictly.
24 Cardew's pedigree is likely to raise hackles among jazz purists
who see all attempts at rapprochement between jazz and the Anglo-European
avant-garde as efforts to assimilate and neutralize the non-European
(African-American, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Latin) elements of jazz; this
is a charge that's regularly been made against Cecil Taylor's music.
This does not alter the fact that a number of significant African-American
jazz musicians have publicly acknowledged their interests in and
debts to that avant-garde, most notably Anthony Braxton and Don
Cherry. See the interviews in Graham Lock, Forces in Motion: The
Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton (New York: Da Capo, 1988),
especially pp.91-96, 150-153, as well as Cherry's collaboration
with Polish avant-gardist Krzysztof Penderecki on Actions for Free
25 Cornelius Cardew, "Toward an Ethic of Improvisation"
in Treatise Handbook (New York: Edition Peters, 1971), p.xviii.
26 Cardew, p.xx.
27 See Cardew, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism and Other Essays (London:
Latimer New Directions, 1974), as well as Paul Griffiths' critical
yet sympathetic account in Modern Music and After: Directions Since
1945 (New York: Oxford UP, 1995), pp.185-190.
28 Eno, "Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts"
in Gregory Battcock, ed., Breaking the Sound Barrier: A Critical
Anthology of the New Music (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981), p.130.
29 Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (San Francisco:
City Lights, 1988), p.23. Translated by Robert Hurley.
30 Crouch, pp.190-191.
31 See the drafts published in Cardew, Scratch Music (London: Latimer
New Directions, 1974), pp.9-18.
32 This section of the essay constitutes a condensation and extension
of my argument in "Composition, Improvisation, Constitution:
Forms of Life in the Music of Pierre Boulez and Ornette Coleman"
from Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 3:2 (1998),
33 Murray, Stompin' the Blues, p.228. Like most of Murray's more
polemical pronouncements, this one appears in a photo caption and
not in the main text. Despite this disparagement, Coleman's music
has been showcased in a recent Jazz at Lincoln Center concert series.
34 Coleman, liner notes to Forms and Sounds (New York: RCA, 1968).
35 Coleman, liner notes to Skies of America (New York: Columbia
36 For a more technical analysis of Coleman's improvising, see Ekkehard
Jost's Free Jazz (New York: Da Capo, 1975), chapter 3.
37 Cherry quoted in John Litweiler, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic
Life (New York: Morrow, 1992), p.148.
38 Coleman, "Harmolodic = Highest Instinct: Something to Think
About" in Free Spirits 1 (1982), pp.119-120.
39 Coleman, liner notes to Naked Lunch: Original Motion Picture
Soundtrack (Los Angeles: Milan America Recordings, 1991).
40 Mandel, "Ornette Coleman: The Creator as Harmolodic Magician"
(an interview with Coleman) in Down Beat October 1978, p.18.
41 Coleman, "The Color of Music" (interview) in Down Beat
August 1987, p.17
42 Mandel, "Ornette Coleman: The Creator as Harmolodic Magician,"
43 Mandel, "Ornette Coleman: The Creator as Harmolodic Magician,"
44 Litweiler, Ornette Coleman, p.198.
45 In addition to the texts cited in previous notes, see: Valerie
Wilmer, As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (New
York: Serpent's Tail, 1977); John F. Szwed, Space is the Place:
The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Pantheon, 1997); Ronald
M. Radano, New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique
(Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993); Prévost, No Sound is Innocent
(Harlow, Essex: Copula, 1995).
46 Spellman, Four Lives in the Bebop Business (New York: Limelight,
1985), pp.ix-x. The four musicians profiled are Cecil Taylor, Ornette
Coleman, Jackie McLean and Herbie Nichols.