Early recorded examples of free-form improvisation include solo guitar works by the French guitarist Django Reinhardt and a pair of 1949 recordings for Capitol by a group led by Lennie Tristano, "Intuition" and "Digression".
The mid-1950s recordings of Ornette Coleman for Contemporary (Something Else! and Tomorrow Is the Question) and the first two albums by Cecil Taylor (Jazz Advance and Looking Ahead) mark the beginnings of free jazz, though they still retain a hold on bebop and hard bop languages. The movement received its biggest impetus (and its name), however, when Coleman moved from the West Coast to New York and was signed to Atlantic Records: albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century marked a radical step beyond his more conventional early work, and when he released a 1960 recording titled Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, the name stuck to the movement as a whole.
Much of Sun Ra's music could be classified as free jazz, especially his work from the 1960s, although Sun Ra said repeatedly that his music was written and boasted that what he wrote sounded more free than what "the freedom boys" played. Music by Sun Ra, especially The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (1965), was, in fact, steeped in what could be referred to as a new black mysticism.
Some of bassist Charles Mingus' work was also important in establishing free jazz. Of particular note are his early Atlantic albums, such as The Clown, Tijuana Moods, and most notably Pithecanthropus Erectus, the title song of which contained one section that was freely improvised in a style unrelated to the song's melody or chordal structure. His contributions were primarily in his efforts to bring back the importance of collective improvisation in a music scene that had become dominated by solo improvisation (as a result of the development of the big band). His music did reflect the ideas of freedom, but also looked back, drawing upon bop and even swing styles.
Since the mid-1950s, saxophonist Jackie McLean had been exploring a concept he called "The Big Room", where the often strict rules of bebop could be loosened or abandoned at will. Similarly, Cecil Taylor, the most prominent free jazz pianist, began stretching the bop boundaries as early as 1956.
The Jimmy Giuffre Trio (with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow) received little attention during their original incarnation from 1960–62, but afterwards were regarded as one of the most innovative free jazz ensembles.
Eric Dolphy's work with Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Chico Hamilton, along with his solo work, helped to set the stage for free jazz in the music community.
In Europe, free jazz first flowered through the experiments of expatriate Jamaican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott. Beginning in the late 1950s, he worked on his own distinctive concept of what he termed free form. These explorations were parallel to Coleman's in many respects but Harriott's work was barely known outside of England. Beginning in the mid-1960s, players such as guitarist Derek Bailey, saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker and drummer John Stevens developed an idiom that came to be called "free improvisation". It drew sustenance from free jazz while moving much further from jazz tradition (often drawing equally on contemporary composers such as Anton Webern and John Cage for inspiration).
Free jazz has primarily been an instrumental genre. However, Jeanne Lee was a notable free jazz vocalist; others such as Sheila Jordan, Linda Sharrock, and Patty Waters also made notable contributions to the genre.
Much of the multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton's music could be classified as free jazz. His Ghost Trance Music, which introduces a steady pulse to his music, also allows the simultaneous performance of any piece by the performers. Braxton has recorded with many of the free jazz musicians, including Ornette Coleman and European free improvisers such as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and the Globe Unity Orchestra.
Some musicians of the time combined performance with teaching. Max Roach and Archie Shepp taught at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. After receiving his doctorate from Columbia University Teachers College in 1971, William Byrd taught at Howard University for several years. William “Billy” Taylor taught at the C.W. Post College in Long Island while maintaining several other musical activities, including co-founding Harlem’s Jazzmobile in 1965, serving as the bandleader for the David Frost Show, working as a music commentator for the CBS “Sunday Morning” show, and publishing several compositions and the book “Jazz Piano: A Jazz History” (1983). George Russell, hailed as “the great pathbreaker” for encouraging the use of modes by free jazz composers and performers, was a faculty member at the New England Conservatory. David Baker received two degrees from and later taught at Indiana University in Bloomington, and also performed actively.
The 1960s free jazz ethos was continued in the New York 1970s "loft jazz" scene (in locations such as Sam Rivers' Studio RivBea), and the 1980s "downtown" scene associated with places such as the Knitting Factory. A younger generation of players including David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, William Parker and Joe Morris continued to play free jazz inspired by the ground-breaking work of the 1960s New Thing. Like other styles of jazz, free jazz also adopted elements of contemporary rock, funk and pop music: Ornette Coleman was a leader in this vein, embracing electric music with his 1970s band Prime Time, and a number of other players including James Blood Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock, and Ronald Shannon Jackson forged styles combining elements of free jazz and fusion.
The 1981 documentary film Imagine the Sound explores free jazz through interviews with and performances by Archie Shepp, Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon.
Many musicians are keeping the free jazz style alive in the present day. Two major scenes are based in New York and Chicago. In New York, players include Charles Gayle, William Parker, Matana Roberts, Chad Taylor, John Zorn, Assif Tsahar, Tom Abbs, Kenny Werner, and Chris Speed. In Chicago, notable performers are Fred Anderson, Nicole Mitchell, Ernest Dawkins, Ken Vandermark, and Hamid Drake.
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