Free jazz is generally defined as jazz that has no preset chord progressions. It can also mean that the music is free from conventional practices totally.
Most free jazz excluded the piano, due to it’s role emphasizing the chord progressions.
Most free jazz players altered their tone, pitch, etc. more than typical players.
Texture was more important than the development of melodies.
Phrasing and melodic structure were typically abandoned.
Ornette Coleman (b. 1930)
As a player, Coleman lacked the mastery of the alto saxophone possessed by his contemporaries, but he made up for it with his abilities in composition.
Although his music is labeled as free jazz, much of it is structured in some way. Tempos are usually steady, and instruments still play their primary roles (soloist and accompaniment).
His music is free of preset chord changes, but when he moves from one key to another, it makes logical sense and he remains there long enough for the new key to be heard.
Coleman’s music presents a challenge to his improvisations. Without chord changes to provide some of the tension and release of the tune, Coleman must carry the weight of creating musical drama through his improvisations.
Coleman’s solos tend to sound as if there are chord progressions at times, but this is because his emphasis was on melody, and his musical conditioning caused him to create melodies that sometimes suggested chords.
Also, Coleman’s bassists (particularly Charlie Haden) were sensitive to his playing and would often play changes that fit underneath certain portions of his solos that suggested chords.
Coleman’s most popular album was Free Jazz (1960). On the album, he used two quartets improvising simultaneously. There were no preset changes, but there were preset ensemble passages. The musicians also passed around themes.
Although his music does have preset qualities and his musicians rehearsed frequently, he allowed freedom in synchronization of parts, chorus lengths, etc.
Some of his improvisations are so free that they are almost atonal, and his music has been compared to 20th century avant-garde classical composers.
Charles Mingus (1922-1979)
A virtuoso bassist and bandleader, Mingus’ music has a style all its own. He composed music that defied category for a multitude of instrument combinations, and created his own idiom.
Mingus’ orchestrations show roots in Ellington’s orchestration style, and he preferred the Johnny Hodges alto sax vibrato and plunger-muted brass.
Mingus’ combo tunes are structured as alternations between pre-composed material and improvisation, but not in the head-solos-head format. This kept the listener’s attention by interspersing familiar material in solos.
Despite being very structured, Mingus’ music still sounds loose and natural.
Ex: “Fables of Faubus”
Ex: “Better Get Hit in Your Soul”
Eric Dolphy (1928-1964)
Dolphy was not only a virtuoso saxophonist, but flutist and bass clarinetist as well. He was also known for studying bird calls and mimicking them in his playing.
As a composer, Dolphy was known for using odd intervals and syncopations, as well as notes that were distantly related to the underlying chords. Some thought his music was free, but it was actually pre-composed.
Ex: “Iron Man” (Early)
Ex: “Something Sweet, Something Tender” (Out to Lunch)
Sun Ra (1915-1993)
Sun Ra was an active pianist, composer, and bandleader from the 30’s up until his death. He formed a big band in the 50’s, and most of his sidemen stayed with him for long periods, much like in the Ellington band.
As an orchestrator, Sun Ra utilized every color he could get from the big band. He added electronic instruments, used orchestral percussion, reed doubles, and required all of his sidemen to double on percussion instruments.
He was also known for basing pieces on chants rather than chord progressions and giving performances of single pieces that would last the entire evening.
Along with some of the other avant-garde jazz artists, Sun Ra’s work was influenced by and compared to 20th century classical composers. A central tenet of Ra’s musical philosophy was that sound could exist without melody and harmony, and instead “events” are sequenced.
Sun Ra also achieved success in free jazz. What is significant is that he recorded free jazz with a big band, not just a combo.