Ornette Coleman's free jazz was an American variant on the means and methods of Europe's Situationists.
A predecessor to the late '60s radicalism in the United States and Europe, American jazz musician Ornette Coleman challenged the prevailing rules of jazz, seeking alternatives to social codes that dictated its parameters. And though separated by geography and artistic genre, he and the Dutch Situationist architect known as Constant had an unmistakable, if somewhat unlikely, aesthetic connection, which revolved around a proposed new consciousness that could liberate individuals from what the artists perceived as philosophical constraints in Western society. They were joined by what Greil Marcus has called “spectral connections between people long separated by place... but somehow speaking the same language.”
Society's dominant modes of thought, they both believed, drew imaginary boundaries that reinforced the prevailing worldview, allowing everyday choices to seem like self-evident truths that required no rationalization. Within their fields, Coleman and Constant worked to break down these constraints and encourage people to exist outside regimented social boundaries in order to live a more authentic and spontaneous life. They promoted an alternative in creative group interaction that could produce spontaneous moments beyond consumer-capitalist passivity, the looming threat of which they were able to recognize in the late '50s.
Coleman and Constant’s work attempted to alter what Frederic Jameson has called “master-narratives” embedded in western civilization’s culture -- those predominant ideas that reinforce the status quo -- in the industrial world of the '50s in which Coleman and Constant worked, these were notions of order, efficiency, and progress. Coleman revised the Western musical tenets dominating modern jazz according to his needs, whereas Constant suggested a mode of urban existence outside industrial capitalism’s urban model.
Art critic Mark Wigley has noted that Constant’s intention was to “revive the unconscious creative instincts present in everyone” -- a statement equally applicable to Coleman (“Paper, Scissors, Blur,” in Catherine de Zegher and Mark Wigley, eds., The Activist Drawing: Retracing Situationist Architectures from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond, The MIT Press, 2001). Stirred from their conformist stupor, these reawakened instincts would displace power relations inherent in the dominant master narrative affecting Coleman and Constant’s respective genres. An alternative aesthetic model of spontaneous and passionate invention would replace the post-World War II “modern” jazz and architecture models, rejecting the mindsets of conformist jazz musicians and urban spectators for a new disposition which encouraged active, non-hierarchical participation in a collective environment.
While time has proven the strength and longevity of the “Western civilization” master narrative, re-examining the works of Coleman and Constant within a comparative and transnational framework not only provides a glimpse of the rich artistic radicalism of the late '50s and early '60s US and Europe, but also illustrates a particular moment when the discourse of active, collective participation in society reverberated among unrelated and unconnected groups seeking similar aesthetic changes in their social lives.
In 1965, eight years after the release of his first album, Ornette Coleman noted that his approach to playing was "spontaneous, not a style... . A style happens when your phrasing hardens." Coleman’s jazz eschewed the clichés and predetermined patterns that he saw affecting mainstream jazz, or hard bop. Hard bop evolved out of the fast, sporadic, and confrontational nature of '40s bebop, which itself was an outgrowth and reaction to the commercialized swing of the '30s and early '40s. Aside from the New Orleans Jazz revival and a few surviving swing bands, bebop, and later hard bop, became the quintessential sound of jazz in the United States.
But as the '50s came to a close, hard bop had lost much of its excitement. Just as the Civil Rights movement simmered to a boil in '60, with its spontaneous sit-down strikes in the South, Coleman’s work also shifted toward freer notions of playing through his first few albums, beginning in 1958 and culminating in the '60 recording of Free Jazz.
Embracing the precedents of the legendary bebopper Charlie Parker (1920-1955), Coleman (along with Cecil Taylor and, later, John Coltrane) expanded the musical boundaries of jazz away from the bonds of western musical tenets and toward freer playing. Coleman’s interpretation redirected improvisation away from harmonic chord sequences and toward a technique weighted primarily on melody and rhythm. Coleman also helped revive the older jazz tradition of collective improvisation -- soloing simultaneously during the song -- found in New Orleans jazz in the '20s.
In 1959, the year he came to prominence in the New York City jazz scene, he wrote about his position in the liner notes to Change of the Century (Atlantic, 1959):
I say, there is no single right way to play jazz. Some of the comments made about my music make me realize though that modern jazz, once so daring and revolutionary, has become, in many respects, a rather settled and conventional thing. The members of my group and I are now attempting a break-through to a new, freer conception of jazz, one that departs from all that is ‘standard’ and cliché in ‘modern’ jazz.
The logic Coleman embraced is clear: “The pattern of the tune... will be forgotten and the tune itself will be the pattern,” thus allowing musicians to elude “conventional patterns” in exchange for spontaneous creation. In other words, the tune becomes the contextual launching pad for musicians to improvise from, much like hard bop but without constraining harmonic chord structures -- Western musical tenets -- that guide the melody of the solo. As musicians collectively improvised within this environment, unforeseen situations would occur as the artists reacted to one another’s playing.
For Coleman, beauty lay in the unexpected and personal contributions of each musician -- a sort of carnival ride with varied shifts in mood, intenseness, and destination. In the liner notes for Change of the Century Coleman writes:
When our group plays, before we start out to play, we do not have any idea what the end result will be. Each player is free to contribute what he feels in the music at any given moment. We do not begin with a preconceived notion as to what kind of effect we will achieve.
Instead of following a program or structured rules, a musician’s moment of improvised creation -- within a collective atmosphere -- determined the success of the song. This break from jazz clichés redrew the relationship between the audience and the performer, as it erased anticipated results. Thus it demolished the mainstream jazz master narrative and created a freer realm of playing (and listening) atop the rubble of the older system.
Because of the radical nature of Coleman’s work, he expected confusion from the listener:
With my music, as is the case with some of my friends who are painters, I often have people come to me and say, 'I like it but I don’t understand it.' Many people apparently don’t trust their reactions to art or to music unless there is a verbal explanation for it. In music, the only thing that matters is whether you feel it or not. You can’t intellectualize music; to reduce it analytically often is to reduce it to nothing very important.
The passage highlights Coleman’s preoccupation with the audience’s conditioned reaction to jazz . He envisioned not a scripted piece of music, but an organic situation where musicians performed both individually without constraints, and audiences responded without reliance on a rationalized system of expectations. In essence, Coleman suggests a balance between individualism and collective interaction.
As Coleman demonstrated, altering a master narrative involves a shift in the participant’s consciousness and the opening of alternative avenues of debate. In his vision of the modern city, the architect Constant also advocated a different attitude to the way people approach everyday life: The integration of art and life, on which a culture is based, cannot be realized with traditional means. First, a radical change should take place in our existence and our thinking. The construction of new situations is our first and most necessary task. These new situations could become the kernels for a rebuilding of our environment. The separate arts cannot play a role in this anymore.
Constant’s ideas were largely influenced by his participation in the European avant-garde art movement the Situationist International (documented in Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces), of which he was a founding member in 1957. An unorthodox blend of neo-Marxist libertarian-anarchist artists with strong anti-bureaucratic beliefs, the Situationists intended to confront the master narrative of consumer capitalism and what they considered its manipulative conditioning effects -- later dubbed the “Society of the Spectacle” by Guy Debord, a leading intellectual in the group.
The Situationist project, explained Debord, aimed at developing a “coherent revolutionary program in culture” where artists would incorporate “into their sphere of activity organizational methods created by revolutionary politics” through “experimental research to be collectively led in a few directions.” In other words, artists would use their skills to expose what they deemed the obsolescence of the cultural forms of capitalism. The Situationists sought to create art and moments -- situations -- that would transcend capitalism’s treatment of art as a commodity and help bring about the end of “mechanistic civilizations and frigid architecture that ultimately lead to boring leisure.”
The Situationist International insisted that post-World War II capitalism had conditioned the public into the role as a passive spectator and robotic consumer. The SI embraced a series of aesthetic strategies that aimed to arouse the public into a more active relationship with their world. One of these, the dérive, was an act where Situationists impulsively moved or drifted through various parts of the city, noting the particular psychological effects of each encounter among the various buildings, streets, and neighborhoods.
The data gathered from the dérive would lead to a new understanding of urban ambience and hopefully offer suggestions for an alternative approach to urban planning that would better suit human impulses. Situationists hoped to fashion utopian environments that could encourage people to revive the “unconscious creative instincts present in everyone” and eliminate the everyday routine, specialization, and boredom associated with the urban life of industrial capitalism. In essence, they wanted to assimilate city life into the realm of human creativity rather than have human existence assimilated into the technocratic structures of Western capitalist urban planning.
Constant’s primary contribution as a Situationist was his vision of the alternative city: New Babylon. A year before officially unveiling his city plan in December '60 in Amsterdam, Constant outlined his idea in the second issue of the Situationist International’s journal. He envisioned a network of elevated complexes, above the transportation networks (roads and rails), consisting of “dwellings” and changeable public spaces where the inhabitants could directly control the “climate, lighting and sounds in these different spaces.” This would allow individuals to condition their environment rather than have their environment condition them -- an inversion similar to Coleman’s statement regarding the relationship between the tune and the pattern of the tune.
Built upon pillars, New Babylon would be a mixture of housing, amusement areas, production, and distribution connected through various levels and networks of stairs and lifts. Each floor would contain an adjustable ambience and would encourage deriving inhabitants to participate in spontaneous play as temporary environmental ambiences could be altered by “teams of specialized creators who, hence, [would] be professional situationists.”
Freed from work by the technological innovations of industrial production, Constant imagined people expressing themselves socially through the flexibility of the architectural setting, leading a nomadic life since they wouldn’t have to work routine hours:
They wander through the sectors of New Babylon seeking new experiences, as yet unknown ambiences. Without the passivity of tourists, but fully aware of the power they possess to act upon the world, to transform it, recreate it. They dispose of a whole arsenal of technical implements for doing this, thanks to which they can make the desired changes without delay. Just like the painter, who with a mere handful of colours creates an infinite variety of forms, contrasts and styles, the New Babylonians can endlessly vary their environment, renew and vary it by using their technical implements.
In New Babylon, human interaction and participation would be reinvigorated, just as Coleman's listeners were presumed to be in rejecting the consumer ethic that posited predictable outcomes to purchased products. When listening to hard bop one understood the range of possible notes as the musician soloed, with “wrong” notes being those falling outside the harmonic parameters of Western musical tenets.
In the mid-'60s, jazz critic A.B. Spellman claimed that “Ornette Coleman’s contribution to modern American music has been that he has opened up the way for the creation of situations wherein incredibly beautiful accidents occur.” The connection to Situationist theory is clear: In his artistic expression, Coleman used aspects similar to that of the dérive while soloing, using his compositions as “emotional triggers” (in Ekkehard Jost's words) that stimulated the soloists’ melodic improvisation beyond the constrictions of harmony. Free jazz, like the flexible architecture of New Babylon, encouraged the making of situations: Coleman’s continuous state of improvisational redevelopment following each solo allowed the pattern of the tune to be replaced with the improvised tune itself.
In an era of rapid change, Coleman and Constant’s aesthetics of liberated individuality within a collective environment (be it a jazz band or an urban space) made spontaneous human creative interaction a defense against the technocratic conformism of the late-'50s. While neither Coleman’s nor Constant’s aesthetics have become prevalent, they anticipated the cultural and political upheavals of the decade, foreshadowing what sociologist Alfred Willener found in the May 1968 uprising in France: “It is in trying to reach nature -- or... spontaneity -- that the individual finds his own nature, and also that of many other individuals. The solution is not individualism, but the discovery through a process of creation... of a cultural... personality, made up of rejections and affirmations.” The result is “the image of a society in which great diversity and permanent change will be accepted.
This new type of personality, opposed to rules, demands the non-fixation, even the diversity, of individuals, thus leading to constant redefinitions of what is ever only provisionally attained” (The Action-Image of Society, Pantheon, 1970). The embrace of impermanence, chance encounters, and the dissolution of the idea of absolutes in the engagement of cultural activities now appeared as another outlet for industrial society. The corporate media's late '90s turn toward “reality” television testifies to the attraction for consuming (supposedly) unscripted shows with "real" people doing unpredictable things, and how the Situationist impulse has been co-opted.