Last week I went to see My Name is Albert Ayler at Anthology Film Archives. It is a Swedish-made documentary about the American free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, best known for his short time in Coltrane's later bands, and for his album Spiritual Unity, a landmark in Free Jazz.
A theme running throughout the movie is that there is some kind of timeline by which radical music gets eventually appreciated. For his entire career, it seems, Ayler's shocking and annoying music was far more popular in Europe than in America, where his bands often struggled to get by. And the interviews from the time are peppered with statements like, "If they don't appreciate it now, they will," while at the same time, there is no idea that Ayler *ever* got his due. His family, shown in the film, are certainly not living off royalties.
It is hopelessly to be trapped in the 1960s to imagine that we exist on a trajectory of progress, of innovation in music (or anything). The 1960s always will be more radical than what follows. It is not that this period opened the door of total freedom, from which we have all proceeded, expanding and taking ever further the ideas of that time. Instead, we have retrenched, and the least creative effort that can be made is in trying to resuscitate that explosion.
This, of course, is completely counter to the baby-boomer narrative, whereby our victory in the Cold War, scientific progress, the smaller and smaller size of our cell phones, all suppose an equivalent in cultural progress (which is nowhere to be found).
Enough about that. The most important idea in the Ayler film is that Ayler himself was always exploring new sounds. He was on the move: from the unpleasant, blasting, and soulful music of Spiritual Unity, to the larger group with his brother Donald and a violinist, to a kind of rock/r'n'b experiment (which evidently was disastrously unpopular). The same can be seen in Ornette Coleman's career, too: the incorporation of every possible new element to try out a sound. And the idea for Ayler was that the audience would somehow "catch up," that American audiences would at some definite point arrive at the appreciation held by Swedish and Danish audiences. But, there is equally an emphasis on the necessity for learning to listen. One has to figure out how to approach this music that does anything but beckon one to approach. The real lesson about free jazz, for me, (and obviously I don't know anything), is not objective--how the bands work without confinement or composition--but rather subjective--how do I get rid of my set ways of listening to music? how do I get past the confinement of the categories by which I hear everyday music? Precisely the idea isn't how to somehow turn it into something acceptable, something that can fall back into modes of understanding we already possess. Free jazz confronts the non-free listener with a severe epistemological question, or demand: hear differently. What is necessary is a deconstruction of the terms by which western music has been constructed as natural; one that I am not at all interested in embarking upon, or even in reading!
So, that all could be said about free jazz, and would leave out the important moment in black consciousness that it represented, as well as somehow implying that free jazz has anything to do with any identical-sounding music made today, because the whole point is that this was an open field, and these artists moved very quickly. What I am more interested in is the way that, for myself at least (but I hardly think just for myself), we really do ourselves a disservice, not by having this kind of openness in our understandings.
I am proposing a kind of mobile synecdoche: free jazz is a moment in the development of jazz, but at the same time it recapitulates the open-ended development of jazz (roughly) as a whole--increasing improvisation, smaller groups, less danceable--as well as its restlessness. Exactly so, one's own encounter with *any* music is an encounter wherein one can only affirm one's restlessness or settledness. Not that everyone has to like free jazz, but I hardly think it is a matter of "personal taste" when someone doesn't. I don't even know that I do in a way that anyone would respect or give credit for, but it is NO COINCIDENCE AT ALL that bourgeois white America, the most settled society ever known, did not "go for" Albert Ayler. And as it begins to look like there is no "right side of history" to be argued here, and as I want to be a good Hegelian, I will just refuse to be settled in that particular way, in every encounter, so far as I can.