On a purely esoteric plane, artists work to express their inner emotions and then seek to communicate to similarly-minded, or at least open-minded, listeners. It’s not always about reaching the consumer’s wallet; it’s about reaching the soul. There are those who seek not to reach the mainstream but to aurally stimulate a decided smaller audience. These eclectic folks face a more formidable battle getting their music heard.
Free Jazz and the avant-garde have carved a largely begrudging place in jazz since Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry released Something Else on Contemporary in 1958. Ornette’s white plastic alto signaled his break from anything even remotely mainstream or straight-ahead and harmonic concepts previously accepted as the norm were discarded in favor of an "outside" approach. He would sign to Atlantic and release Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. Retrospectively, it’s almost unfathomable that a major label would embrace this revolutionary music. It would not prove to be a harbinger of things to come. Most musicians who delve into the complexities of free jazz are not going to get onto the same block as most major record companies.
Important figures in this envelope-shattering music have often been ignored by the majors, though many would find a home with established recording companies. John Coltrane, who came to the movement later in his career, had no difficulty maintaining his presence on Impulse or Atlantic, and Eric Dolphy had a successful career with Prestige. The brilliant saxophonist Sam Rivers had music released on Impulse, Blue Note and RCA, though just as much of his output came via much smaller labels. Anthony Braxton, one of the most respected musicians in the genre, had a sizeable amount of his recorded output released on the Arista label, though the vast majority was released on his own or other equally small labels. Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Sun Ra have seen similarly mixed release histories.
While not entirely barren, the contemporary scene has few household names. James Carter enters uncharted territory from time to time, but the most recognizable names in the free jazz realm remain those artists who first made their mark years, if not decades, ago. David Murray is something of a major player, and he is also a prime example of the apparent disdain with which the major labels seem to treat those who would color outside the lines. Though a few of his albums were released on Columbia, most of his output has been on smaller venues. Ironically, the World Saxophone Quartet, the cooperative he co-founded in the mid-70s, did a bit better with major label output, though they’ve been on the adventurous and quickly growing Justin Time label based out of Montreal since 1996.
As has been the case for most of a half century, the contemporary avant-garde scene is prolific with creative artists that most casual jazz fans are unaware of. Jazz Review.com and various other print and internet-based outlets give them exposure, but finding them on the radio is more of a challenge for those of us excited and motivated by such expressions.
As revealed in an interview on the Jazzreview.com site conducted by Chuck Sudo, Chicago-based bassist Tatsu Aoki has recorded 28 albums under his own name. A highly regarded musician in the free/avant jazz community, not one has been on a major. His most recent release, Trio, is a collaborative project with oboist Robbie Lee Hunsinger and legendary multi reed player/percussionist Joseph Jarman. If nothing else, one would suppose that this would be played on adventurous radio stations. I checked recent playlists on my local public radio station, WDET, and see no indication that these important artists get any play on this otherwise risk-taking radio station. WNUR in Chicago had the trio at the top of their list, though it’s one of a small handful of radio stations brave enough to format free jazz on a regular basis.
Jazz musicians are too frequently locked into "styles" or "formats," and I’d certainly hate to be accused of propagating this pigeonholing. Free jazz and avant-garde are all about anti-style. While it’s not fair, much less accurate, to lump Dexter Gordon into the same narrow format as Charlie Parker or James Carter, there’s little connection between Hilmar Jensson and Roscoe Mitchell, either. There isn’t a distinct "free jazz," but most listeners know it when they hear it. The musician who plays outside of the changes, beyond the expected, is faced with a pretty arduous task in getting their music heard. With the ascendancy of the internet, learning about the music is not as daunting as it once was. Sites like Jazzreview.com and others do a good job of getting the word out. Finding the discs is the greater challenge.
Needless to say, all musicians deserve the support of compatible ears. The jazz musician who records, produces, packages and promotes their own music is to be commended. If the sound moves your soul, that musician is to be supported. If that musician works in the free/avant-garde medium, they may be working even harder to get the word out. I believe that art, whatever the medium or modality, is eminently deserving of support. It’s how we grow. Similarly, the free jazz musician grows jazz. When was the last time you challenged your ears?