While Coltrane’s new concepts expanded the boundaries of jazz, another performer was making an entrance on the scene with music that seemed to obliterate those boundaries altogether. With his 1959 album, unabashedly (and, some would say, forebodingly) titled The Shape of Jazz to Come, saxophonist Ornette Coleman not only abandoned the fixed harmonic structure (chord changes) around which jazz improvisation had always been constructed, but also moved away from the fixed rhythmic time signatures that had provided a sense of unity (and swing) to all previous styles of jazz. In an attempt to intensify his music’s emotional quality, Coleman intentionally produced squeals and honks, as if he were speaking or crying through his instrument.
Free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman,
New York City, c. 1966.
Courtesy of Chuck Stewart.
His revolutionary approach—which critics aptly called “free jazz”—immediately provoked intense controversy in the jazz world. Some critics praised the music as liberating; others condemned it as angry and even “anti-jazz.” Some heard in it the influence of modern European classical music; others found it to be merely an expression of musical incompetence. (Coleman was an iconoclast, to be sure, but he was not alone: Pianist Cecil Taylor, drummer Sunny Murray, and saxophonists Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and Eric Dolphy, among others, also aroused spirited debate with their experimental challenges to longstanding jazz conventions.)
Controversy aside, a few things are certain: Free jazz expanded the limits of collective improvisation, challenged the importance of tradition, and sought to redefine the nature of jazz itself. Yet, in retrospect, many listeners now recognize that, even in its most liberated moments, the music of Ornette Coleman and his peers never completely abandoned its links to the jazz tradition, the language of the blues (Coleman’s “Ramblin’” is a perfect example), or the phrasing and rhythms of fellow alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.
It is perhaps ironic that, just as the most raucous members of the jazz vanguard were trying to make themselves heard, exciting new forms of popular music were beginning to drown them out. During the early 1960s, the pop charts were being claimed by a new generation of performers who were reinvigorating and, in some cases, reinventing established genres. James Brown was revamping the powerful rhythms of R&B, while the Beach Boys were reviving the energy of rock and roll’s golden age and groups like Peter, Paul, and Mary were infusing the traditions of folk music with a refreshingly youthful spirit.
The pop music landscape was permanently transformed, however, on February 7, 1964, when a rock and roll quartet from Liverpool, England, landed in New York. Although the Beatles’ arrival in America—just three months after the assassination of President Kennedy—gave the traumatized country a much-needed jolt of innocent fun, it also heralded some dark days for jazz. Within weeks of the group’s famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Beatles records claimed the top five spots on the national pop charts and their records accounted for an astonishing 60 percent of all singles sold in the United States.
Other U.K. bands—most notably, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Who—followed the Beatles’ lead, and soon the British Invasion, as this phenomenon came to be known, inspired a legion of new American bands (including the Grateful Dead and the Byrds) to create their own innovative variations of rock music. Fueled by the already potent buying power of teenage baby boomers (the generation of children born shortly after World War II), rock music emerged as one of the primary cultural forces of the era and became the de facto soundtrack of the 1960s. As the rock revolution gathered momentum, sales of electric guitars boomed while trumpets and saxophones gathered dust on music store shelves. Some jazz labels folded, some jazz clubs went out of business, and many jazz musicians found themselves scrambling for any jobs they could get.