Last Saturday, I decided to visit Heidy?s. It is a German restaurant located in my neighborhood, which is famous for its live jazz concerts. I have never been to a jazz concert before and, thus, was tremendously excited about visiting this place. A friend of mine, a true jazz fan, invited me. He mentioned that it would be Coleman?s night and that the whole concert would be dedicated to the free jazz movement initiated by this famous musician. When we set at the table, a person who looked like MC (master of ceremony) greeted everyone in the building and explained that the concert would be played in the style of Ornette Coleman, replicating the peculiar jazz style he introduced to the music world. The band that performed that night truly reminded one of the traditional big jazz bands, popular in the mid-twentieth century: 4 saxophones ? consisting of 2 altos and 1 tenor and 1 baritone saxophone; 2 trombones, 3 trumpets and instruments for setting rhythm. This section had drums, bass guitar, and piano.
MC gave a short speech, explaining that Coleman appeared and became popular in the age of modernism in jazz. He was one of the founders of the free jazz movement of the 1960?s and is considered to be one of the most gifted jazzmen of the modern days. Coleman was named as the director of the 2009 Meltdown festival that took place this June at London's Southbank Center. Most prominent musicians consider playing at one stage with Coleman to be a great honor.
Up until his music, most improvisation in jazz was confined to a harmonic and rhythmic framework.
Then Coleman came along and swept away the set harmonic structures and tightly knit patterns?including the lines that separated bars?which had dominated the music of his contemporaries. Before the concert began, MC mentioned that performers of Coleman?s music (referring to the band playing at Heidy?s) are faced with the same problems as performers of works by Stockhausen and other contemporary classical composers. They must complete a piece of music that is presented in only its bare essentials by the composer. Coleman?s free jazz constitutes, in part, a desire to explore the dynamics of tone and pitch in a radically new fashion. Chords?tone clusters?are used more for their sound than as parts of a traditional formula. His music, no longer rooted in the diatonic tradition, does away with such considerations as triadic structures of harmony and key centers. Coleman is no longer hampered by a set of a priori relationships among notes. He has created a music in which anything goes.
The songs that were played at that concert rejected those who adhere to the twelve tones of the Western ?tempered? scale, musicians at Heidy?s played a ?non-tempered? music. Such jazz may also be termed ?non-chordal? (Mandel 45). Melody, then, is privileged over harmony to the extent that the tune itself becomes the pattern of the composition.
Coleman?s freedom?also manifest in his refusal to be limited by four-, eight-, and twelve-bar structures?is part of a revolt against the notion that musical language should produce stable signifiers.
With Coleman?s music, jazz has entered ?the domain of semiotics? (Mandel 63-64). Like language, it has become increasingly aware of its own status as a system of signs, increasingly critical of the mimetic relationship between art and life. Moving from the tonality of symbolic horn to the atonality of Coleman?s semiotic freedom, jazz has shifted from the poetics of the closed work into a world of the open (Mandel 72). Dissonance and atonality are hallmarks of modern music?s.
When I set at the concert, a friend of mine whispered that the temptation is to see jazz music only in terms of the underlying emotions that give rise to the great plays on the saxophone. What is perhaps just as important is the fact that we have, with Coleman, completed a movement away from an interest in representation to an interest in the means of expression. Coleman is fascinated by the various tonal units and rhythmic patterns that make musical expression possible. With Free Jazz, music has shifted from language as a word to language as a system of signs. The step into atonality is a revolt against stable meanings. The more one listens to Coleman who seeks to present new meanings to jazz through his attempts to remove traditional conceptions of melody, harmony, and rhythm, the more one comes to recognize the extent to which the language of jazz, far from being a body of simplicity, has become rather like a puzzle: something to be understood.
While listening to the music played at this concert, I noticed that in doing away with bar lines, standard chord progressions, scales, and consistent tempo, songs performed by the jazzmen remain fundamentally unconstrained by the formal limitations of traditional jazz. I heard melodies being played by instruments that have conventionally been limited to the rhythm section, while the so-called ?lead? instruments provided stacked harmonies to create a rhythmic base. The initial difficulty that confronts someone listening to Coleman?s music for the first time is undoubtedly its very emphasis on group improvisation.
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Separated from any sense of a set scheme, Coleman?s jazz poses problems for the common listener precisely because it can not be understood according to traditional music theories. The harmonic and melodic structures which might seem to make it possible to negotiate meaning in Coleman?s musical world pose a tremendously difficult task for anybody who enters such a world expecting riddles to have answers, signs to have referents, and structure to have readily identifiable intent (Mandel 72). The fact that Coleman?s sound does not arise out of any preconceived notion of what it tries to be testifies to its anti-representational stance.
Musicians at this concert, it seemed, were playing a music that used notes more for their sound value than for their worth as something significant. In this sense, Coleman has, to adapt Julia Kristeva?
s terminology, entered into a realm of the unknown. Kristeva tells that the unknown in jazz involves ?a distinctiveness admitting of an uncertain and indeterminate articulation because it does not yet refer ? or no longer refers ? to a signified object for consciousness? (133). She associates the unknown with rhythm, sound, and instinct, and maintains that it is ?heterogeneous to meaning? (133). Coleman?s playing constitutes an attempt to inscribe a new practice into contemporary jazz.
The jazz played at that concert at Heidy?s suggested music, which is interested in meaning and representation, and which finds a parallel in the assumptions governing much of traditional jazz. Coleman?s music, to the extent that it tries to represent a specific cultural attitude, belongs to this area because it stresses the traditional aspect of musical language. It is a music which shows a world of shared meanings not only between musicians but also between performer and listener. Coleman?s jazz has ?danced on the borders between tonality and atonality?; both have been engaged in musical gestures which are as much about ?things as they are about purely musical relationships? (Mandel 75).
At the end of the concert, it became clear to me that rather than result in the breakdown of all possible communication, Coleman?s music becomes a celebration of the kind of fight which, reclaims the realm of the culture of the oppressed. Coleman?s jazz, in its rejection of diatonic authority and resolution, may be regarded as a celebratory model for the battle against prejudice (Mandel 88).