The Father Of Modern Improvised Music (1930 – 2015)
(Update: On June 11th, 2015 the Father of Modern Improvised Music, Ornette Coleman, passed away at the age of 85. The great founding masters of the First Wave are now all gone. May they all rest in peace and let’s give thanks that we all were around during this time to see them live and interact with these giants on whose shoulders every modern musician has stood.)
As we jazz musicians around the world remember bassist Charlie Haden and mourn his passing, it is important to celebrate the gifts humanity has been given by Haden’s generation of freely improvising musicians; what is known as the “First Wave” of Free Jazz. Thus, we remember Haden and those who were part of the initial creation of innovative music being made by my saxophone teacher Ornette Coleman; players who took Coleman’s knowledge and philosophies to heart… and made amazing music as members/alumni of his groups.
Charlie Haden (1937 – 2014)
Haden was a bassist who performed country music at a young age on his family’s own radio show and on the series Ozark Jubilee, which was the first TV show to feature country music stars rather than the usual mainstream pop acts. He also became a member of Ornette Coleman’s early quartet, and performed on such seminal works as The Shape Of Jazz To Come, and Free Jazz, an extended free improvisation by a collective of Coleman’s associates. Hade was also the bassist who appeared with Coleman at the now legendary Five Spot nightclub in New York, an engagement that introduced the East Coast to Coleman’s music and caused great controversy: eliciting both high praise and very vocal repulsion from musicians and audiences night after night.
Don Cherry (1936 – 1995)
Cherry was a founding sideman in Coleman’s early recordings and also happens to be the father of pop stars Neneh and Eagle Eye Cherry. Cherry’s playing was notable for his use of a small pocket cornet, and his ability to create expanding and contracting melodic phrases and (often playful) rhythmic figures. He also was a pioneer of what is called world music, basing many of his compositions and improvisations on musical ideas from India, Africa, and the Middle East. Cherry’s playing is particularly wonderful on the albums he recorded with fellow Coleman Quartet alumni in a group called Old And New Dreams, featuring saxophonist Dewey Redman, drummer Ed Blackwell, and Haden. These recordings, mostly on the German label ECM, capture what I think is Cherry at his best; performing simple phrases and turns that float through the spacious accompaniment of Haden and Blackwell. An excellent example of this is both Redman and Cherry’s soloing on the opening track “Happy House” from the album Playing (ECM 1205), recorded live in Austria in 1980.
Dewey Redman (1931 – 2006)
Dewey Redman, father of notable saxophonist Joshua Redman, is a personal favorite of mine, and one of the most underrated tenor saxophonists in history. Though Redman’s legacy is well known in jazz, his simplistic melodic and rhythmic inventions hide a profound understanding of how (what some might call) dissonance and lyricism can work together. Redman’s solo on Coleman’s Lonely Woman for example, off of the eponymous album Old And New Dreams (ECM 1154), is a simple, lamenting exploration of the tonal colors laid down by Haden’s rich bass lines. This ability to engender a rather unique lyrical minimalism, or what one might call “stark poignancy” in jazz improvisation, was a specialty of Redman’s and it is doubtful there will ever be another like him.
Billy Higgins (1936 – 2001)
Drummer Billy Higgins, though arguably most famous for his work in Coleman’s early groups, was also an in-demand drummer for other iconic jazz masters such as Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, and others. Higgins was also instrumental in creating the open rhythmic feeling of The Shape Of Jazz To Come, and provided what could be called the perfect ‘percussive scenario’ for the others to work within. He was also active in several styles of music as the house drummer for Blue Note Records in the 1960s, and literally played on hundreds of recordings.
Higgins was also notable for his ability to play with vigor and enthusiasm at very low volume, and his appearance with Coleman’s trio at the 1997 Lincoln Center Festival was proof positive of that fact. Higgins played so softly at points that it was possible to hear the hissing of his drums microphones, a sign that they were turned up high to capture Higgins’ textural improvisations and accompaniment.
Eric Dolphy (1928 – 1964)
Alto saxophone virtuoso Eric Dolphy was a seminal figure in the then arising “Second Wave” of Free Jazz, as well as a participant in the recording of Coleman’s album Free Jazz, an extended improvisation listeners at the time found both inspirational and off-putting, leading many to call such music ‘anti-jazz.” Dolphy’s playing itself drew such of the same praise and criticism, though Dolphy was provably a capable composer, as evidenced by such captivating melodies as Hat And Beard from his album Out To Lunch (BLP 4163). Out To Lunch also featured the legendary drummer Tony Williams, who had just turned eighteen (!!) a few months before the recording date. Dolphy was also a virtuoso bass clarinetist and flautist as well, and his improvisations still stand today as sonic ‘textbooks’ on chromatic logic in music: complex, challenging, and always compelling. Dolphy is also the subject of the darkly comic (yet beautiful) ballad The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue, by Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention. Other notable figures include Ed Blackwell (1929 – 1992), Scott LaFaro (1936 – 1961), David Izenzon (1932 – 1979), and Charles Moffat (1929 – 1997).