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You may hate the avant-garde but, dammit, you need it more than you think.

The musical Avant-Garde in general and Avant-Garde jazz, in particular, have either misleading or no connotations at all for most listeners (and non-listeners.) Say the words “free jazz,” and most will think of musical anarchy—sonic chaos. And then they’ll run for their lives.

But when you consider the most prominent practitioners of so-called “free jazz”—the likes of John Coltrane (late period), Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor—one thing should be clear: these are great musicians. So before you run, at least consider why they might be doing what they do, and what they’re really doing. And also consider some of your favorite mainstream music may be imbued with musical ideas brought into the world by the so-called Avant-Gardists.

The Choice

By definition, there is not much in common in the music of artists like John Cage, John Coltrane, Edgar Varese, and Sun Ra. They are, after all, musical outliers: they don’t hang out in the same clubs together. But all of them do have one thing in common: they made a choice, somewhere along the line, to create their own musical languages.

Making such a choice can, of course, be artistically and personally dangerous, leading to ostracization within the artistic community, derision by fans, and diminished employment opportunities. So why do some do it, where others are satisfied to work solely within the “accepted” musical frameworks, seemingly passed on down for generations?

Here’s the thing: what we think of as the “accepted” frameworks are almost always languages created by some bold musical soul in the past. Now, I will be the first to admit that we will probably never walk around humming Cecil Taylor or Schoenberg tunes. This music is too extreme in its willingness to push boundaries to become part of the popular music culture in its own right.

Seeping Into the Mainstream

But these extremes of musical expression, if they are any good, do enter the musical lexicon, even if we’re not consciously aware of them doing so. They have a way of filtering down into more mainstream forms, enriching them with surprising turns and details. Listen to the experimental elements in later albums by the Beatles, like Sergeant Pepper’s, then go check out modern “classical” composers like Edgar Varése or Karlheinz Stockhausen. The Beatles did.

Or, as a more recent example, check out Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Then check out late Coltrane, or Ornette Coleman.

And movie music? Psychologically challenging scenes would be nowhere without Arnold Schoenberg’s serialism. To be sure, Schoenberg created his twelve-tone system for reasons that had nothing to do with Hollywood (though ironically, he ended up living there) but the point is that once these new musical languages are let loose into the world, they find many “uses” beyond the composer’s original intention. They simply add to to the ever-growing musical palette.

So before you run away from the Avant Garde, seriously consider what it has given us.

Artists Mentioned in this Podcast:

  • Cecil Taylor: Conquistador certainly gets right down to it. Cecil’s pianistic language is so distinctive as to be recognizable in about 3 seconds. If you’re looking for traditional song structures, tunes, recognizable chord changes, etc., you’ve come to exactly the wrong place. But, try to get through it. There is a structure there, just not one you’re used to. And, more importantly, it’s simply beautiful music by an oft-maligned genius.
  • Late Beethoven: I mentioned the Great Fugue (Grösse Fugue) in the podcast. It is really a strange and difficult piece of music. Fugues, in general, are intellectually challenging, and this is what’s known as a double fugue (two themes interacting.) Also, check out Hammerklavier. The first movement is particularly challenging; the 2nd highlights an interesting trait in late Beethoven wherein he seems to be hinting at a swing (jazz) rhythm. What’s up with that?

  • Late Coltrane: Interstellar Space, is one of the last things John Coltrane recorded. It’ a suite with just him and drummer, Rashied Ali. To say the least, it’s relentless and challenging. But even as Coltrane was always pushing boundaries, there is always something of his lyrical side here.

  • Carlo Gesualdo: The madrigal, Moro lasso al mio duolo, is so strange, and harmonically ahead of its time that people probably thought the composer was crazy. And he probably was.

  • Edgar Varese: Perhaps Poem Eletronique sounds like so much noise and effects to our ears—sound design in modern terms, and pretentious sound design at that. But while it may not be something you put on to chill (or sing along with) it does prove my point about sounds of the Avant-Garde being incorporated into the mainstream. So you can easily hear elements of this being incorporated into a “chill vibe” if not being a very chilly vibe itself.  I don’t’ know if that’s good or bad. It just is.

Episode #13 Transcription


This is the avant-garde jazz for dummies episode and it’s gonna have to be quick. I got lessons to teach in45 minutes, but avant garde, in general, is better when it’s quick.


Surely you’ve heard of Cecil Taylor, the late great so-called avant-garde so-called jazz, so-called pianist. I say that tongue in cheek, but in fact, Cecil, who died last year I believe at around 88, 90 years old was an early hero of mine back in the day when I was into that kind of thing. And I still am, but I say so-called, so-called, so-called because Cecil himself would find all of those labels except the pianist part, which is snarky on my part, would find all of those, avant-garde and jazz, to be misleading and derogatory in a way. He would also find even the free improvisation label, which is what his music was often called freely improvisatory. He would call that misleading. That it was anything but freely improvisational. Cecil would tell you that the reason for this I think in his own mind, and I’m putting thoughts of mine into his own mind, which is kind of illegal. The reason for this I would think is that it was anything but free from his standpoint. It was very disciplined, required a lot of forethought, practice obviously and general thinking about the structure of what he was playing.

To our ears to the average listener, to the average avant-garde for dummies, it would seem that there’s no structure there that it’s just all over the place like this…


which to me is, I understand where Cecil’s coming from because what I just did there is all the result of things I’ve been practicing for years. For the average listener perhaps who hasn’t been practicing for years and not thinking about complex musical relationships structures, it seems like noise perhaps,

But everything I did there is based on some kind of pattern or a scale that I do practice and I know for a fact that the same goes for Cecil. Although he was using different patterns, different scales, different structures. We may use some of the same things in common because I listened to a lot of him and other so-called avant-gardists.

I remember reading some review by a jazz critic saying that what Cecil was doing…well, let’s put it this way: There was some question out there whether he knew what he was doing at all or he was just perhaps pounding on the keys, banging away and somebody made the point, and it wasn’t that brilliant, that he could repeat everything he had just done. This is kind of one of the hallmarks of making music: repetitious sound, sound patterns. And indeed Cecil had a pallet of patterns that he repeated and mixed and morphed in various ways.

This is basically what creating music is about. It’s just that his language, his musical language derived from the African American experience, derived from Thelonious Monk, derived from Ellington. He chose a very personal, created a very personal language that may not make sense to most people who are after, all used to something like:


That’s an actual song, isn’t it? I can’t remember, from the 70s most likely, which is where most music popular music that I remember comes from. Not to diminish that tune or traditional harmony, but to say that it is possible to create your own musical language to a greater or lesser extent. Now, most innovators even it’s to a somewhat middle extent in between greater and lesser. The middle ground there allows the innovator like say Miles Davis or Beethoven not too late or Coltrane, not too late Coltrane, that middle ground where they’re innovating but still in a language that we’re familiar with, allows those composers, those musicians, improvisers to communicate, to connect with the listener who is grounded in very traditional forms of making music. Whereas somebody’s like Cecil Taylor or I guess in a way Arnold Schoenberg or John Cage or late Coltrane or even quite frankly, some late Beethoven. Whereas they at that point in their musical development are no longer in that middle ground. They’re going towards the greater side of that equation, the side where they’ve left the common musical language to a greater extent and veered more their own private language in a sense. And this creates, in the average listener, a kind of angst, consternation, even like, where the hell are they going now? This is no longer music. And believe it or not, late Beethoven, string quartets, Piano Sonatas, there were people, even symphonies, who thought he was crazy. He had lost it. Gone off the deep end.

Now people are probably still going to say this about Cecil Taylor or late Coltrane. Coltrane died in ]67 so what is that 52 years ago? A lot of people would still find that music to be out there crazy beyond comprehension and go listen to the some of the late Beethoven string quartets or sonatas.

You may find it like the Grosse Fugue. That’s not gross. It’s German for gross is great. You may find it incomprehensible. So this idea of the avant-garde, it’s been around forever. Go listen to, I believe it’s 14th or 15th century, the composer Gesualdo, who developed his own private musical language, mostly out of probably experience of murdering his wife and her lover. That’s another story, but he created very chromatic, dense, dark, kind of depressing musical language, which is nevertheless fascinating from the standpoint of 500 years later or whatever it was.


The thing is, when you do something like I just did there and have this generally what most people would call atonal or trans tonal, I don’t know what it is and I don’t care, but when you do something like that and then bring in these more familiar elements, they become almost the dissonance or in a sense, the consonant-dissonant relationship is flipped, and on the one hand you’re very happy. You’re very happy to have those elements there; they’re pleasing, they feel like you’re back in familiar territory, home. Whereas before you were kind of floating in the void. Then you introduce something more familiar and you, the listener start wondering, well, maybe this guy does know what he’s doing.


Then he does that.


And you really don’t know.

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