The 1960s brought dramatic changes to American society, in our culture and politics. And just as this was happening, so were big changes in our music. Before the 1960s, jazz was considered the “in” music. That changed, however with the rise of rock and the Beatles. The jazz’s of the 1960s, free jazz’s, avant-garde’s, and jazz fusion’s, influence on American culture changed the music marketplace away from jazz, institutionalized jazz, changed the way Americans think towards individualism and affected the civil rights movement.
Free jazz was a push at the boundaries of jazz, pushing at the limitations of the jazz through improvisation, and a widening, a radicalization, of what instruments could do and sound like. Through this, artists obtained their own voices in the moment of creation. “Free improvisers such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor… and Sun Ra pushed the boundaries of jazz. For these performers, bebop, hard bop, modal, and other jazz innovations of the 1940s and 1950s were too restrictive. They abandoned fixed chord changes and tempos” (Lechner, 1). Free jazz influenced the way people thought of jazz. For some ‘purist’ jazz listeners, the sound was chaotic, while these improvisers thought of it as freeing from musical bonds. This idea influenced the “american” way of thinking into the ideal that music could be more than it was set to be, and to embrace new, possibly even wild seeming, ideas.
The jazz avant-garde of 1960s was part of free jazz, but as free jazz grew, and artists embraced individuality in their music, the distinction between ‘free jazz’ and ‘avant-garde’ became clearer. Avant-garde was a form of jazz that was influenced by the civil rights movement, growing alongside with it. Some avant-garde artists expressed themselves plainly through their music, like Nina Simone. “Nina Simone got up in front of a lily white audience at Carnagie Hall and sings “Mississippi Goddam” – which starts off as a jaunty musical tune that the audience laughs along to, before it evolves into a documentation of racial inequality in the South” (Wright-Mendoza, 10). This genre of jazz was important to the culture of the time as it was an expression of what was happening, and brought more light to the issue. “This foundation period provided a real sense of revolutionary movement… its founders were overwhelmingly African American” (Pressing, 15).
However, this avant-garde was a controversial subject in its relationship with the civil rights movement and black nationalism.. Avant-garde, for some, produced jazz as a national symbol of black nationalism, labeling it falsely as a purely ‘black experience’. “They equated jazz with American freedom and individualism… some black performers and critics lined up behind this depiction, seeing it as a way to improve race relations and the livelihood of black musicians, others chafed at what they saw as the United States’ racial hypocrisy and the unequal treatment of black artists in the music business” (Lechner, 2). This hypocrisy drove much of the jazz audience of all color away from it, and towards less complicated and more accessible rock and roll. And thus, jazz was placed out of the mainstream music and into universities and nonprofit organizations, of whom were attracted by jazz’s failure in commercial success. Today, free jazz still thrives just outside the mainstream and in institutions, where it can be sustained, continued, and remembered as an important part of american culture.
There were many limitations that jazz faced, and factors that affected jazz, such as free jazz seeming chaotic to the older jazz audience, avant-garde seeming too intense to younger listeners, and it’s controversial relationship with and impact on the civil rights movement, that eventually placed it outside the main marketplace, where it still stands as a cultural symbol and artform to this day.
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