At PJ Lifestyle I continue my series on jazz and Islam (some pieces have more one than the other):
“Every innovation leads astray and every creator of the astray goes into the fire.”
This statement is attributed to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and is part of Islam’s general disapproval of the concept of bid”ah, or innovation. The prohibition of innovation refers specifically to new theological ideas — Allah tells the Muslims in the Qur’an that he has perfected their religion for them (5:3), and that’s that. But all the frowning on theological innovation has fostered a general cultural attitude against innovation of any kind — which is one reason why Islamic states are not generally leaders in technological development or scientific exploration. In the West, by contrast, we generally respect and reward innovation when it leads to new insights and greater efficiency — and are the beneficiaries of a musical tradition that has celebrated innovators from Bach to Beethoven to Louis Armstrong. And there are many others, drastically unsung, who deserve a hearing.
Musical innovation is a tricky thing; one man’s startling and fascinating new musical development is another man’s noise. That’s why musical innovators have implored their hearers to listen without prejudice long before George Michael appropriated the term. And of course what may not appeal to someone at first may get through at some other point; I vividly remember the day when I became so completely absorbed in Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which had never much mattered to me before that, and came down from the mountain dazed and dazzled, not interested in hearing any other music ever again, ever. The exaltation wore off, of course, as it always does, but the respect for musical innovation, and the resolve to listen without prejudice, remained. And so here are five jazz innovators whose work is usually classified as “avant garde,” which for most people is a synonym for “unlistenable.” I beg to differ. Listen without prejudice.
1. Ornette Coleman, “Lonely Woman” and “Free Jazz”
It is perhaps an exaggerated sense of victimhood that would lead one to classify Ornette Coleman, now over 80 and laden with honors, as unsung and underappreciated, but even though it is now over fifty years since he was the butt of jokes on New York’s jazz scene (a blind man took his date to hear Ornette at his celebrated Five Spot gig; a waiter dropped a plate of dishes and the blind man said, “Listen, honey, Ornette’s playing our song”), he has never entirely lived down his reputation as an out-of-control musical anarchist. Yet in reality, Ornette Coleman has a wonderful ear for melody, and the melodies just keep coming from him, even as he disregards conventional improvisational strictures. “Lonely Woman” — the beauty of it is indisputable, and listen for how Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry comment musically on each other’s solos in mid-flight.
Then there is “Free Jazz,” the huge slab of free improvisation that set the jazz world on its ear when it appeared in 1961. Some have argued that it set in motion a revolution that ultimately killed jazz, leading some to take refuge in rock and roll (Miles Davis) and others to move so far beyond the bounds of conventional harmony as to lead some to question whether what they were producing was music at all (John Coltrane). Without commenting on whether “Free Jazz” was a dead end, I believe it was certainly a supernova, flaming out with a light more brilliant than what had come before.