Jazz Music and Experimental Composing

“There should be such a feeling of love up on the bandstand, and respect for the other person and what he’s doing, that you give without thinking your support to what the other guy’s doing. Then, when you get your solo, you play what you feel.” – John Hendriks (interview with John Jeremy, 1971)


Jazz was a colossal musical movement which was created by black Americans living in austere conditions in the late 19th Century. Characterised by the free structure to express oneself, Jazz allowed cultures from across the world to identify with one another. Essentially, Jazz was the first modern music to revitalise the art of improvisation. Contrary to most Western music composed to eliminate any possibility of risk, jazz inspired artists to outshine this with no constraint: it was – and remains – delightfully impulsive and audacious. The act of improvising has captivated audiences through cooperatively creating something which is both innovative and spectacular.

Experimental composing fosters this urge to express one’s identity and creativity, and pushed the boundaries of jazz and the avant-garde. It is a field that allies music, sound and performance art. Pioneers of Avant-garde Jazz, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor developed the jazz movement through performance and composition into something so outrageous it could no longer be considered ‘jazz’.

Both genres have undoubtedly influenced contemporary music and visual art alike. I attended Two Night Stands – an exhibition in the Cooper Gallery, Dundee on the 17th March, where artist Ross Sinclair encouraged audience members to participate and freely improvise over his performance. This demonstrates that the impression jazz left still effects an abundance of artists today.

In the past, I understand that my studio practice has shown an unresolved split between music and visual art. I am challenging said current issues practically through embracing the art of sound, as opposed to “music”, and by playing with the element of chance in my work. However, for me to develop my practice both as an artist and a jazz musician, I believe it is vital to have a clear understanding of the origin of these music genres, and the effects they have had on the art world, and to have a full appreciation of artists and the approaches pioneered by them. Recently, I attended a screening of Jazz Is Our Religion (1972), a forgotten yet remarkable British documentary largely made up of re-filmed still photographs taken by Val Wilmer, and the poem: Jazz is my Religion by Ted Joans.[1]   The film explains that by the late 1960s, ‘Free Jazz’: music of total improvisation, had become an exclamation of freedom for a generation of primarily black Americans.  Putting the current establishment of racial and musical oppression at risk, the new and electrifying Free Jazz became progressively unwanted; musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayer and Sunny Murray all experienced such hostility. It is vital that we remember the roots of jazz before we discuss the relationship between jazz and experimental music in the 20th century. I expect that the dissertation will attract a wider audience of musicians (both within and outside of the experimental subculture). I hope it will also be of interest to visual artists. Cool jazz and bebop music in the 1940s and 1950s was paralleled with abstract expressionism and the New York School. Painters such as Stuart Davis and Jackson Pollock have credited jazz as one of their artistic influences.

Avant-garde Jazz materialised in the 1950s as a reaction to the written rules that coexisted with the current jazz movements such as bebop. The movement used pre-arranged melodies, time signatures and tonalities, although the improvisations were totally free of conventional rules.[2] Free Jazz, on the other hand, has been described as a blank canvas which the musicians freely improvise over. Whilst similar to Avant-garde Jazz, Free Jazz contradictorily has no strict tonic key or melody, a distinct lack of allocated solos, and little conventional rhythmic structure.[3] The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was a group of musicians who began to follow their own variation of these genres whilst also challenging other important figures in avant-garde such as John Cage.

John Cage

John Cage is the father of experimental composing and leading figure in avant-garde, and has inspired artists within and outside of experimental music (to name a few; Brian Eno, La Monte Young and Sonic Youth). In 1952, Cage composed his first magnetic tape assemblage Imaginary Landscape No. 5, taking samples from forty-two jazz records. In 1965, Cage featured in a performance in Chicago with the Jarman Quartet named Imperfections in a Given Space, combining technology with jazz.[4] He pioneered indeterminacy within music – an approach in which work is left open to chance or free will; notably a key feature of  improvisation. Yet despite numerous encounters with, and likeness to jazz, Cage showed uncertainty, even distaste towards the genre. Cage’s regard for improvisation varied throughout his lifelong career. In his earliest work, he describes:

“My inspiration was carried along on the wings of Aeschylus and Gertrude Stein. I improvised at the piano and attempted to write down what I played before I forgot it”.[5]

Cage showed a fascination in South and East Asian beliefs which converted his thoughts on improvisation and structure in music.

“[It] Became clear that the function of art is not to communicate one’s personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her matter of operation… It’s actually very difficult to get free of one’s order and one’s taste.”[6]

Thus, Cage disregarded improvisation and jazz due to the concept of self-expression which is inevitably present through improvising. His indifference towards jazz proved to be problematic due to the fine line between his improvisation in jazz and his indeterminate music, coined in the early 1950s. His compositions for solo piano in Music of Changes (1951) were based on chance encounters through consulting the I Ching – an ancient Chinese book; unlike improvisation found in jazz music, this method was free from ‘self-expression.’

It is clear, therefore, that Cage had a complicated rapport with jazz, yet undeniably established a greater awareness and understanding of improvisation and the connotations, impressions and challenges it delivers. While Cage’s attitudes towards improvisation remained cynical, 1986 witnessed an unlikely appearance with the ‘cosmic’ Free Jazz musician Sun Ra. The live album: John Cage Meets Sun Ra results in, not quite a collaboration, but rather alternating solos from the artists improvising in their own style. Unlike Cage, Ra drew upon Jazz influences but combined them with the methods of Karleheinz Stockhausen to create a celestial and jazz-inspired dissonance.

Sun Ra

Taking his surname after the Egyptian god of the Sun, Ra developed what was big-band swing into interstellar themed “cosmic jazz”, with his performances comprised of dancers and musicians dressed in extravagant, “space-age” costumes. He utilised an extensive collection of percussion, exercising polyrhythms, influenced by Free Jazz and improvisation. Ra’s Afrofuturistic jazz reflected his ties with ancient African culture and reasserted pride in black history. He and his “Arkestra” were notorious for their total devotion to music; practices lasting up to twelve hours, only breaking so Ra could lecture about his Egyptian and cosmos inspired philosophies.

“A unified conception, incorporating music, myth, and performance into his multi-levelled equations. Every aspect of the Sun Ra experience…is a manifestation of his equations. Sun Ra seeks to elevate humanity beyond their current earthbound state, tied to outmoded conceptions of life and death when the potential future of immortality awaits them.” [7]

Ra’s work was as visual as it was musical, from the elaborate outfits to the Outer Space Visual Communicator (a giant machine that allowed the musicians to create visuals with light; the pictures formed in a finger-painting style were as improvised as the music themselves).

Ornette Coleman

Known as “the man with the plastic horn” Ornette Coleman’s work received mixed reviews. Classical musicians such as Gunther Schuller and Leonard Bernstein professed him a genius. Jazz musicians such as Miles David and Charles Mingus had more contemptuous attitude.[8] His early experimentation led to a ground-breaking album named Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, in which two quartets performed simultaneously, exploring different time signatures based on the same melody. The term Free Jazz was coined after the release of this album due to the nature of its contents. Originally inspired by Charlie Parker’s complex phrases, Ornette’s work showed an amalgamation of honks, and squeaks with little structure. He discarded the idea of predetermined chord changes; instead believing that the improvised melody should be the foundation for the chord progression. John Coltrane, who is known to have embraced this style said:

“I feel indebted to him [Coleman], myself. Because actually, when he came along, I was so far in this thing [the “harmonic structures”], I didn’t know where I was going to go next. And, I didn’t know if I would have thought about just abandoning the chord system or not. I probably wouldn’t have thought of that at all. And he came along doing it, and I heard it, I said, “Well, that – that must be the answer.”[9]

John Zorn

John Zorn often reused music by Ornette Coleman as well as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Hungarian composer Béla Viktor Bartók. In 1989 he recorded Spy vs Spy: a collection of extremely loud and fast adaptations of Coleman songs. The free improvisor found his roots through many of Cage’s ideas and developed the Avant-garde further and beyond the classical definition of jazz. His record, Rimbaud, released on his own record label, Tzadik, was a diverse collection of songs featuring: a chamber orchestra, an electronic composition, a fully notated piano piece accompanied by a Free Jazz rhythm section, and a Game Piece.[10] Zorn was renowned for pioneering Game Piece Music: yet another form of improvisation with no pre-arranged sequence of events, but with certain rules, for example, through using gestures according to shuffled cards. Cobra is one of his most renowned game pieces: an improvising orchestra is guided through the flash cards which indicate factors such as tempo and tonality (see Fig 3). Differing to Cage, Zorn was entertained by the idea of improvisation – and sought to draw out the personality of the performer. This meant that the results were as visual as they were sonic. Zorn was responsible for establishing The Stone, a space for experimental musicians that is still running today with weekly events.  Zorn was also responsible for the development of “Radical Jewish Culture.” Zorn’s Tzadik label explains:

“Just as jazz music has progressed from Dixieland to free jazz ad beyond in a few short decades, and classical music went from tonality to chromaticism, noise and back again… it is perhaps essential for jewish music.”[11]

The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to 21st Century by Berendt and Huesmann emphasises the closeness of klezmer music and other Radical Jewish Music to blues:

“Like in the blues, in Jewish music emotional extremes such as ecstatic joy and pain, sadness and happiness, can coincide in a moment. Clarinettist Ben Goldberg summed it up paradoxically: “Klezmer gave me a way of playing the blues without playing the blues.” [12]

Jewish jazz music gave musicians cultural individuality that could be lost elsewhere in jazz. Jewish music offered many musicians in the New York downtown scene a sense of identity.

John Zorn was a prominent figure in the diverse New York downtown avant-garde scene, which also had many close associations with jazz and became an incentive in the development in the increasing versatility within jazz. Just as the downtown scene tended towards loudness, density and the extremes – jazz was music of instability, demonstration and revolution. Many of the artists drew inspiration from interaction inside the New York City interdisciplinary art circle. The 1960s saw the compositions of minimalists such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass – directly influencing the experimental rock act The Velvet Underground. Laurie Anderson emerged in the 1970s as an avant-garde performance artist, however a decade later scored a hit on the British pop charts with O Superman. Meanwhile, another movement – No Wave – was emerging in reaction against punk rock’s recycling of traditional rock and roll. This movement experimented with noise music and dissonance, drawing upon the radical noise of Albert Ayle, Sun Ra and other Free Jazz musicians.[13] Other music genres in the 1970s such as experimental rock, art rock, and avant-prog have shown the influence of such experimental music. For example, in Daniel Harrison’s essay After Sundown: The Beach Boys’ Experimental Music, the band’s album is described as “protominimal rock.” Minimal music is another form of experimental music developed by La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Further research into this topic will achieve a more in-depth understanding on the impacts the avant-garde and more mainstream music genres had on one another.[14]


Icelandic artist Björk was another experimental artist with a career spanning four decades. She has successfully introduced the avant-garde into popular music. For example, her first album Debut has been accredited as one of the first albums to bring electronic music into mainstream pop.[15] Björk’s biography by Mark Pylik’s Absolute Bjork. (2003)[16], says that some of her biggest influences were composers like Brian Eno and Stockhausen, whom she stated was the pioneer of electronic music. She said: “he sparked off a sun that is still burning and will glow for a long time.” [17]  Her favourite album was Tehilim by minimalist Steve Reich[18] and, moreover, Björk has expressed an interest in Philip Glass and Sun Ra, even though more of her followers are from the mainstream.[19] I’d like to continue my study of Björk and explore the links between her music and experimental music that came before.

Following my progress to date, the next steps are to continue my research through reading, attending exhibitions and events, watching documentaries and – most importantly – listening. Boiler Room is an online music broadcasting platform commissioning and streaming live music sessions worldwide. Their music initially centred around electronic music but has expanded to include genres such as hip hop, classical and jazz. [20] Boiler Room has “streamed over 3,500,000,000 minutes of music since starting out, with audiences of up to 400,000 tuning in to watch.”[21] I recently attended a Boiler Room performance at Joytown Grand Electric Theatre featuring award winning five-piece band Ezra Collective. The influence of Afro Beat, Reggae and Hip Hop tied together with a deep appreciation of jazz. shows the direction new-wave of UK jazz music is heading.[22] The topic of jazz music and experimental composing is a broad subject with many expansive issues and I intend to refine my research further. It seems that the area of greatest interest to me is the concept of improvisation and chance. This can be explored further through focusing on the Free Jazz genre, however I will not neglect other areas which will certainly be beneficial to my studio practice.

Further Research and Sources to be utilised:

Free Jazz:

What is the difference between Avant-garde Jazz and Free Jazz. Is Free Jazz simply a subgenre of Avant-garde Jazz?

  • Free Improvisation
    • Terry Riley – 1980s
    • Elliot Sharp
  • The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians

Further listening:

David Toop: Ocean of Sound (1996)

  • Avant-garde Jazz:
    • Ornette Coleman: Something Else: The Music of Ornette Coleman Jazz, 1958
    • Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady/Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, 2011
    • The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Illistrum
    • Archie Shepp: Solitude
  • John Coltrane
    • A Love Supreme (1964)
    • Ascension (1966)

John Zorn and Downtown music:

  • Taylor, M. (2006). The Downtown Book. 1st ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • (2017). Yoko Ono and John Zorn: Improvisation, Live in The Greene Space. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJl06nxPub8 [Accessed 24 Mar. 2017].


Further listening:

  • John Zorn:
    • Spillane (1987)
    • File-card compositions inspired by Arto Lindsay and Mickey Spillane set to an selection of sonic film noir references.
  • Naked City
    • Avant-garde band led by John Zorn: Began as a “compositional workshop” to test the limitations of a rock band format.[24]

Bjork and other Experimental Artists

  • Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band. (experimental and post-warelectronic art music)
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen
  • Frank Zappa
  • Arnold Schoenberg
  • Stockhausen
  • David Tudor
  • Toshi Ichiyanagi
  • Meredith Monk
  • Diamanda Galás


  • Martin, B. and Fripp, R. (2015). Avant Rock. 1st ed. New York: Open Court.
  • Pytlik, M. (2003). Absolute Björk. 1st ed. ECW Press.



Events and Exhibitions:

  • Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s, (2011)[exhibition] Barbican Gallery, London
  • Bang on a Can Summer Festival, (2002-present) [festival] Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA)
  • Music Biennale Zagreb (1961-present), Milko Kelemen [festival] Zagreb, Croatia
  • Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (1980-present): Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed et/and John Zorn (2010)



  • Berendt, J., Huesmann, G., Bredigkeit, H. and Bredigkeit, B. (2009). The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century. Chicago, Ill.: Lawrence Hill Books.
  • Taylor, M. (2006). The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984 1st ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Troop, D. (2016). Into the Maelstrom – Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom. Bloomsbury Academic.




[1] YouTube. (2008). Jazz Is My Religion. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uc9yodZ29UE [Accessed 19 Mar. 2017]

[2] AllMusic. (2017). Avant-Garde Jazz Music Genre Overview | AllMusic. [online] Available at: http://www.allmusic.com/subgenre/avant-garde-jazz-ma0000002438 [Accessed 11 Mar. 2017].

[3] McMurph, N. (2014). What is the difference between free jazz and avant-garde jazz? • r/Jazz. [online] reddit. Available at: https://www.reddit.com/r/Jazz/comments/1yqh3t/what_is_the_difference_between_free_jazz_and/ [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

[4] : Rebecca Y. Kim (2012) John Cage in Separate Togetherness with Jazz, Contemporary Music Review, 31:1, 63-89, DOI: 10.1080/07494467.2012.712284

[5] Feisst, S. (2009). Musical Improvisation: Art, Education, and Society. University of Illinois Press, p.38.

[6] John Cage: I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying It. (1990). [DVD] Allan Miller.

[7]  Martinelli, David A. (1991). “The Cosmic-Myth Equations of Sun Ra”. UCLA Department Ethnomusicology.

[8] DeVeaux, S. and Giddins, G. (n.d.). Jazz. 1st ed. [ebook] About W. W. Norton, p.Chapter 15. Available at: http://www.wwnorton.com/college/music/jazz/ch/15/outline.aspx [Accessed 18 Mar. 2017].

[9] Quersin, Benoit (1998). “La Passe Dangereuse (1963)”. In Carl Woideck. The John Coltrane Companion: Five Decades of Commentary. New York: Schirmer Books. p. 123a

[10] Schray, M. (2013). John Zorn: Rimbaud (Tzadik, 2012) ***½. [Blog] The Free Jazz Colective. Available at: http://www.freejazzblog.org/2013/03/john-zorn-rimbaud-tzadik-2012.html [Accessed 16 Mar. 2017].

[11] Zorn, J. (n.d.). Welcome to Tzadik. [online] Tzadik.com. Available at: http://www.tzadik.com/ [Accessed 23 Mar. 2017].

[12] Berendt, J., Huesmann, G., Bredigkeit, H. and Bredigkeit, B. (2009). The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century. 1st ed. Chicago, Ill.: Lawrence Hill Books.

[13] Masters, M. (2008). NO!: The Origins of No Wave | Pitchfork. [online] Pitchfork.com. Available at: http://pitchfork.com/features/article/6764-no-the-origins-of-no-wave/ [Accessed 13 Mar. 2017].

[14] Harrison, D (1997). After Sundown: The Beach Boys’ Experimental Music. In J. Cobach & G.M. Boone’s (Eds.) ‘Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis,’ 33-57. NY: Oxford University Press

[15] “Bjork’s ‘Debut’ Turns 20: Backtracking « Music News, Reviews, and Gossip on Idolator.com”. Retrieved 23 March 2017

[16] Pytlik, M. (2003). Absolute Björk. 1st ed. ECW Press.

[17] Björk (30 October 2008). “Why I love Stockhausen”. The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 20 March 2017.

[18] Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise. (2011). My Favorite Records: Björk. [online] Available at: http://www.therestisnoise.com/2011/11/my-favorite-records-bj%C3%B6rk.html [Accessed 19 Mar. 2017].

[19] Smith, Roberta (5 March 2015). “Björk, a One-of-a-Kind Artist, Proves Elusive at MoMA”. The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 20 March 2017.

[20] Bellville, B. (2010). BOILER ROOM – broadcasting the underground. [online] Boilerroom.tv. Available at: https://boilerroom.tv/ [Accessed 23 Mar. 2017].

[21]  McQuaid, Ian (2015-11-30). “Stream team: how Boiler Room changed the face of live music”. the Guardian. Retrieved 2016-05-24.

[22] Ezracollective.com. Ezra Collective. [online] Available at: http://ezracollective.com/ [Accessed 13 Mar. 2017].

[23] Cook, Richard (2005). Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia. London: Penguin Books. p. 23.

[24] Price, E. (1994). Zornfest 9/93: Zorn’s program notes. [Program notes] Wayback Machine (https://web.archive.org/web/20030805001723/http://www.wnur.org/jazz/performance/zornfest/zornfest-p-zorn.html).

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