Beyond the Chord, the Club, and the Critics
Skip to main content

A Historical and Musicological Perspective
of the Jazz Avant-Garde

Horace Tapscott performs at the Walker Art Center, February 19, 1985. Walker Art Center Archives.

Tammy L. Kernodle, “Beyond the Chord, the Club, and the Critics: A Historical and Musicological Perspective of the Jazz Avant-Garde,” in Creative Black Music at the Walker: Selections from the Archives, ed. Danielle A. Jackson and Simone Austin, Vol. IV of the Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020).

In December 1960 alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman recorded the controversial album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation within the vibrant political milieu of John F. Kennedy’s presidency and the radical wave of activism sparked by student sit-ins throughout the South. Conceived in a sonic blueprint of collective improvisation between two quartets that had no preset key, tonal system, or melodies, Free Jazz embodied a full articulation of Coleman’s vision of jazz experimentation. Listeners were inundated with forty minutes of continuous improvisation—something that had never been captured on vinyl. It was radical, transgressive,and foreshadowed the social and cultural unrest of the 1960s. More importantly, the album announced in undeniable ways the emergence of the jazz avant-garde.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the recorded work of Coleman; pianists Cecil Taylor and Alice Coltrane; multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy; saxophonists John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler; and many others ignited debates as to what constituted jazz. Their music also inspired new terminology—all of which represented an attempt to understand the emergence of a new generation of artists that focused on deconstructing jazz conventions and redefining the image of the black jazz musician within the climate of civil rights and Black Power–era America. Critics and historians labeled the music in myriad ways—free jazz, avant-garde jazz, atonal jazz, abstract jazz, space music, anti-jazz, “the new thing.” Of all of these, the term avant-garde is more widely used to categorize the musicians, composers, and diverse musical approaches that frame this wave of jazz experimentation.

Deconstructing the Avant-Garde

Avant-garde identifies artists, writers, musicians, composers, and intellectual thinkers whose forms of expression extend beyond convention and are viewed as radical or boundary pushing. However, for the generation of jazz musicians and composers that challenged the traditional performance practices in the 1960s and 1970s, “avant-garde” was not simply a label. It represented their negotiation of the identity politics surrounding jazz in midcentury America and their challenging of a cultural infrastructure that attempted to claim jazz as a national artifact. It also epitomized their resistance to systemic exploitation that attempted to control their creative expressions by empowering white male critics, such as Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, who promoted biased musical hierarchies through the jazz criticism disseminated in periodicals such as DownBeat, Melody Maker, and Metronome.For more information, see Amiri Baraka, “Jazz and the White Critic,” in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. Robert G. O’Meally (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Frank Kofsky, “The Jazz Tradition: Black Music and its White Critics,” Journal of Black Studies 1, no. 4 (1971): 403–433; John D. Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” Journal of Black Studies 24, no. 4 (1994): 484­–497.

Poster for the Walker’s series February Guthrie Concerts, featuring Miles Davis (February 5) and others, 1974. Walker Art Center Archives.

The jazz avant-garde, as a generational identity, enacted a type of guerilla warfare that not only disrupted jazz’s sonic lineage but also rejected the culture of jazz apprenticeship and the centralization of the nightclub and jazz festival as the primary marker of success. With the exception of John Coltrane, none of the first wave avant-gardists traced their musical development through the professional and stylistic genealogies of another more established musician. While the same cannot be said for the latter waves of the avant-garde, it should be noted that the systems of mentorship that nurtured these musicians did not reflect conventional professional and musical hierarchies. The jazz avant-garde and some figures that occupied the periphery of the movement (for example, Charles Mingus) paralleled the activism that accompanied the black civil rights struggle through their attempts to subvert the power dynamics of the cultural industry. This was represented in a number of ways, from the “anti-Newport” jazz festival held in 1960 by Max Roach and Charles Mingus to protest the commercialism and economic discrimination perpetuated by the Newport Jazz Festival’s Board  to the emergence of self-help organizations such as the Jazz Composer Guild, which sponsored concerts and engaged in collective bargaining with record companies on behalf of avant-garde musicians. Another important example of this resistance culture occurred in October 1964. It was then that trumpeter Bill Dixon organized the “October Revolution in Jazz” concert series as a means of showcasing free jazz musicians and developing a wider audience. For four days the Cellar Café, a small coffeehouse on West 91st Street in New York, served as ground zero for more than twenty concerts that featured both groups and soloists. Although it failed to draw significant and sustained audiences for the avant-garde, the October Revolution represented the eclectic ways in which the avant-garde decentralized the conventional spaces and cultural infrastructure that framed the promotion of jazz.For more information on the protest culture of jazz musicians, see Iain Anderson, This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and the American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

Decolonizing Jazz: The Awakening of the Avant-Garde

The awakening of the jazz avant-garde commenced in the late 1950s when black musicians began to challenge the promotional measures enacted to spark a resurgence of jazz. This resurgence was precipitated by two cultural phenomena: 1) the co-option of the genre into America’s cultural strategy in combating the spread of Communism, and 2) the emergence of new substyles and personalities that attempted to sanitize jazz from its connections with the specter of drug abuse and deviant behavior associated with bebop. In the 1950s, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union extended beyond the acquisition of nuclear weapons to a cultural war that involved US dance companies, symphony orchestras, and jazz bands. These entities were dispatched to Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America on diplomatic tours organized by the US State Department in an effort to counter the spread of Communism. Live performances as well as public lectures and radio broadcasts were central in not only globalizing jazz but also in rebranding the music as a “national” artifact. One byproduct of these efforts was the whitewashing of jazz’s racial and ethnic roots and the negation of its connection to the inequality and injustice that black Americans experienced.

The branding of jazz as a national artifact was also tied to the widening soundscape of the postwar United States. The advent of bebop in the late 1940s, and the subsequent reactionary styles that derived from it, marked a period of significant experimentation that stretched throughout the 1950s. The emergence of cool jazz, West Coast, hard bop, Third Stream, and modal jazz reflected new performative ways of defining jazz, yet it also initiated a wave of commodification that privileged specific artists and sounds. The pressure to achieve commercial success was further complicated by the growing array of popular music styles that catered to and reflected the emergence of the new teenage consumer base. This group viewed rock and roll, soul, and Motown as more emblematic of their evolving identities than jazz. The question of artistic merit vs. commercial success dominated the public discourse about jazz during the 1960s and 1970s, and the avant-garde was often scapegoated for jazz’s declining audiences.  

Left: Poster for the Sonny Rollins Quartet as part of the Walker’s series Blue Mondays/Fat Tuesdays: Jazz at the Children’s Theatre, September 30, 1980. Walker Art Center Archives.
Right: Poster for the Walker’s series Jazz at the Guthrie, featuring Thelonious Monk (June 14) and others, 1964. Walker Art Center Archives.

What is often lost in this discussion of the jazz avant-garde is the impact that the advancement of modernism in classical music had on the sonic experimentations heard in the post–World War II era. The emergence of an American modernist aesthetic was precipitated by the immigration of European composers, such as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, to the United States during World War II, and the advancement of their compositional ideals in the music curriculum of the US university during the postwar years. Modernism in the form of atonality, serialism, and electroacoustic approaches replaced American Romanticism that defined classical music in the first four decades of the twentieth century. All of these methodologies challenged conventional ideals about melodic structure, harmonic possibilities, and what constituted musical sound. A number of jazz musicians, such as Cecil Taylor, were introduced to these compositional archetypes through their studies at US conservatories and universities. Those who did not have direct contact with living composers in these environments were exposed to these approaches through their study of musical scores and recordings.  It was only a matter of time that these ideals would show up in the music of jazz musicians.

Hearing the Avant-Garde

The jazz musician’s engagement with wider artistic circles during the 1950s led to experimentation with approaches that disrupted the context of order, structure, clarity, and balance in music. This was first evident in the music of Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis and later in the works of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane. Mingus, through his band the Jazz Workshop, advanced collective group improvisation, free forms, unexpected tempo changes, and extended solos. Monk disrupted the relationship between consonance and dissonance with his use of tone clusters. He also invoked rhythmic tension in his performance by employing rhythmic displacement that stretched melodic and harmonic phrases beyond the established rhythmic pulse. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins played multiple chords simultaneously, thus expanding the range and number of notes one could incorporate into a single measure. Sun Ra combined African mythology, science fiction, and collective group improvisation with electronic instruments and sound effects to widen jazz’s sound palette. But it was Davis’s experimentations with modal jazz, which shifted the harmonic framework for solos and motives away from conventional chord changes, that provided one of the strongest musical linkages with avant-garde musicians like Coltrane. 

Miles Davis playing instrument on stage
Miles Davis (trumpet) performs at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, February 5, 1974. Photo: Boyd Hagen. Walker Art Center Archives.

The jazz avant-garde is generally defined by waves of activity that corresponded with the emergence of specific musical voices. The first wave, as stated above, is represented through the experimental albums of Taylor and Coleman from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some critics, listeners, and other jazz musicians met this music with consternation and contempt. These reactions contributed to the financial instability that many avant-garde musicians experienced. Both Taylor and Coleman had suspended their performing careers by 1964. They would each resurface just as the second wave of the avant-garde began to garner attention. This second wave, which defined the free jazz aesthetic of the late 1960s and early 1970s, included artists and groups such as Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Coltrane’s shift to the free jazz aesthetic was significant in shaping perceptions of the genre. However, the popularity he experienced during these years did not extend to other members of the avant-garde. Many musicians took to supporting their families through other jobs (for example, as teachers, factory workers, janitors, etc.) when record sales and concert tours failed to garner sustained popularity.

Despite the financial and personal hardships, a number of avant-garde musicians remained committed to experimentation. They sought new mediums for the performance and dissemination of their music. Coffeehouses, loft spaces, community centers, churches, museums,  and college campuses replaced the nightclub and jazz festival as important performance venues. A number of musicians, including members of the AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, went to Europe where they engaged with audiences, performance artists, curators, and record companies that embraced the ways in which they expanded the performative aspects of jazz.

Poster for the Walker’s series Blue Mondays/Fat Tuesdays: Jazz at the Children’s Theatre Company, Minneapolis, featuring Max Roach and the Minneapolis Quartet (December 8), among others, 1980. Walker Art Center Archives.

Poster for Charles Mingus Quintet at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, September 23, 1973. Walker Art Center Archives.

It is important to note that avant-garde jazz was not represented through one particular ideology or performance practice but was rooted in the organic and self-actualized ways in which musicians heard the music. Coleman asserted in interviews, “I came up with a music that didn’t require European laws applied to it.”[1] His influence on the progression of avant-garde jazz continued in the late 1970s and 1980s, when he advanced the performance approaches of his self-defined theories of “harmolodics.” Cecil Taylor, one of the few pianists associated with free jazz, used the terminology “Unit Structures” to describe his complex, very long, and highly experimental improvisations. His experimentation stretched from tone clusters and a percussive manner of playing to his manipulation of the strings of the piano with steel wool and bedsprings. Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Don Cherry looked beyond Western culture, invoking African and Asian instruments and vocalizations through their music. Indian ragas and African tonal patterns, rhythms, and markers of spirituality became central elements in the late 1960s improvisations of Coltrane. These experimentations extended to the music of his wife, Alice Coltrane, after his death. Her collaborations with Pharoah Sanders, Rashied Ali, and Carlos Santana cemented her relationship with the third wave of the avant-garde and expanded her influence beyond the idiom of jazz. The black nationalist ideals of empowerment, social justice, and African-centered expression influenced the music of Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra, who collaborated with the poet, playwright, and founder of the Black Arts Movement Amiri Baraka in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.

The eclecticism of sound and ideology represented by the avant-garde was also rooted in a geographical diversity that reflected the peculiarities of the regional music scenes these musicians inhabited. The New York avant-garde scene represented only one aspect of this paradigm as similar paradigm-shifting  activity emerged out of artistic collectives located in Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, and St. Louis. In each city, musicians widened the scope of their artistic collaborations and found new ways in which to connect avant-garde jazz to civil rights–era black communities. In Los Angeles, pianist Horace Tapscott founded the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra in 1961, whose mission was to preserve all forms of African American music. Two years later, he expanded these efforts with the establishment of the Underground Musicians Association (UGMA).[1]  Both were significant in mentoring a number of musicians who shaped the avant-garde approaches of the 1970s and 1980s. In Chicago, the AACM modeled a community-centered framework that included initiatives focused on developing the next generation of musicians, providing performance opportunities, and promoting their ideological mantra of “Great Black Music.” The Black Artists’ Group (BAG), founded by Julius Hemphill in St. Louis, boasted a membership that extended beyond musicians to include stage directors Muthal Naidoo and Malinke (Robert) Elliott and painters Oliver Lee Jackson and Emilio Cruz. Although short-lived, the group explored a strong convergence of experimental theater and avant-garde jazz through their work.


The last four decades of the twentieth century marked one of the most contentious and contested moments in jazz history. Questions over the artistic merits of avant-garde jazz stretched well into the 1990s. However, the passage of time, the widening scope of jazz’s historiography, and the acknowledgment of the artistry of avant-garde musicians by cultural institutions such the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment of the Arts, which awarded fellowships to a number of avant-garde musicians during the 1970s and 1980s, have led to a reexamination of the contributions of jazz avant-garde. The promotion of the experimental sounds and artistic visions of the avant-garde in concert halls, universities, and regional performance spaces such as the Walker Art Center have also been significant in developing new readings of these musicians. 

Prior to their deaths in 2015 and 2018, respectively, both Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were featured in highly acclaimed performances at the ivory tower of jazz—Jazz @Lincoln Center. This embracing of the previously maligned leaders of the avant-garde by America’s leading jazz organization has been viewed, particularly by critics and some historians, as marking the end of the jazz cultural wars of the 1990s that enforced certain aesthetical boundaries and hierarchies. Audiences now wonder why avant-garde jazz was so controversial. Why were these musicians dismissed, maligned, and ostracized by many within the jazz community? There are no easy answers to these questions. However, these performances and the emergence of critically acclaimed new musical voices, such as Makaya McCraven, Jason Moran, and Kamasi Washington, show that the jazz avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s left a lasting imprint on our cultural, historical, and sonic understandings of the word jazz.

Tammy L. Kernodle, PhD, is a professor of Musicology at Miami University, Miami, Ohio. Kernodle is the author of the biography Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams (Northeastern University Press, 2004) and her work has appeared in Musical Quarterly, American Music Research Journal, and Women’s Voices Across Musical Worlds, an anthology on the contributions of women to music. She has served as the associate editor of Encyclopedia of African American Music (ABC-CLIO, 2011), the first monograph to survey the history of African American music spanning the years 1619 to 2010, and as a senior editor for the revision of New Grove Dictionary of American Music (Oxford University Press, 2013).