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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

THINGS began looking up ever so slightly for jazz around the Bicentennial, and this upward trend -- perhaps identifiable as such only in retrospect -- lasted well into the eighties. Jazz remained commercially marginal; the signs of hope were in the music, not in its record sales or box-office receipts. No one burst onto the scene to alter the course of jazz almost single-handedly, as Louis Armstrong had in 1927, Charlie Parker in 1945, and Ornette Coleman in 1959, and the evidence began to suggest that no one ever would. In the absence of a new messiah the guiding principle became diversity -- always a sign of well-being in the arts, if perplexing to those conditioned to measure jazz's progress in terms of seismic disruptions.

The members of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians drifted almost en masse to New York, bringing with them ideas about the relationship between sound and silence which reanimated a moribund avant-garde. Ornette Coleman and the group Prime Time combined loopy funk polyrhythms with an arcane theory Coleman called "harmolodics," arriving at the first synthesis of jazz and rock that didn't smack of middle-aged panic or an attempt to make a quick buck. Dexter Gordon's triumphant return from Europe and Art Blakey's tireless leadership of the Jazz Messengers sparked a hard-bop revival, ultimately setting the stage for Wynton Marsalis. Art Pepper, released from prison in 1966, published Straight Life (1979), a scorching autobiography that drew attention to him as an unfairly neglected figure and to West Coast jazz of the 1950s as an unfairly maligned subgenre. Small-group swing, which had been swept aside for most of the 1960s and early 1970s, made an encouraging comeback -- or, to be more accurate, labels such as Pablo, Chiaroscuro, and Concord Jazz began recording it, filling a gap created by the major companies.

Amid fears that young musicians might bypass jazz for rock, there was an influx of fresh faces, including some, such as the trumpeter Warren Vaché and the tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, whose arrival made clear that not even styles of jazz perfected as long ago as the 1930s and early 1940s were in danger of extinction. The era's most valuable newcomers, however, were second-wave avant-gardists, including the trombonist George Lewis, the flutist James Newton, the pianist Anthony Davis, and the tenor saxophonists David Murray and Chico Freeman, for whom free jazz of the 1960s was merely a starting point -- a part of jazz history subject to revision and elaboration but no longer open to dispute.

The mid-1970s was the period during which "tradition" became a jazz buzzword, largely as a result of the avant-garde's efforts to demonstrate its lineage from earlier forms of jazz. Sun Ra and his Arkestra began to feature numbers that Fletcher Henderson and others had written for Henderson's band in the 1930s, and the alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill and his group Air reached all the way back to Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. At a time when it was practically a given that creativity entailed playing only original compositions, the saxophonists Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, and Arthur Blythe confounded listeners' expectations with relatively straightforward performances of bebop and popular standards. The message seemed to be that any tradition broad enough to encompass both ragtime and bebop was broad enough to encompass free jazz as well.

THE most surprising development was a shift in emphasis only somewhat presaged by these excursions into the jazz past. "Jazz is by its very nature a music of improvisation ... Therefore of invention ... Therefore of ongoing change," a writer named Ross Firestone fingersnapped in the opening paragraph of his liner notes for Wildflowers, a series of five LPs recorded amid much fanfare in the spring of 1976 at Studio Rivbea (not a studio at all but a performance space run by the tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers and his wife, Bea, in their lower-Manhattan loft). The notes for Jazz Loft Sessions, a single CD gleaned from those five LPs, omit Firestone's opening paragraph and begin instead with his reasonable observation that Studio Rivbea and other New York lofts afforded musicians of the late 1970s an opportunity to try new things in public, free from the pressures of nightclubs and concert halls. Their search was for expanded contexts in which to improvise -- that is, new ways of approaching the question of composition in jazz.

For all its sound and fury, the avant-garde of the 1960s had left the structure of jazz fundamentally unchanged. In free jazz as in bebop, a "tune" was something played at the beginning and repeated at the end, generally little more than harmonic scaffolding for improvised solos (and frequently not even that in free jazz, where reference to the tune's chord changes was optional). Beginning around 1976, in the work of the alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill and numerous others, including many of the players on Jazz Loft Sessions, composition and improvisation started to overlap -- the way they had, perhaps not coincidentally, on Jelly Roll Morton's recordings in the 1920s with his Red Hot Peppers and in Fletcher Henderson's and Duke Ellington's scores for their big bands.

For someone like Hemphill or Henry Threadgill, a "composition" could be a piece written out from beginning to end, with multiple themes and a limited amount of improvisation, or it could be nothing more than a riff. When it was only a riff, the riff was likely to turn up anywhere -- between solos and underneath them, but not necessarily at the beginning and end.

The turning point seemed to come with the release of Anthony Braxton's Creative Orchestra Music 1976. Unlike most of his peers in the jazz avant-garde, who recorded for a variety of domestic and European labels with limited studio budgets, Braxton was under contract to Arista, a mid-major (in the language of that day's record business) with the resources to indulge his grandest ambitions. Arista failed in its attempt to position Braxton as the most significant new voice in jazz since Ornette Coleman; not even the most intrepid record buyers knew what to make of a saxophonist who gave his compositions diagrammatic titles and whose newest release might well be an album of Stockhausenlike pieces for solo piano on which Braxton himself did not play a note.

Braxton's affiliation with Arista enabled him to write for and perform with large ensembles, and he caught his most ardent admirers by surprise with two numbers on Creative Orchestra Music 1976. Both were saddled with titles that looked like the doodles of a daydreaming physicist. One, described by Braxton in his notes as an exercise in "repetition structure" and as having been inspired by Duke Ellington, borrowed Ellington's harmonic tapestry to make a ballad inlaid with countermelodies more dissonant than his, but not by much. Less than two years after Ellington's death, when tributes to him abounded, this one did more than echo his orchestra's sound; it demonstrated his continued relevance to composers working in idioms far removed from the dance band.

The album's other winner was a midwestern circus march -- authentic three-ring music replete with tuba, glockenspiel, bass drum, and improvised solos that sounded as though they were being executed by acrobats atop the high wire. In the movie My Left Foot, Daniel Day-Lewis, as the Irish writer and painter Christy Brown, tells a questioner, "There are only two kinds of painting -- religious and the circus." The same goes for art in general, including jazz. Having reached a dead end with religion in the early part of the decade, the jazz avant-garde of the late 1970s gave itself and its listeners a break by unexpectedly opting for the circus.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is at work on a book about John Coltrane.

Illustration by Gary Kelley.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; Jazz -- Religious and Circus - 00.02 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 2; page 88-94.