Free at last – From Ornette’s point of view

Free at last – From Ornette’s point of view 2010

Jazzpool NRW Autumn 2010 / An encounter with Poland

This year the great Ornette Coleman celebrates his 80th birthday. His appearance on the New York jazz scene in 1959 gave rise to more excitement and furious reactions than all previous stylistic innovations. Well before students proclaimed that “The Times They Are a-Changing”, Ornette was clearing out the mainstream aesthetic lumber, giving the new, uncluttered sound a fitting name: Free Jazz. As is so often the case with art, fifty years later, we no longer understand the bitterness he aroused because, over the course of time, the beautiful music that Ornette and his first quartet created proved to be the logical development of the music of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

Ornette’s blow for freedom was of huge significance to jazz in Europe. Moved by this new, free spirit, people here finally started to beat their own musical paths. In Germany, musicians such as Peter Brötzmann and Alex Schlippenbach developed a different, much more radical version of free jazz. The creativity that flourished behind the Iron Curtain – in Poland – is especially fascinating. The circle around Krystof Komeda offered a variety of jazz that no longer sought inspiration from the USA and very quickly found its own, characteristic sound. There, where social conditions were particularly harsh, people such as Tomasz Stanko and Michal Urbaniak played a contemporary jazz which was unconstrained, even highly romantic.

Can it be a coincidence that it was precisely in this country that the great erosion started, twenty years later, leading to the collapse of communism? Or are art and artists more than mere decoration? Perhaps finely-tuned seismographs of their social environment? Ornette Coleman pre-empted the freedom of the 1960s; the Polish jazz musicians played what became a reality in 1989: Free at last.