Jazz in the 1960's: Toward Free Jazz and Jazz Fusion

Jazz reached a new level of experimental improvisation during the 1960's. The BeBop revolution had contributed an array of specific modern musical techniques to future jazz styles but it also established a legacy of experimentation as a natural part of the jazz process. This paved the way for a dominant trend in jazz during the 1960's: the search for increasingly personal styles on the part of the major performers of this period. As a result, it became impossible to divide jazz styles in the 60's in broad style categories such as Kansas City Swing versus Sweet Swing, or Cool Jazz versus Hard Bop. If "schools" of jazz did emerge in the 60's they centered around individual players whose innovations were brilliant and original enough to attract a following. Of such figures, the single most influential was John Coltrane, whose powerful playing stretched the limits of jazz improvisation beyond the strict framework of popular song forms to a freer, more open-ended approach. The Coltrane "sound" has had a profound influence on the jazz of the 60's, 70's, and 80's.

At a purely visceral level his massive and intense tenor sax tone and the withering speed of his note-flow overwhelmed the younger generation of jazz players. In the words of the jazz critic, Ira Gitler, "he played notes so fast that he seemed to hang sheets of sound before the listener, playing through scales and melodic patterns at a velocity previously unknown to the jazz world."

Coltrane also re-introduced an instrument lost to jazz since the brilliant early playing of Sidney Bechet, the soprano saxophone. A whole new generation of saxophonists have made the soprano sax their standard instrument. Coltrane's intensely ecstatic level of improvising, based on nearly superhuman virtuosity, was derived from the most virtuosic form of improvisation in Asiatic cultures: the quasi-religious raga improvisations of India, using such instruments as the sitar, the veena, the sarangi, and the sarod. Coltrane derived three things from raga improvisors: 1) the hypnotic intensity of the playing based on extreme virtuosity; 2) the frequent shifting, in a rapid improvisation, from the standard major or minor scale to modal scales, giving his music a faintly exotic sound; and 3) basing a radically extended improvised line on a mere fragment of melody. This was the first significant step
toward free improvisation in jazz, in that the improvised melodic lines are not confined to a fixed song form, such as 32-bar songs or 12-bar blues but, instead, are free "spin offs" of the short tune fragment.