Introduction: The Evolution to Free
By the late 1950s, jazz had been evolving for almost forty years. In that time, rhythms had evolved from the oom-chik, oom-chik of New Orleans to the irregular patterns of bop. The harmonies had grown from the simplicity of three chord blues songs to the harmonic meanderings of Monk. The improvised solo had unfolded from a simple melodic embellishment to the extraterrestrial flights of Parker. With each new generation, the unwritten rules governing jazz rhythm, harmony, and improvisation were expanded and redefined.
However, bop, in both its manifestations (bebop and hard bop), and cool jazz had created a problem not previously experienced in American popular music. “Is there a point,” some asked, “at which the melody, harmonies, and rhythms become so stretched from one another that there is a complete musical disconnection?” That is to say, is there a complete breaking away from all of the musical rules which unite melody, harmony and rhythm?
It was out of a search for the answer to this question that saxophone players John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman independently pushed the evolution of what may have seemed like the final frontier: free jazz.