Sp8. Jazz and Freedom
Jazz and Freedom
Is jazz the music of freedom?
When asked whether he agrees that jazz is a music of freedom by jazz researcher and interviewer George McKay, British saxophonist Trevor Watts replies with trenchant criticisms of the question. He raises several difficulties for this line of thought, e.g., the concept of freedom appealed to is too vague. Regardless of how one defines it, Watts believes that no music can be entirely free. Freedom for Watts better relates not to the music made but rather to the musicians making it. When comparing the freedom of musicians, Watts finds that rock musician Jimi Hendrix and jazz musician Ornette Coleman or Charlie Parker were equally free as musicians relative to each other. Freedom for musicians, or lack of it, depends upon how different aspects of music have become institutionalized and now are used through repetition and practice as less free than it was before precisely because these aspects have become standard practices and are now institutionalized. Ultimately, Watts concludes that the entire original question is naive and overly simplistic in seeking simpler yes or no answers to whether jazz is a music of freedom. Watts makes all of these points quickly and on the spur of the moment during his replies in writing to an email interview:
“George McKay: Many musicians and enthusiasts talk of jazz as a music of ‘freedom’. Do you agree?
Trevor Watts: Any music can be the music of freedom. No music has inherent freedom within it. Sure it may have chordally or non-chordally for that matter, but that isn’t where true freedom lies. It lies in the head of the musician. I didn’t think Jimi Hendrix was any less free than Ornette in his playing, and Charlie Parker was free as a bird. It’s when the freedoms of a musician become institutionalised and learnt as a language that there becomes less freedom for the individual learning it and playing it by rote, because it’s been done before. You have to find your own voice, and there would lie your freedoms as well as some restrictions of course. I played with Sonny Boy Williamson in a blues context. He was as free as anyone else I’ve played with. So no style of music can claim that. It’s too naive a thought. (bold and bold italic not in original)
Internet Resources on Protest and Freedom
- Melvin Gibbs, "The Changing Nature of Protest in Jazz," explores how the music's role in the fight against racial injustice has evolved, Jazz Times, August 3, 2020
- Melvin Gibbs is a bass guitarist, composer, and producer whose 40-year career has featured work with Defunkt, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Eye and I, Sonny Sharrock, John Zorn, Rollins Band, Eddie Palmieri, Femi Kuti, and Arto Lindsay, among many others. He is currently one-third of the trio Harriet Tubman with guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer J.T. Lewis. In the 1980s, he was an original member of the Black Rock Coalition.
- Johnson, Bruce, ed. Jazz and Totalitarianism. New York: Routledge, 2017.
- Trevor Watts Interview, email correspondence, December 12, 2002. Trevor Watts is a saxophonist and improviser from Spontaneous Music Ensemble to Moiré Music. This interview was undertaken as part of an AHRC project for the book Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (Duke UP, 2005).