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  Outstanding Avant-Garde Tenor Saxophonists  
  by Dustin Garlitz  

October 2004:

The holy trinity of avant-garde tenor saxophonists from the 1960s would have to be John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp.  John Coltrane died in 1967: jazz hasn’t been the same since.  Both Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp worked with Coltrane -- they were actually informally mentored by him.  These two tenor saxophonists are considered the preeminent contemporaries of avant-garde Coltrane.  Two other avant-garde tenor saxophonists from the 1960s that shouldn’t be forgotten are Albert Ayler and Frank Wright.  In the recording of The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost from the 1965 Coltrane album Meditations, the three tenor saxophonists historically referred to are Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler.  Although one shouldn’t underestimate Ayler’s importance and influence on 1960s avant-garde jazz, my holy trinity is Coltrane, Sanders and Shepp.

            The avant-garde jazz of the middle to late 1960s is often referred to as energy music.  In my workshop with prominent free jazz bassist William Parker, he often called it a type of creative music.  Coltrane was born in the American South during 1926, and came up as a jazz musician before the subculture of “avant-garde/energy music” was created.  I guess one could say all jazz is creative music, from Dixieland to Bebop.  At the time each of these sub-genres was first being played, the musicians were certainly regarded as radical innovators.  Yet what makes 1960s avant-garde jazz different from other music is that it intersected with American counter-culture as a whole.  It was an element of style that supplemented the social message of resistance and protest that defined the Sixties.  It was certainly a social commentary at the time, just as innovative drummer Andrew Cyrille once explained (after a trio performance with Billy Hart on drums and David S. Ware on tenor saxophone) to one of his audiences at New York City's the Knitting Factory in Lower Manhattan that each generation’s music is a social history of their era.

            Coltrane first started playing jazz with prominent musical figures in 1949, when he joined bebop legend Dizzy Gillespie’s band.  This was the end of an era: almost all the big-bands broke up this year.  When Gillespie’s big band broke up, Coltrane stayed on as a front man in the trumpeter’s sextet.  Coltrane was inundated with bebop until the mid-fifties.  In 1955, he joined the great post-bop quintet of Miles Davis.  Miles had also worked with a bebop innovator in the past -- he joined Charlie Parker’s band when he was 19 years old.  Davis and Coltrane, both the same age, therefore had one foot rooted in the past and the other directed towards the future.  From the twelve-year period of 1955 to 1967, Coltrane grew more musically than some jazz players grow in a whole lifetime.  He was certainly taking giant steps: he went from playing with Thelonious Monk and competing with hard-bopper Sonny Rollins, to laying the foundations of modern avant-garde music.        

             The first and most popular avant-garde Coltrane album is A Love Supreme (recorded in December of 1964).  His quartet was signed to a very progressive label called ‘Impulse!’  The politics of the music industry were liberalized during this time; producer Bob Thiele was given the artistic freedom to let the Coltrane band open-up to new ideas during their recording sessions.  One thing that I have noticed is that Coltrane’s improvisational ideas were much more stylistically advanced in live performances than in recording sessions.  If one is to listen to the Complete Village Vanguard Concerts from early November of 1961, you would hear ideas that weren’t being dealt with in studio sessions until 1966!

            Think of the double doors to a restaurant…opening the first set of doors is like listening to A Love Supreme for the first time.  The space between the double doors is the changing stylistic direction of the mid-1965 Coltrane album Transition.  You can really hear the improvisational growth of the band in this album.  Entering the second set of double doors into the lobby space of the restaurant is like listening to the huge progression of the extended Coltrane band in Meditations.  The first two tracks of this album are one continuous performance.  By listening to the second track of the album, one can really hear how much the solos of pianist McCoy Tyner had grown over the course of one year.  The other tenor saxophonist featured on Meditations is Pharoah Sanders.   Archie Shepp was originally supposed to appear on A Love Supreme a year earlier.  During the last few years of his life, Coltrane appeared with an extended quartet, augmented by drummer Rashied Ali and either Sanders or Shepp.  When voted “Musician of the Year” in 1965 (while A Love Supreme was voted “Album of the Year”), the extended Coltrane Quartet with Archie Shepp shocked the audience at the Downbeat Magazine Awards Ceremony in Chicago by performing a set long avant-garde rendition of Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy.  The energy music of the 1960s, often referred to as ‘the New Thing’, ushered in a new era of jazz improvisation and extended technique that differed as a whole from any other type of jazz ever performed.  

            Since his music wasn’t initially received well by more conservative jazz audiences, Archie Shepp was monetarily impoverished for the first half of the Sixties.  He would call producer Bob Thiele every day, attempting to land a record contract with Impulse!  After many unsuccessful tries, he asked Coltrane to help him out.  The avant-garde innovator spoke to his producer and landed Shepp his first major record deal.  In return, Shepp named his first album after his mentor.  Four For Trane is a jazz classic; the piano-less ensemble played wonderful arrangements of some of the most popular Coltrane originals.  Later albums such as Mama Too Tight show that Shepp’s music is actually rooted in the ‘turn of the century’ African-American experience.  This phenomenon included the rise of work songs, Dixieland music, and contemporary culture: the early hot beds of progressive thought found in New Orleans and the American South (the climate in which the birth of jazz took place).

            Just as the case with Archie Shepp, the music of Pharoah Sanders is indeed rooted in the quintessential African-American experience.  Sanders, having grown up in Arkansas, is a product of ‘mid 20th century’ Southern culture.  His album Black Unity explores the aesthetics of this unique cultural experience.  Albert Ayler was caught up on uniting a cultural movement, yet more on the transcendental level.  His ‘mid-Sixties’ classic album Spiritual Unity features a trio playing themes resembling ‘turn of the century’ marching band anthems.  His bassist Gary Peacock was given the chance to work with the more mainstream Bill Evans Trio during the year Spiritual Unity was recorded, yet Peacock passed up the employment offer so he could be part of ‘The New Thing’ with Albert Ayler. 

When tenor saxophonist Ayler arrived in the Scandinavian nation-states, he felt a new sense of artistic freedom that didn’t exist in the United States.  He enjoyed interacting with the European musicians and made a wonderful recording in Stockholm called My Name is Albert Ayler.  It was around this time that many American jazz musicians were relocating to the Scandinavian provinces of Northern Europe.  This region’s jazz audience was very receptive to avant-garde music and culture -- the American jazz musicians were given a creative license that wasn’t existent back home in the U.S.

The Swedish record label ‘ESP’ issued the Reverend Frank Wright’s first album, the self-titled The Frank Wright Trio.  Listening to Frank Wright is a mind-blowing aural experience.  Wright plays the tenor saxophone like a Mississippi Delta Pastor preaches in church.  He is one of the sacred few musicians who laid the foundation for modern, high-energy avant-garde jazz.  His 1970s quartet with Cecil Taylor bassist Alan Silva was called Center of the World.  This band’s self- titled albums featured explosive improvisational statements that are still being mimicked by musicians today.  

Unfortunately, the jazz world lost the Reverend Frank Wright to a heart attack during the 1990s.  American jazz audiences had already missed him for many a year, since he too relocated to Europe after free jazz died down in the States (giving rise to the next phase of jazz called 'fusion').  Ayler went down in music history as a black martyr (and is listed in the same category as great soul-filled musicians such as Bessie Smith).  He was tragically murdered just a few years after Coltrane’s death.  Ayler died ‘like a dog’: his hands cut off and thrown in the East River of Manhattan.  Rumor has it that he was murdered by Italian mobsters who were relatives of the white women he dated at the time. 

Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders are still around today, making wonderful music all over the world.  Sanders is caught up on playing more traditional mid-Coltrane period jazz.  I saw him live at the 'Knitting Factory’ in New York City's Lower Manhattan playing a beautiful version of Coltrane’s composition "Giant Steps".  Archie Shepp lives in Paris today and has had a long time teaching stint at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst School of African-American Studies.  Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman introduced me to Archie at a New York City night club called ‘The Jazz Standard’.  Shepp sat down with me in the back room and preached about the importance of integrating technique and concept.  He told me that I would have to find a teacher for each of these ideals.  So I went out and studied with the two preeminent avant-garde tenor saxophonists of the new era: David S. Ware and Charles Gayle.  David taught me the saxophone technique necessary to play jazz while Charles served as my avant-garde concept mentor.  After becoming familiar with the 5 big 1960s avant-garde tenor saxophonists written about above, the jazz listener should become acquainted with the free jazz saxophone players of today -- Americans David S. Ware and Charles Gayle and Europe’s Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker.

In Europe, the avant-garde jazz tradition has spread over the entire continent...yet unfortunately it has declined in the U.S.  Look for a big increase in avant-garde jazz over the next few years though, since turbulent and chaotic times call for ecstatic music.  I want to see 9/11 put to music by the next generation of avant-garde tenor saxophonists.  First though, let’s start by embracing the music of yesterday.