Our Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz

Destination: OUT just turned 6 years old! To mark the occasion, we’ve revamped and reactivated our “Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz.” The main reason we launched the site was to turn people onto this remarkable music and show that, rather than being difficult and esoteric, it’s vibrant and immediately engaging. So help us celebrate by telling one of your non-jazz-loving friends about this post and turn them on to these universal sounds. (And if you want to buy us – and your yourself – a present, there are plenty of choices in the FMP download store.)

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Destination: OUT’s Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz features a selection of fun and friendly entry points to this music (scroll down for the MP3s) – as well as some background and common misconceptions. It’s our attempt to make Free Jazz more understandable to folks who don’t normally listen to much jazz at all.


“Is jazz dead? Well, I guess that all depends on what you know.”
-Lester Bowie

“Free jazz reaches back to what jazz was originally, rebelling against the ultra-sophisticated art form it has become.”
-Archie Shepp

“I go out onstage, and my intention is to make the first four rows bleed from their ears.”
-Sonny Sharrock 

Free jazz — a place of outsize personalities, outrageous stories, and uncompromising music. There’s the performer who plays so hard that keys fly off the piano. A bandleader who claims to be from Saturn and outfits his 30-piece orchestra in space gear. The saxophonist whose ragtag gospel marches were cited by Paul McCartney as a major influence on Sgt. Pepper’s. The world traveler who found musical common ground between Marrakech and Brooklyn. The pianist who created spectacular glissandi by dragging his knuckles across the keyboard until they bled. The avant gardist whose recital moved President Jimmy Carter to tears at a White House event. The player many believe was killed by the CIA. The group that dons tribal gear and lab coats, performing music that swings between vaudeville and African chants. And the free jazz legend whose music touched so many lives that a church was founded in his name.

(aka Avant Garde Jazz aka Out Jazz aka Adventurous Jazz aka That Horrible Racket)

Well yeah, some of it is really noisy. That’s the strain of the music that’s influenced folks such as Sonic Youth, The Boredoms, Wolf Eyes, The Stooges, Lightning Bolt, MC5, and the like. Think of it as ecstatic freak-out music. The sort of thing that peels back the lid of your skull and rearranges your atoms.

But that’s only a small part of the music. Free Jazz spans 50 years and numerous countries and includes music that’s so delicate it’s practically ambient as well as tunes with a funk beat strong enough to shake the dance floor. Not to mention the pieces that showcase echoes of melodic folk music, Indian rhythms, minimalist repetitions, gutbucket blues, Hendrixian squalls, orchestral grandeur, big band exotica, electronic beats, proto-punk swagger, and more. It’s an entire continent of sound represented by tens of thousands of albums. Once you start digging, you’ll be amazed by the variety and vitality. There’s something for just about every taste — all you need is a slightly open mind.

Relax and trust your instincts. Most people automatically assume that there’s something in Free Jazz they’re not getting. Like you need conservatory training to appreciate what the musicians are doing. Or that there’s some secret content you’re not privy to. Nonsense: It’s just sound. Sometimes complex and abrasive, sometimes funky and buoyant. There’s no code to be broken. As Gertrude Stein once said: “There’s no there there.”

A newcomer listening to Free Jazz isn’t substantially different than someone who’s just discovering indie rock or electronica or roots reggae or whatever. The more you listen, explore, and expose yourself to different facets of the music, the more likely you are to find what you turns you on. Maybe Ornette Coleman grates on your ears. Fine. Be honest with yourself and keep looking, because maybe Sun Ra or Matthew Shipp will excite you. Ask friends, see what trustworthy critics are recommending, all that.

If you can, see some Free Jazz live. Pieces that may demand a fair amount of concentration when they’re coming out of your speakers often seem effortlessly absorbing in person. You may rush to turn off a Cecil Taylor album the first time you hear it, but live you won’t be able to take your eyes off the man. In performance, the passion and exuberance of the music is impossible to miss.

Maybe. But if you’re already listening to acts like Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Burial, Aphex Twin, ambient-era Brian Eno, TV on the Radio, and Yo La Tengo, then you’re ready. Without knowing it, you’ve already been listening to Free Jazz filtered through other sensibilities. Some of the classic Free Jazz recordings might even sound too tame!


Art Ensemble of Chicago

Theme de Yoyo

It doesn’t get much funkier than this sexy rave-up sung by Fontella Bass. The Art Ensemble’s motto was “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future,” which meant they employed everything from free-noise freakouts to swinging blues to funk. On this track, they use it all at the same time. Available on Les Stances A Sophie. [buy]


Herbie Hancock

Rain Dance

Before he went pop with Headhunters and “Rockit,” Herbie Hancock created the most radical and electronic-based grooves of the 1970s. Ignored by jazz, this futuristic music later influenced a generation of artists like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Mouse on Mars. Available on Sextant. [buy]


Sonny Sharrock

Dick Dogs

Sonny Sharrock is the avatar of shredding noise guitar. He led crack bands throughout the ’80s that laid down heavy and punishing grooves, but the real attraction was his seismic and sublime guitar tantrums. Just listen to the solos here! Available on Seize the Rainbow. [buy]


Don Cherry
Brown Rice

This track sounds amazingly similar to the best work of Can. Trumpeter and world music traveler Don Cherry combines an armada of keyboards, tamboura, chanting vocals, propulsive rhythms, and even electrified bongos to create this masterpiece of hypnotic funk. Available on Brown Rice. [buy]


Alice Coltrane

Journey in Satchidananda

Alice Coltrane (John’s widow) was scoffed at for her bold fusion of modal jazz and Indian influences. But she’s had the last laugh because her exquisite work now enjoys a surging reputation and has gone on to influence acts like Radiohead. Available on Journey in Satchidananda. [buy]

Miles Davis

Rated X

Think you know Miles? Well, this ain’t no Kind of Blue shit. Here Miles drops the horn to play organ, conjuring one of the nastiest slabs of pure noise drone. Underpinned by stop-start breakbeat rhythms, this is  jungle meets punk, 30 years ahead of the curve. Available on Get Up With It. [buy]


Joe Zawinul

Arrival in New York

This brief piece wouldn’t sound out of place on Brian Eno’s ambient masterpiece On Land. Using tape speed manipulation and keyboard smears, it evokes New York harbor on a foggy morning, 4:30 am when only the seaport is stirring, tugboats signaling one another with their unseen horns. Available on Zawinul. [buy]


Patty Waters

Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

This startling vocal track was a major influence on both Diamanda Galas and Japanese pysch rock legends Ghost. A 13-minute workout, it begins with Patty Waters sighing and softly intoning lyrics against a harp-sounding prepared piano. The song builds to an insane vocal freakout, before settling again into a hushed calm. Available on Patty Waters Sings. [buy]


Sun Ra

Angels and Demons at Play

Sun Ra’s music has been described as Duke Ellington from Mars. But the leader of the 30-piece Arkestra also loved Martin Denny and Esquivel. You can hear those influences burbling through in the percussion on his early work, along with his own otherwordly aesthetic. Cosmically playful! Available on Angels and Demons at Play/Nubians of Plutonia. [buy]


Archie Shepp


A wonderfully moody blues vamp by saxophonist Archie Shepp. “Vocalist Jeanne Lee delivers a soliloquy on sexual politics that sounds as ball-shredding now as it must have then, and the use of twinned harmonicas is particularly mind-blowing in this context.” – Thurston Moore & Byron Coley. Available on Blasé. [buy]


John Zorn/Naked City

Osaka Bondage

Zorn’s Naked City outfit jammed countless genres through their expert blender – surf, thrash, funk, bebop, lounge, grindcore. This 75 second blast, featuring Yamatsuka Eye and Bill Frisell, answers the nagging question of what The Boredoms and Steely Dan might sound like on the same stage. ADD as aesthetic strategy. Available on Black Box. [buy]


Matthew Shipp

Orbit 2

A solo piano piece whose stately meanderings, crystalline musings, and ingenious variations-on-a-simple theme evoke chamber works from Satie and Debussy, among others. The jagged edges are pure Matthew Shipp. Available on New Orbit. [buy]


Gwigwi Mrwebi


An indelible tune recorded many times over by various South African musicians in exile. Here is a relatively early performance of the theme from 1967. The band includes South Africans Dudu Pukwana (who wrote it), Gwigwi Mrwebi, Ronnie Beer, and Chris McGregor, with Coleridge Goode and Laurie Allan. You will dig. Available on Mbaqanga Songs.

Discussion14 Comments Category guides Tags , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

14 Responses to SIX YEARS OF DEST: OUT
Our Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz

  1. ,,, fantastic selections DO..[esp. as I was playing some Howard Riley/Lol Coxhill earlier today] …looking forward to your the next edition already. thanks

  2. Am I dead? Why else would all this stuff be up here at once?

  3. Congrats on your 6th blog-iversary! Keep up the good work!

  4. Felicitaciones, your site is one of the best about freejazz and avantgard.

    Keep up the great work! Best regards, :)

  5. Happy anniversary! You bring such joy and intelligence to the musical experience and continually surprise me with your offerings. I wish you continued creativity.

  6. Big thanks to Richard, Kike, Dean and Gerry! And to John: ha! We trust you are a-ok…

  7. My congratulations! Keep the good work up – it’s a difference which makes a difference.

  8. Great analysis and musical selection! I wanted to recommend an album that I love, more in the Rock In Opposition vein, but I don’t know why the comparison between Don Cherry and Krautrock brought this to mind…. the album is called The Man In The Elevator by Heiner Goebbels and Heiner Müller, and well… I think the list of musicians involved is quite interesting and varied, let me copy and paste it here haha: Drums, Percussion [Metal] – Charles Hayward (THIS HEAT), Guitar, Bass – Fred Frith, Piano, Synthesizer, Programmed By, Producer – Heiner Goebbels, Saxophone [Saxophones], Bass Clarinet – Ned Rothenberg, Trombone – George Lewis, Voice – Ernst Stötzner, Voice, Guitar – Arto Lindsay (DNA, THE LOUNGE LIZARDS), Voice, Trumpet, Strings [Doussn' Gouni] – Don Cherry, Written By – Heiner Müller….
    Greetings from Chiapas, México…

  9. Happy anniversary to the D:O crew! I hope all readers of this consistently thrilling site are aware that Destination Out produces a consistently thrilling biweekly radio show for WFMU’s Give the Drummer Radio stream. It airs every other Monday, 12-3pm (Eastern), but all programs are archived.

    You can hear the 24-hour stream anytime by clicking here

    You can access D:O Radio here

  10. I have been listening to free jazz since I was a teenager. After punk and hardcore I went to japanese noise and 60s free jazz (ESP, Trane, Brotzmann, etc). It was the aural ferocity and uncompromising attitude that roped me in. However, I quickly went way beyond that and actually started to really dig into this music. I have found my way to post-classical avant garde, psychedelic rock and heavy funk and afrobeat from there. While those may be musics with seemingly different agendas, it was actually the bridge for me between punk/death metal to funk/latin/world, for various reasons. It is all connected. And of course many of these guys were putting out their own records back in the 60s, punk-DIY style. A musical and economic value system that has inspired me to this day.
    If people can’t open their ears long enough to listen to the varied sounds of the world and only want to hear what is safe for them over and over again, then these people are closed minded fools. It’s like when your parents generation hated rock n roll or punk or whatever and refused to open their ears to something potentially valuable and life saving.
    Enjoy the adventure!

  11. Jazz for the win!
    Musical triumphs all around.
    I downloaded the whole works and slapped them into a panty-dropping mix-cd for weird chicks.

  12. Just wondering if United Front, Live in Berlin (SAJ-45) is on your horizon?

  13. Just picked up the whole Blasé album after spending the past few months listening to the title track courtesy of you folks at D:O, and I am not disappointed! Every track in this post is a keeper – lots of excellent choices. Keep up the great work!

  14. Glad to hear it! Thanks, Mike.

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