Perfect Sound Forever


Part 1: The Birth of the Collectives
by Daniel Barbiero

Not only in America but in Europe as well, the 1960's and 1970's saw a flourishing of innovation in jazz and jazz-derived improvised music. At the center of much of the European ferment was France, and Paris in particular, albeit not exclusively. French musicians, many of whom had played with American musicians touring or living in France, not only adopted many of the new approaches to jazz that had been developing in America since the late 1950's, but went on to adapt some of them to specifically French circumstances. Among these new approaches was the envisioning of improvised music as a collective undertaking, both in its sound and in the organization of the ensembles playing it.

Some Americans in Paris

As with the earlier waves of jazz that had washed over France since James Reese Europe toured the country with an Army band in 1918, the new wave of free jazz that hit in the 1960's arose from the presence of American musicians in Paris. From the end of 1964 on, French musicians obtained substantial first-hand exposure to free jazz from American musicians passing through or resident in Paris. It was in late 1964 that Don Cherry, having left Ornette Coleman's quartet, went to Paris where he played with the quintet of multi-instrumentalist Bernard Vitet, a group that included pianist François Tusques, double bassists Bernard "Beb" Guérin and Jean-François Jenny-Clark, and drummer Aldo Romano. Jenny-Clark and Romano would go on to play in Cherry's own group, a multi-national ensemble formed in Paris in 1965 which also included Argentine saxophonist Leandro "Gato" Barbieri and German vibraphonist/pianist Karl Berger. In August 1965, Ornette Coleman played in Europe, including France, for the first time; 1966 was the year that both Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler were first presented in Paris, with Archie Shepp playing there the following year. Interestingly, Ayler had already been to France and had played with French musicians during his Army service, when he was stationed in Orléans in 1959-1961. Drummer Sunny Murray, who lived in Paris from 1968-1971, frequently collaborated with Vitet, Tusques, and Guérin, as well as with saxophonist/bass clarinetist Michel Portal. By 1970, double bassist Alan Silva had settled in Paris, where he established his Celestial Communication Orchestra and additionally played in small groups with Tusques, Portal, Vitet, Romano, and drummer Jacques Thollot. Of special significance was the visit to Paris at the end of the '60's by Anthony Braxton, Marion Brown, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. These artists were highly active, playing and recording during their time abroad, and left a strong impression on the French musicians who came in contact with them.

In sum, between the end of 1964 and the beginning of the 1970's French musicians interested in new forms of jazz not only could witness the musicians creating these forms, but frequently had the opportunity to play with them as well. For the French, the Americans offered entry into new musical worlds. For the Americans, France seemed a more hospitable place for themselves and for their music than America, which they felt offered little more than economic hardship and social disadvantage. But as important as the presence of these visiting and expatriate American improvisers was, it did not provide the only impetus behind French jazz musicians' turn to free improvisation and collective organization. There were generationally salient ideological and political factors too, which were specific to France and its situation in the late 1960's.

May 1968

Although not directly concerned with music, the events of May 1968 had a profound impact on the development of French free improvisation, particularly in relation to its turn to collective ensembles. The student uprisings and worker strikes that convulsed the country were a kind of alembic within which were distilled some of the ideas and attitudes through which a number of young French free musicians came to understand themselves and their music. The musicians' youth was itself an important factor in this regard. Like the student protesters from whom they drew inspiration, most of the musicians who went on to form collectives were born between 1944 and 1949, and it isn't surprising that they were attracted to what was to a large extent an assertion of generational power and the attainment of a kind of class-consciousness based on age. It was natural that the ideas and attitudes animating these musicians' contemporaries should serve as a source of norms for how their music should be organized, and to what purpose.

It would be impossible to reduce the complex of heterogeneous and sometimes self-contradictory ideals of May '68 to a simple and self-consistent set of tenets - which in any event wasn't the case at the time. What was in the air can best be described as a volatile combination of Maoist politics, the neo-Dadaist and Surrealist stance of Situationism, and an instinctive impulse to rebel. But it does seem fair to say that if there was a general mentalité animating the actions of the students and their sympathizers it was one that embraced a utopian vision of radical egalitarianism, the elimination or attenuation of hierarchy, and the freeing of the expressive forces of desire and imagination. This utopianism gave rise not only to a rethinking of how social relationships in general could be structured along egalitarian, non-hierarchical lines, but to the idea that musical ensembles should also be organized as leaderless, communal groups. And the current of influence went in the other direction as well. If the actions of students and radicals provided models for free jazz musicians, free jazz itself provided an image of what an egalitarian, anti-hierarchical society should look like. The Swiss sociologist Alfred Willener, writing in 1970, characterized the action of the students as a "collective improvisation" and described "free form jazz" as "the expression of a revolutionary desire for social emancipation" (quoted in Drott, p. 270). The relationship between free jazz and the events of May were more than metaphorical, though; in the guise of the Comité Action Musique, a number of free jazz musicians themselves became participants in the strikes (Angelopoulo; Drott, p. 270).

The importance of the utopianism of May 1968 for the development of French free improvisation is clearly acknowledged in the interviews music historian Vincent Cotro conducted in 1998 and 1999 for his indispensable book on free jazz in France. For example Jean-Louis Méchali, drummer, percussionist, and vibraphonist of the collective Cohelmec, directly stated that the context for the emergence of the free collectives "was that of May 1968." Both he and his brother François, Cohelmec's double bassist, mentioned having had explicitly political orientations. Jean-Louis recalled that "[a]t the level of the group, we were always associated with the anarchist party (Mutualité), Mao (with Sartre, Foucault...), PSU (La Villette...)" while François remembered that "[t]he revolutionary parties engaged us for many events because our musical approach was close to their political approach" (Cotro, pp. 174-175). Didier Levallet, double bassist for the collective quartet Perception, saw a parallel between the collectives' "questioning of the instrumental hierarchy" on the one hand, and the "anti-authoritarianism of 68" on the other. Both represented "step[s] in the same direction" (Cotro, p. 185). Similarly, Gérard Marais, guitarist of the Dharma Quintet, remembered that the group's "approach was a refusal, a critique of existing institutions, putting in question a way of life. From there, our tendency toward political contestation..." (Cotro, p. 193). For drummer Christian Rollet of the Free Jazz Workshop of Lyon, "[s]elf-formation and the maturation of the group sound were part of a single creative impulse in a time of realizable utopia" (Cotro, p. 201). But Levallet also pointed out that an explicitly politicized outlook was not necessarily universal among the musicians: "Personally, yes [there was a clear link between a political ideal and the music]. But I'm not sure that this point of view was shared by all of my colleagues (or else in a way that was diffuse and unconceptualized)" (Cotro, p. 185).

At the same time that French musicians' political or ideological attitudes motivated them to turn to the collective form of group organization, they could see as well the effectiveness of the collective model in practice, thanks to their exposure to the American avant-garde jazz musicians who were touring or living in France in the late 1960's. A number of the musicians Cotro interviewed mentioned the Art Ensemble of Chicago and/or the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). in particular as having influenced the decision to organize as collectives: both Méchalis of Cohelmec; Levallet of Perception; Marais of Dharma; and Rollet as well as Maurice Merle (soprano and alto saxophones) and Jean Bolcato (double bass) of the Free Jazz Workshop of Lyon.

Out of the Cul-de-Sac

The state of French free jazz at the end of the 1960's was another factor that made such groups attractive. In fact, the turn to collective ensembles represented a response not only to the perceived shortcomings of society in general, but to the shortcomings French free jazz musicians were beginning to find specifically in their own musical practices. As the decade came to a close, many of them felt that the music reached a cul-de-sac. Cotro suggests that a contributing factor to the aesthetic impasse French free jazz had reached was, paradoxically, its success in finding outlets. He notes the "proliferation of concerts, festivals, events, and recordings connected to free jazz between 1968 and 1970," which he indicates may have led to the overreliance on techniques and effects that not only had an immediate impact on audiences, but were easy to produce as well. It made for what he characterizes as a "temptation for the facile under the pretext of a hypothetical spontaneity." In addition, the ensembles playing the music tended to be unstable, ad hoc groupings of constantly changing personnel of sometimes inadequate talent. In sum, he concludes, the state of French free jazz at the end of the 1960s, he concludes, presented a "gloomy picture." (Cotro, p. 167)

French musicians were themselves well aware of the "gloomy picture" and of the need to find a way out. In an interview with Lucien Malson and André Hodier in Les Cahiers du Jazz, no. 18, of 1970, Michel Portal said,

I ask myself why I thought that the music we made wouldn't become a style. I thought that one could play freely and that a host of musical styles would then be heard. Now, I understand, at each new concert, that our music has become 'free jazz,' that it has a nuance that is recognizable, stereotypical, categorizable, and that this nuance becomes monotonous because it consists in a dynamic that's always the same, in something easy...It's a very small domain." (Quoted in Cotro, pp. 166-167).
Musicians from Cohelmec offered their own perspective in an interview in Jazz Magazine in March 1971:
What we want to avoid is this type of 'free' style characterized by powerful drumming and a saxophonist playing deliriously in the upper register...nothing is destroyed, nothing is created, nothing is developed, nothing is put into question...In the final calculation...this isn't music anymore; it's better to have a minimum of arrangements and get beyond this slightly primitive stage of the scream. (Quoted in Cotro, p. 167).
In short, the rapid and undisciplined development the music had undergone left it uneven in quality and too obviously imitative of its American models. The tendency of French free players to fall into the trap of simply, if competently, reproducing the gestures of the American innovators created music that may have sounded urgent on the surface, but underneath was in danger of being empty of meaning. The result was a kind of academicism that was both meticulous in hewing close to its American models and mediocre in its having produced little of real value of its own. In effect, French musicians were subordinating themselves to a set of conventions that had once signified musical freedom - and at that, largely for others -- but now had devolved into a handful of banalities spoken with a borrowed voice. It was a situation that an earlier generation of French intellectuals would have described as mauvaise foi - the bad faith born of inauthenticity and conformity. Recognition of this disappointing state of affairs was not limited to the musicians themselves; contemporary critics writing in magazines devoted to jazz complained that French free jazz had degenerated into the sterile replication of clichés derived from the original work of American free jazz musicians. As the musicians themselves understood, the American context and the French context differed significantly; the musical, ideological, and racial factors at play among the American free jazz cohort could not be expected to motivate French free jazz players, and this difference ultimately would have to be reflected in the music itself. Ironically, perhaps, this aspiration to play something other than music derived from American free music was inspired by American free musicians. Interviewed by Cotro in June 1999, Dharma's Marais said that French free musicians naively but forcefully took to heart the "universalist message of Albert Ayler, for example (Do your own music!)," and that that was the beginning of their distancing themselves from American jazz. Inevitably, they would have to find their own way of playing and their own reasons for playing that way.

Beyond "Free Jazz"

And eventually, they would. The term "free jazz" would in time become increasingly inadequate to describe the kind of improvised music French, and indeed other European musicians developed over the course of the 1970s and beyond. The influence of American free jazz would still be felt, but it would be supplemented by the influences of local and regional folk musics as well as contemporary art music, rock music, and even music from non-Western cultures. For instance, in an interview with Jazz neuf magazine, Dharma was quoted as saying, "Our music is the original result of the assimilation of elements of free jazz, of pop music, and of contemporary music, but we do not refuse the influences of Eastern or African musics." In the same issue, Didier Levallet of the Perception collective asserted that "The music of Perception comes, without a doubt, from jazz, but one can also hear in it echoes of a certain Hungarian folk music, some colors issuing from contemporary music, a little bit of concrete art as well, and certainly some other things too, more intimate, with that European breath appropriate to us." (Quoted in Cotro, p. 60) The reorientation of French improvised music toward more eclectic sources of inspiration was symbolized in, among other things, the Free Jazz Workshop of Lyon dropping "Free Jazz" from its name in 1976. It became simply the Workshop of Lyon.

It was in response to this complex situation that French musicians began to form the groups that would become active in the early 1970s. What was being sought was a way for French improvised music to define itself as an entity in its own right, and with a sound of its own. The first step to be taken was the development of compositional structures that would afford the kind of expressiveness free jazz initially promised. These structures would, inevitably, act as constraints, but were envisioned as enabling constraints. The organizational structure that the collective offered was understood as being particularly suited to facilitating a renewal of the music. As Dharma guitarist Marais put it in his interview with Cotro, "the absence of a leader was seen as a type of organization that would allow us to go along new paths, to escape academicism" (Cotro, p. 192). Similarly, Jean-Louis Méchali in his own interview asserted that "the collective is the sole solution for creative music" (Cotro, p. 176). If the basic idea was to create something coherent through a communal effort, then the collective organization, with its egalitarian relationships, would be the way by which to do it. Thus it was that a number of French improvisational collectives were formed. Earliest among them was the Free Jazz Workshop of Lyon, which was organized in 1967. The Cohelmec Ensemble was formed in the following year, while the collectives The Dharma Quintet and Perception were established in 1970, in March and June respectively.

To be continued...


Vincent Cotro, Chants Libres: Le free jazz en France, 1960-1975 (Paris: Éditions Outre Mesure, 1999). Internal cites to Cotro. My account of free jazz in France inevitably is heavily indebted to Cotro's excellent book. All translations from the book are my own.

Maro Angelopoulou, "Anarchy in the EU: The Musical Legacy of May 1968," in Europa Vox, 22 May 2018, accessible at Internal cite to Angelopoulou.

Eric Drott, "Music and May 1968 in France: practices, roles, and representations," in Beate Kutschke and Barley Norton, eds, Music and Protest in 1968 (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2013). Internal cites to Drott.

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