Perfect Sound Forever

The Real Godfathers of Punk

by Jason Gross (July 1996)

Sun Ra Ayler Coltrane Ornette
Sun Ra Albert Ayler John Coltrane Ornette Coleman

When jaded music-nuts, chin-strokers and hipster whipper-snappers mull about things like 'where did punk rock come from,' very rarely do you hear anything about jazz. Some poor souls are under the misconception that "jazz" only means Chuck Mangione or George Benson, forgetting such pioneers as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler, all of whom are the real grand-daddies of punk.

To see the connection, you have to go back to the original performers who influenced punk. Usually you hear about the MC5, the Stooges, the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. One thing all of these amazing groups had in common (other than not burning up the charts) is the raw grit and noise they splashed across their records, something that had been lacking in rock for a while. One other important common denominator is that they were all jazz fans, using their guitars to imiate their favorite players or actually using horns themselves.

Look at those Detroit greasers, the MC5. Ray Charles and Screamin' Jay Hawkins were part of their sets but so was Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra- this is most obvious on Kick Out The Jams and semi-legitimate releases of their early material. Unfortunately, their record companies and their producers scrubbed up their music somewhat and this wasn't always obvious from their records- their next album, Back in the USA was based on Chuck Berry much more than any jazz that they loved.

Then there's their Motor City homeboys the Stooges. Iggy was lecturing at a college (!) a few years back, talking about the Stooges. He played a Stooges record then he played a jazz album (I think it might been have Coltrane). His whole point was to show what the band was trying to do, successfully or not. Most of all, you heard this with Steve Mackay's sax wailing on Funhouse, especially on the free-form "L.A. Blues." Maybe they were trying to simulate how their live shows ended or maybe they didn't have enough material (like on their first album) but there was no doubt that this wasn't Chuck Berry material (I ought to stop picking on Berry though since he is a pioneer and a God in his own right).

When I started out I was inspired by people like Ornette Coleman. He has always been a great influence- Lou Reed

Even though John Cale's influence and the work he did with minimalist composers John Cage and LaMonte Young heavily influenced the early work of the Velvet Underground, there was another strong influence at work with the band. Lou Reed said that "European Son" was his way of trying to imitate Ornette Coleman with guitars- I don't think it was successful but it was still a mind-melting blast. Later on, Lou would follow this influence by using the late Don Cherry (a Coleman sideman and a great player himself) as part of his stage band in the late '70s and recording The Bells with him. Reed actually can full circle when he made a guest appearance with Ornette and Prime Time at their live show at Avery Fisher Hall in New York in '97: since Lou is playing the elder musical statesman nowadays, he decided to do 'Satellite of Love' rather than 'European Son' (which would have been more appropriate).

Most of all, there's that lovable crank Captain Beefheart. If the spastic rhythms that his band blurted out weren't clue enough, then his saxophone playing should have left no doubt about his influences. Especially on Trout Mask Replica, his playing is a tribute to Coleman and Ayler, even more so than the Stooges, Velvets or MC5. Delta blues were also important to him and this became to dominate his music more and more in the seventies.

It's interesting to think about the other performers from the late sixties who were jazz buffs. Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia not only played a kind of jazz in their long solos but they would also perform with jazz musicians (Jimi with Larry Young and Garcia with Ornette years later). Most guitarists from that time (Page, Beck, Clapton, Richards, Townshend) were most into blues and R&B. The garage bands would take this to an extreme, making the same music rawer, simpler and louder. Years later, most alternative bands would follow the same path.

At this same time, jazz itself was going through an interesting development. The Filmore in California was hosting the psychedelic bands as well as Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and Roland Kirk. This was important because it helped to open jazz up to young, white audience. In the case of Davis, it also may have changed his attitudes about music. The stupid rumor that he was pressured into fusion by his record company doesn't hold up- Miles had the idea himself to use electric instruments. The shock was as big as when Bob Dylan did the same thing with his music but proved just as influential. If Miles helped produce a whole wave of bland fusion performers, in his time, he also made music in the '70s that was as metal as AC/DC or Metallica.

Years later, when punk started up, some of the players were also jazz fans, especially the incestuous New York scene. Patti Smith's second album, Radio Ethiopia, contained a frenzied title-track that rivals "L.A. Blues." (Supposedly, Ornette himself was slated to play on it). Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television certainly had Coltrane and Ayler in mind when they took off on their solos. Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine sounded like this was where his head was at also. In all, they had the same thing in mind as Lou Reed when he was trying to get his guitar to imitate the jazz he loved.

By in large though, this kind of jazz influence was not directly seen in most punk rock. Other than Lora Logic (Essential Logic/X-Ray Spex) and James Chance (who had played with Ornette guitarist Bernie Nix), you didn't even see any saxophones. Most punk bands went for noise and maybe songs but not much "improvisation" or musicianship- these seemed too foreign or uncool to the whole experience. Look at the Sex Pistols, Dead Boys, Dictators, Blondie, Ramones, Clash, Talking Heads, Heartbreakers, Adverts and the Cleveland and West Coast groups just to see this. They listened to a dirtier version of the blues and R&B that most of the sixties guitarists were into: the garage bands. And of course, there was also the MC5, Stooges, Velvets, Beefheart...

Today, many of the grunge and alternative bands follow the same path. The list of jazz-influenced bands ranges from the few obvious to many not-so-obvious. Sonic Youth had done a show with Sun Ra shortly before he died and the Minutemen did a show with Ornette bassist Charlie Haden. Other signs of hope abound: Naked City (with John Zorn), Borbetomagus, Blurt, Spanish Kitchen and Bazooka. Most likely, and hopefully, there's many more. This may mean that there isn't a real, solid movement out there for this yet but that may only because most alternative bands who broke through the charts haven't taken this particular route yet. That's how we measure things, isn't it?

So what is the real, direct link between the free jazz of '50s and '60s and punk rock? One big difference is that in free jazz there were very talented, accomplished musicians playing complex music. With punk, you had a bunch of amateurs who played simple music. They did and still do have a lot in common though. Both were (and are) hated by many so-called critics, writers and the old guard of their respective types of music. They also each re-wrote the the whole goddamn book on their own music, challenged many preconceptions and opened many eyes- you may hate them but it's hard to ignore each of them. Maybe most importantly, they each spawned a sub-culture of musicians, bands, clubs, scenes, record labels and all kinds of collectives to help nuture their own music. This was important because it took YEARS for either style to be accepted and assimliated into the mainstream. Still, the two types of music are, mostly, as exclusive of each other as they were in the heydey of punk or free jazz (hey, how about FREE PUNK then?).

This isn't to say that the whole idea of rock-fusion music isn't dead or gone. Who knows if any of those new bands won't constitute a movement themselves. Or maybe they'll become influences for another wild style of music just like the punk grand-daddies did. One thing is for sure: it'll be quite a laugh to see how the record companies would try to market all of this. If Ornette ever makes it onto The Simpsons or even back on Saturday Night Live (which actually happened years ago but is unthinkable today unfortunately), you'll know it's happened. And there will be much rejoicing.

2003 update: Yes, Ornette did appear briefly on the Simpsons. Actually, his character made a cameo but he himself didn't get to appear with a voice-over. Nevertheless, there was some rejoicing...

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