© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Ellis's significance lies in his use of groundbreaking musical techniques and devices, new to the world of jazz. Ellis's innovations include the use of electronic instalments, electronic sound-altering devices, experiments with quarter tones, and the infusion of 20th-century classical music devices into the jazz idiom. Ellis's greatest contributions, however, came in the area of rhythm.
New rhythmic devices ultimately became the Don Ellis trademark. His compositions frequently displayed lime signatures with numerators of 5, 7, 9, 11, 19, 25, 33, etc. His approach within more conventional time signatures could be equally innovative through the use of rhythmic superimpositions. Ellis's rhythmic innovations-dcspitc much criticism - were not gimmicks, but rather a direct result of his studies in non-Western musical cultures, which included graduate work at UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology.
"Exotic rhythms" is a term used by the author as a categorical description of Ellis's innovative rhythmic devices. The expression "odd meters" is often used to describe the rhythmic innovations of Ellis. However, Ellis's innovations extend above and beyond issues concerning metrical structure and time signatures alone, as this dissertation will demonstrate. Additionally, although the phrase "odd meters" may in some cases have the appropriate implications, the word "odd" inherently limits the implied definition to meters with odd-numbered numerators - a much too restricting limitation to Ellis's approach. The author's choice of the term "exotic rhythms" addresses both the unconventional nature of Ellis's new metrical and rhythmic constructions, and indicates their non-Western inspiration. The term "exotic" has come to imply origins from another country or culture, out-of-the-ordinary, or excitingly-strange - all of which to appropriately describe Ellis's rhythmic concepts.
Ellis ultimately applied his experiences and knowledge of the music of non-Western cultures to the rhythmic language of jazz. He was one of the first to have accomplished such a fusion of ideas, and his work as a composer and an author stand as a memorial reflecting a significant stage in the evolution of jazz. This dissertation will attempt to assess the significance of the achievements of Don Ellis by examining his life, his writings, and his music.”
- Sean P. Fenlon, Doctoral Dissertation, Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University
The JazzProfiles feature on the evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra continues with the interviews and essays that appeared in Downbeat magazine in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Avant-Garde Is Not The Avant Garde by Don Ellis appeared in the June 30, 1966 edition of Downbeat.
The distinctions that Don drew in this piece were crucial to understanding his music, but, unfortunately, most people missed them at the time because they were not listening.
In a nutshell, what he was saying is that throwing up all over your instrument is not avant-garde, nor was it music. It was in fact, noise [Don was kinder and labeled it “musical incoherence”].
“IF THE AVANT-GARDE Constitutes those artists in the forefront of their particular art, artists blazing trails with the newest techniques, then, after some reflection, one must admit that the current avant-garde of jazz is no longer really avant-garde.
By current avant-garde I refer to those playing the type of music associated with such musicians as Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and most of the artists of E.S.P. records catalog.
The predominant elements of this music (such as the lack of a definite rhythmic pulse or melodic or structural coherence, the use of myriads of fast notes with no overall direction, the at-one-time-unusual shrieks, honks, and bleats) have now become commonplace and cliched. And as for "newness" itself, these elements all date back some years.
It should be obvious that there are certain musical techniques that, although perhaps startlingly new and different when introduced by the originator, become trite and hackneyed when reiterated by others. All of the above fall into this category. (They may still be used, of course, but need to be incorporated into an original, meaningful structure.)
The current avant-garde movement began for sound musical reasons: the old (bebop) style of jazz had become stale. Most of the players — even the originators — were usually repeating overused, worn-out formulas that had lost their freshness and significance. There was need for change.
Everything had become so codified into pat rules that most were afraid to do anything else. Jazz musicians needed to lose their (musical) inhibitions — to be unafraid to try something new and different, to take some chances. If nothing else, the best of the avant-garde has succeeded in making (even rather traditional) jazzmen loosen up a bit, to reach out for some new ideas.
In the beginning the artistic need was there. Jazz sprang out in many directions at once. Every avant-garde jazzman seemed to have his own conception of the right way to make the breakthrough. It was an exciting and creative period. In view of this, it makes one all the more sad to see it degenerating into musical incoherence —with pseudo-mystical pronouncements and political nonsense thrown in besides.
If this type of avant-garde music, with its incessant chattering and stream-of-conscious meandering, is no longer avant-garde, what is?
Using the aforementioned definition of avant-garde, those artists who could be classified as truly in the forefront of the art would be playing music characterized by the following:
• Music based on solid audible structural premises (the opposite of the musical doodling now so prevalent).
• Music that is well conceived and thought out (as opposed to the "don't bother me with technical details, man; I don't need to develop my ear, artistic sensitivity, musical knowledge, instrumental technique—I'm playing pure emotion" school).
• Music with new rhythmic complexity, based on a swinging pulse with new meters and superimpositions.
• Music with melodies based on principles of musical coherence, utilizing the new rhythms along with new intervals (pitches).
• Music making use of new harmonic idioms based on principles of audible coherence (in contradistinction to the everybody-for-himself-with-12 tones-go! school).
One might ask that if, with all this talk about the avant-garde, being avant-garde is really important? The answer would be: basically, musical worth or greatness is of the ultimate importance. Whether something is avant-garde or not has no bearing on this.
Being avant-garde can be of importance if the prevalent style of music has become stagnant. It then becomes mandatory to find new ways to express musical thought. The main thing, however, is to produce great music.
Speaking of the avant-garde that breaks away from the mainstream, there are two general directions it can follow: 1. it may break away and do something "new" at all costs — whether of value musically or not — thus denying the importance of musical intelligence, sensibility, or sensitiveness; 2. it may he aware of the need for a change and attempt to construct new ideas that offer a way out of a given musical dilemma, giving new meaning to music — an "enhanced" view of music that would enable the music to be more exciting and would portray profound musical intelligence on all levels.
An analogy would be a man who wants to build a new type of airplane. He could be in the avant-garde by doing one of two things: 1. building an airplane with a fantastic new design — the only problem being that it can't fly (don't bother him with details); 2. building an airplane with perhaps radically new principles but one that nevertheless improves or enhances the idea of airplaneness. In short, this one looks and flies better.
I suggest that musicians and listeners interested in being in the forefront of their art but still concerned about creating great art, rather than preaching political doctrine or expunging themselves emotionally, check carefully to see on which side of the avant-garde fence they are sitting.”