360°Sound spoke with filmmaker and jazz drummer Tom Surgal, director of the new documentary on avant-garde jazz entitled Fire Music. The free jazz movement emerged in the 1960s led by such talents as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry and John Coltrane. The 88-minute film includes extensive archival footage and commentary from many of the movement’s key players.
Surgal, who has directed music videos for Sonic Youth and Pavement, said he felt called to pay homage to the architects of the movement and give them their historical due. In this exclusive interview, Surgal talks about the importance of documenting this groundbreaking but controversial genre, correcting the omissions in Ken Burns’s Jazz mini-series, and the essential free jazz recordings you need to hear.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
360°: Please start by talking about what led you to make the documentary.
Tom Surgal: I kind of felt it was my civic duty. I have a background in filmmaking, and I just saw that there was a glaring cultural omission. These great artists really haven’t been chronicled cinematically. I realized that the time was now, and if I didn’t do it, nobody else would. I guess that definitely came to pass as in the making of the film as 16 of the musicians have died since shooting commenced.
I had no money to make this movie. I applied for some grants. I did not get them. Crowdfunding came into being in the course of production, and that was a boon to my effort. It was kind of fitting that the people themselves out there really came to my aid and I wasn’t dependent on outside sources to get this movie made.
Do you prefer the term avant-garde to free jazz? Are they interchangeable?
To be perfectly honest, I’m a little ambivalent about the term free jazz. I was just joking with another interviewer that that basically translates to music you don’t get paid for. It is an umbrella term. I use it because everyone sort of knows what I’m talking about, but it is a bit reductionist. I think the point I make in the movie is this music is very diverse. It’s highly variegated, not just one form, there’s numerous variations and a lot of very individual voices making this music.
Near the start of the film, you include the Karl Marx quote “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Why did you choose that quote?
Free jazz, avant-garde jazz, whatever you want to label it, is definitely a break from everything that proceeded it. I still think it is jazz; it’s within the wide spectrum of what we’ve come to know as jazz. But they eschewed timekeeping, they employed polytonality, they weren’t working through chord changes. A lot of times just the very nature of composition itself was challenged. Just spontaneously create music on the fly. Ornette Coleman’s classic  album Free Jazz is just two quartets on two individual channels collectively improvising. That was the first recording of its nature and definitely a radical stride at that juncture in time.
Talk a little about pioneers Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and their contributions to the movement.
Two very diverse artists. Cecil was coming out of New England Conservatory. He was steeped in classical music, very much influenced by contemporary classical, and he listened to pop as well. Ornette was basically always playing the blues; it was his individual take on it. He invented his whole musicological system of harmolodics. I don’t read or write so I can’t expound on that definitively, but it was definitely a methodology where he wasn’t working off chord changes.
Ornette was also a Texan and very much coming out of that rough-hewn, bluesy, Arnett Cobb, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Texas Tenors, although Ornette mostly played alto. [Coleman and Taylor] were very much different from each other and yet there is a kind of symbiosis in what they were doing, maybe just in their radicalism and their break from the past.
This music was created during a time of much social upheaval. How did the tumultuous ‘60s inform the music?
Artists don’t create within a vacuum so obviously the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, which metamorphosed into the Black militant movement and the anti-war movement were very much fueling the music. I think I wrote at one point that the atonal cry of wailing saxophones and the spastic pounding of drums very much mirrored the turbulent times in which this music was being played.
DownBeat magazine and even Miles Davis were very critical of avant-garde jazz in the ‘60s. I understand that maybe this type of music is not as derided as it used to be. Is that the case?
No, I don’t think that’s the case really. There’s a movement afoot championed by Wynton Marsalis and his cronies to really denigrate the avant-garde, to really write them out of history altogether. I think there’s a definite conspiracy to undermine this music.
In terms of [in the ‘60s], they were completely rejected by the critical community, they were rejected by the status quo, the old school musicians themselves. There was a few exceptions, Charlie Mingus definitely embraced the ‘new thing’ as it was dubbed at that time. Max Roach, who was the living embodiment of the bebop era, did albums with Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp, and Anthony Braxton.
But for the most part, the avant-garde experimentalists really had it tough. They were banned from nightclubs altogether, they were critically derided and not particularly embraced by the public at large, so it really took some tenacity and inner belief in what it was they were doing to persevere with this music.
So even when John Coltrane got more avant-garde that was rejected as well? Did he elevate the genre?
He definitely elevated it. When one of the most popular artists in recording history of jazz starts to play this radical movement, it was definitely more popularly embraced. He was a patron saint to the avant-garde. He got people like Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler signed to a major label. He did more to disseminate this music than probably anyone in history.
I imagine both the neophyte and the jazz enthusiast will learn a lot from your film. For the people who don’t know anything about avant-garde jazz, what do you hope they will take away from the film?
I hope for one that they appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the art form. If they were not exposed to this music, hopefully [the film] will prove as a good introduction to it. I hope that people also understand the tenacity of the artists and the conviction which they had in their own art form. And all the controversy that they had to encounter to get their music heard, all the travail.
What are several avant-garde jazz albums that you’d recommend?
That’s a tough one. John Tchicai’s Afrodisiaca, John Coltrane’s Ascension, anything by Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders’s Thembi. There’s just so much to choose from. It’s a diverse form. Anything by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s like asking me which limb is my favorite [laughs].
You’ve said that the Ken Burns miniseries on jazz had very little on avant-garde jazz and you wanted to right that wrong.
Right. The film acts as my cinematic corrective to the error that Ken Burns made. You know it’s a 20-hour rather exhaustive study of the genre and he barely even mentions free jazz. That was a glaring omission. It’s actually a good film with the exception of that major flaw.
Anything you’d like to add about Fire Music?
I just want to say that it’s a beautiful and diverse art form that everyone will be enriched by letting it into their lives. I hope I’m the conduit for that appreciation.
And please stick around and check out some other interesting interviews: