July 08, 2009


A friend who is into all kinds of music heard me describe a jazz group as “Avant Garde” and immediately challenged me to describe what I meant by the phrase “Avant Garde” in the context of contemporary jazz performances. Here’s my best effort to explain.

An avant-garde jazz or “free” improvised performance today will include one or several or possibly all of the following characteristics. Each of these characteristics distinguishes an avant-garde performance from a “straight” jazz performance, be it dixieland, swing, be-bop, etc.

Chords: There may often be a decision to abandon the use of the chords of the tune as the basis for improvisation.

Repertoire: The musicians are much more likely to play compositions developed by the group or composed by their leader, rather than the standard repertoire used by more conventional jazz groups.

Rhythm: The rhythm may be much more irregular or fluid than the strict four-four or other rhythmic patterns typically used in most jazz performances. There may be sudden and surprising changes in tempo or no tempo at all.

Technique: The musicians may use what we call “extended techniques”. For example, the trombonist may use multiphonics [playing more than one note at a time], the drummer may draw a violin bow down the edge of a cymbal, the bassist may thump on the bass with their fist or play with the bow on the body of the bass rather than the strings, the trumpeter may breathe or sing or growl through the trumpet without using any of the valves or a mute.

Instruments: The musicians may make use of toy instruments or bells or other miscellaneous percussion, they may use instruments not normally heard in jazz, such as the cello and bassoon, or they may use instruments that they have invented and constructed themselves.

Instrumentation: Rather than variations on the classic trumpet/saxophone/trombone/piano/guitar/bass/drums set-up used by most jazz groups, an avant-garde group might comprise trombone, guitar and drums, or other unorthodox combinations of instruments.

Freedom: An atmosphere of instrumental, intellectual and emotional freedom prevails. The musicians take chances, they lead the music off in a different direction, they encourage each other verbally, and they may laugh when one member comes up with a particularly felicitous idea. The audience is often taken by surprise by the way the performance develops.

My sincere thanks to Mark Miller and James Hale for reviewing and improving this document.

Ron Sweetman July 8, 2009