Photo by Baron Wolman

Fire Music Review: A Labour of Love

An important tribute to music history

7 mins read

Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz
(USA, 88 min.)
Dir. Tom Surgal


As Bob Dylan sang in the early Sixties, “the times they are a’changin’,” and that was the case for jazz as well as folk music during that period. Charlie “Bird” Parker’s revolutionary be-bop of the late Forties had turned into the more conventional contours of hard bop, with quintets playing extended solos on famous show tunes and pop hits even though the world was rapidly evolving politically and culturally. Tom Surgal, a veteran music video director and musician, has made with Fire Music, a labour of love: a film that passionately traces the musical fight against the mainstream through the evolution of the brilliant but obscure form known as free jazz.

The major players Surgal outlines in the film were rebels, who refused to play the kind of music you could have heard in nightclubs back then. The rural Texas saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the arcane but elegant pianist Cecil Taylor, the iconoclastic sax player and ex-soldier Albert Ayler and the cult leader who claimed he was from Saturn, Sun Ra, are featured in Surgal’s doc in knock-out archival footage that would never have worked as an opening act for Frank Sinatra. So too are John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, multi-instrumentalists who could play for “the man” but chose to make the kind of music they wanted to hear. It’s piquant to hear Coltrane, whose greatest hit was “My Favorite Things,” play Ascension, a free form masterpiece that took decades for most people to unravel. Dolphy, who accompanied Coleman on the album Free Jazz and Coltrane on many projects, also created works of free improvisation, although as a flutist (at first in the popular Chico Hamilton band), saxophonist and bass clarinetist, he could have played in orchestras, not just jazz bands.

Surgal’s doc not only shows brilliant footage of those greats, but it also includes fascinating commentary by the eminent (and witty) critic Gary Giddins and such surviving musicians from that time as Bobby Bradford, Sonny Simmons, Sirone Jones and Prince Lasha. Still feisty, they bring their legendary friends back to life. Adding to the flavour of the film, Surgal has added brilliant visuals between interviews and musical scenes, which offer the flavour and sensitivity of avant-garde art. Included are shots from expressionist, surrealist and Dadaist films by Man Ray, Walter Ruttmann and Hans Richter as well as more contemporary work by Stan Brakhage and the Whitney Brothers. Surgal has also unearthed TV footage from the Fifties, as well as short docs that reveal more than one usually sees in period pieces.

Without being overt, Surgal also offers a sense of the politics of the Sixties. The civil rights and anti-Vietnam peace movements are major elements in an era when the status quo was being challenged. Without being directly political, free jazz fit into a scene when the rise of Black consciousness, exemplified by the increased number of Muslims, the Panthers and more conventional folks in favour of racial equality, was in the air.

At the same time, free jazz fit into a cultural sphere which embraced beat literature (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg), contemporary dance (Merce Cunningham), avant-garde theatre (productions of Brecht, Ionesco and Beckett) and most importantly Abstract Expressionist art. Though Jackson Pollock had died tragically in a car accident before Ornette Coleman entered the New York scene, his painting The White Flight served as the cover for Free Jazz, the 1961 recording that effectively launched the movement. With Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry as well as great bass and drums on one channel (or speaker or headphone) and Eric Dolphy leading a group including Ed Blackwell on drums on the other, the album is one of the most difficult and brilliant pieces of music of the period.

By the Seventies, the revolutionary fervor in the United States had become depleted. After the fall of Saigon and Watergate, U.S. political movements became bereft of idealistic supporters apart from those interested in ecology, feminism and Black identity, but they were no longer united in a common cause. The free jazz movement no longer addressed anything resembling the mainstream, but a smattering of influential groups arose despite the increasingly hostile environment. The AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) established a space where young Black free jazz musicians such as Muhal Richard Abrams, the brilliant Anthony Braxton, Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell created work. In Europe, the Global Unity Orchestra with Peter Brotzsmann, Willem Breuker, Alexander van Schlippenbach and, on occasion Han Bennick made brilliant music.

But by the early Eighties, the free jazz movement had come to an end. Musicians persisted in making their beautiful work but the new music of the period, spurred on by the Marsalis family and eventually the Ken Burns documentary series Jazz, wrote them out of history. Wynton Marsalis’ “American classical music,” jazz from Armstrong through Ellington to Miles, Monk and Mingus, became enmeshed into the cultural fabric. Wonderful crazies like Sun Ra and other experimentalists were erased. That’s why Fire Music is an important film. Tom Surgal and his producers Thurston Moore, Ron Mann and Rosanna Arquette and many more, deserve praise for bringing this film to completion. No, Fire Music isn’t for everyone, but it is an important film to have been made.


Fire Music is now playing at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.


Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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