If you’re a jazz fan and not very familiar with free jazz, the first thing I’d like to say is that it probably doesn’t sound like what you’re imagining when you read the title. Long songs, frantic group improvisations, dissonance, harsh skronking solos. All of those things together, actually, are kind of a dead style. The mid-late ’60s were defined by a lot of music like that, which I’ll be referring to as “energy music”, but out jazz has developed since then in much the way that mainstream jazz doesn’t sound the same as in 1966. In fact, for more recent free jazz albums, there’s a good chance you’ll have no idea what it sounds like until you turn on the record.
The very earliest free jazz, in its most recognizable form, probably comes from Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman in the late 1950s. Neither of them had really abandoned the rhythmic content of earlier jazz, though at this point Cecil was pushing it, although his ideas of this period can be traced to mainstream artists like Dave Brubeck. Harmony, however, had been abandoned in the traditional bebop format. Ornette was reaching back to [earlier diatonic music](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqwdRBWvPs0), and Cecil was trecking forward into [modernist classical influences](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fX580XCuJdg), like Bartok and Messiaen.
As the 1960s progressed, free jazz now started to break down rhythmic conventions as well as harmonic conventions, due in no small part to the drummer Sunny Murray, who was the first true free time drummer. Cecil Taylor was there for the development of this music but it was organized in his own particular way, and Ornette participated a bit, but the real exemplars of this style were the musicians who worked in energy music, or the New Thing, or New Black Music, or whatever you want to call it. The saxophonist Albert Ayler was an ex-soldier who found his voice in harsh, spiritual, scorching improvising based on simple melodies that aren’t dissimilar from [marching band music or nursery rhymes](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtiSA2RKDzc), giving his music a direct and primitive character. Ayler was a HUGE influence on the already established avant-garde at this point but not necessarily “free” saxophonist you’ve probably heard of named John Coltrane. Coltrane was inspired by Ayler’s huge, heartfelt vibrato and compositional style, although these energy influences were refracted through his own [kaleidoscopic harmonic imagination](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hykgV1Ms-hM).
However, the 1960s were also full of parallel developments, and one of my personal favorites is the pianist Paul Bley, a disciple of Ornette Coleman who had also been around to play with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, and Art Blakey, among others. His music sometimes dipped into the energy movement of the 1960s, but his introversion and one-of-a-kind melodic [sensibility and logic](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYnrtXiA0TA) make him one of my favorite musicians to ever live. His time in Jimmy Giuffre’s trio was also incredibly important to the development of European jazz with its [chamber music](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmClvTgZSzY)-like qualities and general whiteness. Another standout is Eric Dolphy, a genius improviser and composer and in my opinion the greatest inheritor of Thelonious Monk’s legacy. Eric Dolphy didn’t quite fit into the free jazz scene, and was heavily inspired by modernist classical and [serialism](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXufSOqUCCo) so you could look at his work, especially the seminal album [Out to Lunch](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZ7xBggveyY), as the apex of the “third stream”, especially considering the notable input that black musicians had on his take on third stream music that some other dates were lacking.
After the death of John Coltrane, free jazz experienced a diversification that matched the general trend of jazz at the time. The AACM from Chicago was producing some of the most abstract music that is still recognizably jazz, such as [Henry Threadgill’s trio Air](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrPodF57Hu0), while the loft scene in New York was setting the stage for NY’s firey, hardcore free jazz scene of the next 40+ years. This is possibly the most fertile period to dive into if you’re interested in free jazz as a living, breathing movement, not a post-hippie artifact of the wild ’60s.