Free Jazz/Québec Libre: Le Quatuor de Jazz Libre du Québec, 1967-1975

by
Pierre Crépon

The year 1967 saw a remarkable procession of American musicians make the New York-Montreal trip, bound for the Jazz Workshop, a club a few steps below street level in the center of the city. Marion Brown, Sunny Murray, Archie Shepp, Grachan Moncur III, Albert Ayler, Marzette Watts, and Noah Howard all led ensembles. Also featured were Montreal-based guitarist Sonny Greenwich, and a recent grouping whose name stood out: Quatuor du nouveau jazz libre du Québec. (1)

Made up of tenor saxophonist Jean “Doc” Préfontaine, trumpeter Yves Charbonneau, bassist Maurice Richard, and drummer Guy Thouin, the group started at the Jazz Workshop in September 1967. The musicians were not equipped with previous avant-garde credentials – ESP albums and the in-person appearances of the label’s “stars” at the Workshop were points of reference – but they rapidly attracted notice and remained booked for a sizeable number of weeks.

In a new history of the group written in French, Jazz libre et la révolution québécoise: Musique-action, 1967-1975 (Saint-Joseph-du-Lac, Quebec: M Éditeur, 2019), historian Eric Fillion writes that Montreal had witnessed early iterations of avant-garde playing: pianist Paul Bley – long active in the US – as well as trumpeter Herbie Spanier and Greenwich. But it was the appearance of Jazz libre and, concurrently, a trio led by saxophonist Walter Boudreau that made Montreal the setting of prolonged homegrown engagement with the new style.

“A certain amount of revolt is necessary to play the ‘new thing’ correctly ... French Canadians, those white Negroes, are certainly very gifted for jazz,” Préfontaine said in one the first articles about Jazz libre, which also noted the group’s still rough around the edges playing. The ideas of Quebecers as “white Negroes” was most famously used by Pierre Vallières, writer and Quebec separatist militant who led the first Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) group advocating for armed struggle and socialism. The analogy between the exploited Quebec proletariat and African-Americans was accompanied by a framing of Quebec separatism in the context of anti-colonial national liberation movements. The writings of Patrick Straram on jazz as a revolutionary praxis also provided theoretical foundations for Jazz libre.

After the end of its Jazz Workshop gig in early 1968, Jazz libre moved on to the third floor of a triplex hosting the Association espagnole, “a key hub around which gravitated onlookers, drunkards, left wing intellectuals, FLQ sympathizers, politicized artists, hardened nationalists, and militants of diverse convictions.” Jazz libre found there “both an audience and a belonging to a community” that orientated the musicians further to the left. (2)

A meeting with singer Robert Charlebois would strongly impact the group’s trajectory. Then undergoing the transformation from clean-cut folk singer to psychedelic rocker that would make him a major figure in Quebec rock history, Charlebois heard Jazz libre during the early stages of a new project, the Osstidcho. The quartet joined the musical revue – whose name could be approximated by “fucking show” – to broaden its reach, most often quite limited as Association espagnole audiences averaged twenty people.

The Osstidcho opened at the 150-seats Théâtre de quat’sous in May 1968. Until early 1969, dozens of performances were given, several moves to larger capacity locations made, and the show taken on the road. Combining songs by Charlebois and Louise Forestier with monologues and sketches by Yvon Deschamps and Mouffe in a work in progress style, the Osstidcho is often described as a turning point in Quebec popular music history. At first clearly positioned in the background, Jazz libre obtained a free blowing slot during intermissions and progressively stretched its place on stage, making unscheduled moves to the foreground that sparked some tensions. (3)

In December 1968, with pianist Pierre Nadeau as added guest, Jazz libre taped its first and until recently, sole release, an eponymous LP co-produced by the London label and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Préfontaine’s notes described the group’s modus operandi in a plain manner uncharacteristic in free jazz: no defined rhythms, tonality, harmonic structures, or chord changes. A use of chromatic scales, quarter tones, and dodecaphonic series. The disappearance of bars and with them sectional song structures. A non-hierarchical group organization leading to collective soloing being the main mode of expression. “Our music would be best defined by negation: a refusal of imposed traditional structures and a liberation of pre-established forms,” Préfontaine wrote. Pre-established forms indeed still figured in the group’s music, as the album’s opening piece, reminiscent of Ornette Coleman and featuring a 4/4 rhythm section, shows. “The free jazz musician, instead of offering a ‘figurative’ representation of his mood or feelings through a song or a ‘blues,’ expresses his mood directly, he acts his feelings out: this is a musique-action,” Préfontaine added. (4)

After the Osstidcho, Jazz libre backed Charlebois and Forestier’s regular shows and played on a few associated recordings, including a joint album by the singers containing “Lindberg,” a hit whose impact in Quebec has been compared to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” The other side of the “Lindberg” single, “California,” contains some free blowing midway through the song, a rare instance of presence of the sounds of free jazz in commercially successful music. The success of the music in France led to appearances at the Olympia, Jazz libre’s first foray outside of Canada. In total, the Jazz libre-Charlebois collaboration lasted a little over a year.

At the autumn of 1969, Jazz libre worked with poet Raôul Duguay and Walter Boudreau in their “Infonie” project. Directed by Boudreau and using Duguay’s “verbal delirium,” the band blended rock, jazz, traditional folk, and contemporary classical through improvisation and composition. The goal was to go farther than Charlebois and it also left a strong mark in Quebec nascent “counterculture.” In addition to opening for Infonie gigs for a few months, Jazz libre took part in Infonie’s first two recordings, a self-titled genre-blending collage, and Mantra, an adaptation of Terry Riley’s “In C” (those albums are also known as Volume 3 and Volume 33). For Fillion, Jazz libre seemed “to be fading during this sojourn at the frontiers of show business” and counterculture (5). A true fusion with the Aquarian Infonie was made impossible by Préfontaine and Charbonneau’s increasingly radical musical stance – a move toward the abandonment of all structures and written material in favor of total collective improvisation – and desire for a greater political coherence. The original lineup did not survive the Infonie experience: Thouin quit and Richard became frequently absent.

In parallel to those collaborations, Jazz libre had initiated “forum concerts” on Montreal campuses and elsewhere. Started during the winter of 1968, they followed a three-part formula: an initiation to free jazz with explanations on the music’s history; a talk with the audience on jazz’s social significance; and collective improvisations, also open to audience members. Other initiatives aiming at decompartmentalizing artistic practices included children workshops using Orff techniques, described thusly: “Contrary to popular belief, artistic creation is not the prerogative of a minute privileged minority having studied at the Conservatory or at the Fine Arts.” (6)

Préfontaine contended Jazz libre’s music was not a simple imitation of black American free jazz, but Quebecer in nature. His comments on the emerging local rock scene echoed this central preoccupation of the group: “it is sad to see and very dull to hear! ... they all do the same thing. The youth learn to make music by listening to American records, they compose songs in English ... They unconsciously undermine, from the get-go, their creativity and their culture, they are hijacked, colonized like French Quebecers who speak English among themselves.” (7)

During the summer of 1970, Jazz libre furthered its research of a politically coherent musical practice, creating an artistic colony in Val-David, a village on a river bank one hour away from Montreal. Jazz libre again attempted to demystify art by making it accessible to everyone. Music, poetry, sculpture, and painting workshops were organized and the living arrangements were communal. An anti-capitalist pop festival was put together at the end of the colony experiment, in September 1970. It garnered the attention of the police, which anticipated that it would attract young people “recognized as narcotic enthusiasts [and] organizers of all kinds of sexual orgies.” (8) A preventive quest for drugs ended up unsuccessful, but revolutionary papers and a Black Panther Party recording were seized. With a predominantly rock lineup, the festival attracted 3,000 to Val-David.

A few months later, in early 1971, Jazz libre inaugurated the P’tit Québec libre, a rural commune conceived as a microcosm of a future free Quebec: French, socialist. Its primary objectives, as stated in an archival document, were to “create the necessary conditions for the construction of the revolutionary organization of Quebecers, fight spontaneism, reformism, and the separation of theory and practice.” (9) Jazz libre’s current drummer, Curly Virgil, did not relocate with the rest of the band.

Préfontaine and Charbonneau had met with FLQ militants Paul Rose and Francis Simard at Val-David, and had agreed on renting a farm bought to be used for FLQ activities but which had been rendered unusable by a police raid. The FLQ militants had judged Jazz libre’s political project serious enough, simply asking the musicians to transform the site – located an hour east of Montreal, close to the village of Sainte-Anne-de-la-Rochelle – into a “politicization center” and to make things free.

Rose and Simard had in the meantime, on October 10, 1970, taken part in the kidnapping of Quebec provincial government minister Pierre Laporte, days after another FLQ cell had seized British diplomat James Cross. The events led to the “October Crisis,” a major event in Quebec political history during which army troops were deployed and civil liberties suspended, allowing authorities to make hundreds of warrantless arrests and searches. On October 18, Laporte’s body was found in the trunk of a car.

The former FLQ farm included multiple buildings, an orchard, a barn repurposed as a conference and performance space, and a former pigpen housing a printer used to produce the commune’s journal, posters, and handbills. A camping space and daycare were set up for working class families interested in spending vacations there, and the site was adapted for cultural events and workshops. All decisions at the commune were taken collectively and money was pooled.

The commune took up most of Préfontaine and Charbonneau’s time during its first year, slowing down Jazz libre’s activities. Disenchanted, Richard took a break. Several times a week, the informal “Communards du P’tit Québéc libre” convened, with all commune residents and visitors invited by Préfontaine and Charbonneau to take part in improvisation sessions.

Préfontaine and Charbonneau were advised by Mario Bachand, an FLQ militant exiled in Paris, to avoid at all costs turning the commune into a “refuge for petty-bourgeois intellectuals,” and to try to constitute a working-class core. (10) Bachand was assassinated ten days after his letter to Jazz libre. The commune’s manifesto and its Le P’tit Québec libre newspaper – printed at 3,000 copies – were positioned toward a working-class audience. The journal presented a synthesis of Marxist, anti-capitalist, and anti-Anglo-Saxon imperialism ideas. After being without a drummer for a while, Jazz libre is joined in mid-1972 by Patrice Beckerich, a former truck driver.

Fillion writes that the FLQ unquestionably occupied an important place in the commune’s project, but as an antecedent. Talks were integral parts of Jazz libre performances, from unreleased tapes, Fillion quotes the musicians qualifying FLQ violence as a “necessary and sad step” that Quebecers were not yet ready to support. (11) Rumors of a decadent nudist revolutionary commune training terrorists nonetheless reached the press and the farm inevitably became the object of police surveillance. In spite of five police visits, no arrests were made. The federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police received documents from anonymous sources and informants. The provincial Sûreté du Québec also possessed leaflets, newspaper issues, and some information on daily activities. The federal police was preoccupied by the fact that the commune’s barn would be able to host several hundred people once renovated, and it knew of an upcoming meeting with members of various international revolutionary organizations.

The week-long meeting took place in September 1971. At the initiative of a pro-North Vietnam group, the commune hosted a hundred militants from organizations such as the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground, the Young Lords, and Free Vermont. Charbonneau would later say that commune members were not actively taking part.

During the night of May 8, 1972, four federal agents set the barn on fire to prevent a similar meeting between FLQ sympathizers and Black Panther Party members. The police version of events, surfacing during a late 1970s official inquiry into illegal police activities, was that unsuccessful attempts at installing wiretapping material led agents to set the barn on fire to force a relocation of the meeting. The probe would conclude that the fire’s main purpose was to disrupt P’tit Québec libre operations. Charbonneau later denied that this second meeting was to take place.

Members tried to sustain the commune, deciding to close the season with a festival similar to what had been organized in Val-David in 1970. Everything was free – theater and cinema events, workshops, and political discussions. But it became apparent that the countercultural youth attending the festival had little interest in the commune’s political project or its anti-drugs stance. Tensions in the commune followed. The collective improvisation principle that had guided operations in the first year was abandoned in favor of committees tasked with acting out the revolutionary strategies of a central council. Jazz libre had to face internal criticism while also facing difficulties with situating itself in regard of the countercultural youth and a lack of working-class success. The commune project started to crack, against a backdrop of turmoil inside the separatist left.

A large part of 1972 was devoted to an extensive – and subsidized – “forum concerts” tour focusing on “culturally underprivileged” areas. A series of personnel changes marked the period. Percussionist and drummer Jean-Guy Poirier joined the group, before being replaced by Patrice Beckerich during a break. The bass spot was occupied successively by Jean Martineau, Jacques Beaudoin, and Yves Bouliane. A future well-known figure of the international free improvisation scene joined the tour: American cellist Tristan Honsinger, then in Canada to avoid conscription.

Worn out by the presentation of its music to constantly new and not necessarily interested audiences, Jazz libre interrupted its touring and relocated to refocus on a local, regular audience. Using remaining subsidy money, the musicians started to set up L’Amorce, an artist-controlled “experimental cultural center” in the historic Old Montreal neighborhood in September 1972. Playing took place there until its official opening in August 1973. Situated on the first floor of a building opposite the Black Bottom jazz club, L’Amorce dispensed with a bandstand to offer a reconfigurable, audience-encompassing performance space.

A meeting with Italian composer Albert Mayr at L’Amorce led to the group’s first and only performances under its name outside Canada, a few dates in Como and Milan during the fall of 1973. An altercation during this Italian stay prompted another change of drummer. The integration of Mathieu Léger into the band matched a gradual move away from the group’s early free jazz and toward longer pieces using restraint and silence. “We are more and more ... abandoning unbridled protest in favor of a music more interiorized, mixing free jazz and contemporary classical approaches,” said Préfontaine. (12)

This change did not enthrall Charbonneau, adding to political tensions between the trumpeter and the saxophonist sometimes translated on stage by a tendency to play against each other. Although he did not think class struggle should preempt national struggle, Charbonneau leaned toward Marxism-Leninism, while Préfontaine thought Jazz libre had to find its place in the post-October Crisis separatist conjunction dominated by the Parti Québécois.

During the night of June 24, 1974, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebration, while thousands of people were in the vicinity of L’Amorce, incidents and fires broke out, including in the building hosting L’Amorce. Firefighters were unable to reach the location and after the three hours necessary to put the fire out only part of the equipment could be saved. An official inquiry would conclude to arson. The second for Jazz libre. No one was charged, although the name of a former P’tit Québec libre member suspected of having assisted the police in the previous fire was mentioned. The fire marked the end for Jazz libre. Préfontaine left the group, which continued without him for a few more months before giving its final performance on April 27, 1975. The concert culminated with a collective improvisation around “The Internationale.”

Eric Fillion’s research into Jazz libre’s story is a thorough inquiry. A wide array of sources are used throughout the book: print material, both contemporary press and later day literature; more than a dozen interviews conducted by the author (it is to be noted that Thouin was the only surviving founding member of Jazz libre at the time of Fillion’s research); and extensive archival sources.

These materials notably include declassified internal police documents obtained by Fillion, as well as Jazz libre material including leaflets and unfinished projects and articles discovered during a visit to the site of the former P’tit Québec libre. Fillion used archival collections, such as Préfontaine papers donated to Concordia University by jazz historian John Gilmore. Simultaneously, he created new archives. Additional Préfontaine papers obtained by Fillion now expand Concordia University collections, and a key new Jazz libre archive, made up mostly of unreleased recordings, was founded by the author at the Centre Tenzier.

Fillion seems more at ease discussing context and politics than the inner aspects and evolutions of Jazz libre’s music, something which often takes a secondary position in the book. This is supplemented by his efforts to make unreleased music available directly. A 1973 tape was issued by Tenzier in 2011, and Fillion contributed to a 4-CDs anthology of additional unreleased material recently issued by the Tour de bras label. (13)

Perhaps the book would have benefitted from a greater presence of the interviewees’ voices, quotations are often short and leave the reader without an in-depth sense of the protagonists’ personalities. This would also have at times allowed for a clearer distinction between the author’s analyses and the content of his sources. A bibliography would have been a welcome addition.

The book gives the impression that the centrality of Quebecer problematics for Jazz libre rendered irrelevant questions of connections with or even acknowledgement of other contemporary avant-garde jazz scenes. In effect, the story as told here is autonomous. Even if later transformations removed their music further and further away from the American model, it is nonetheless difficult not to wonder what the musicians could have had to say on the continued evolutions of a music that had felt close enough to serve as a starting point.

Not unlike purportedly “committed” artists themselves, music writing often fails to deliver more than empty platitudes when it comes to politics. In the person of Eric Fillion, Jazz libre has found a dedicated historian willing to seriously engage with this central aspect of the story. His book sets a strong record for a little-known but highly individual offshoot of the jazz avant-garde.

 

Notes:

  1. See Mark Miller, Of Stars and Strings: A Biography of Sonny Greenwich (Toronto: Tellwell/Mark Miller, 2020). The chapter covering the Jazz Workshop has been excerpted in Point of Departure, no. 71 (June 2020), http://pointofdeparture.org/archives/PoD-71/PoD71Miller.html. See also forthcoming documentation of the musicians announced at the Jazz Workshop in Montreal newspaper La Presse by the author of this review.
  1. Fillion, Jazz libre et la révolution québécoise, 57-58.
    https://m-editeur.info/jazz-libre-et-la-revolution-quebecoise/
  1. Recordings of two 1968 performances of the Osstidcho have been made available online by the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, https://www.banq.qc.ca/collections/collection_numerique/losstidcho/losstidcho/.
  1. Le Quatuor du nouveau jazz libre du Québec, Le Quatuor du nouveau jazz libre du Québec, London NAS. 13515, 1969, LP. Préfontaine’s notes are not included on the album’s first pressing.
  1. Fillion, Jazz libre et la révolution québécoise, 74.
  1. Fillion, Jazz libre et la révolution québécoise, 96.
  1. Fillion, Jazz libre et la révolution québécoise, 101, 105.
  1. Fillion, Jazz libre et la révolution québécoise, 110-111.
  1. Fillion, Jazz libre et la révolution québécoise, 116.
  1. Fillion, Jazz libre et la révolution québécoise, 121.
  1. Fillion, Jazz libre et la révolution québécoise, 131.
  1. Fillion, Jazz libre et la révolution québécoise, 168.
  1. Le Quatuor de jazz libre du Québec, 1973, Tenzier TNZR051, 2011, LP; Le Quatuor de jazz libre du Québec, Musique-Politique Anthologie 1971/1974, Tour de bras TDBHIST0001, 2019, 4 CDs.

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