The German version of this essay has been published in the Jazzfest Berlin 2016 supplement [PDF, 1,7 MB].

It was the year the pop business looked at its creature and realised that not only was it alive, it was evolving new pathways of intelligence: 1966 was the year of “Pet Sounds”, “Revolver” and the unsettling squall of “Freak Out!” Nothing sounded like it was supposed to. Guitars were played backwards, strange instruments were played in place of guitars, there were songs about loneliness and, perhaps, the disappearance of God from people’s lives. If “Eleanor Rigby” failed to add up to anyone’s idea of what a pop song should sound like – words about middle age, a string section that chugged instead of swooning – its key reference line was the one about the priest writing a sermon that no one would hear. The Beatles were about to be bigger than Jesus, as their leader famously said (though no one took offence the first time round, and not until they feared it might be true). “Time” magazine agreed; the April edition ran with what at any time before would have been the unthinkable cover line “Is God Dead?” Meanwhile, over in Hollywood, there was an assault on the great god Mammon, mounted by five Cro Magnons called the Mothers of Invention, who as would-be fan Suzy Creamcheese warned us, smelled a bit and sang words that also weren’t as jolly as they first appeared. Not a good booking for the high school dance. That was it. No one was dancing for the moment. As the creature shuffled forward, everyone else stopped to listen.

It was a confusing year. Viewed with hindsight, 1966 just seems like the mid-decade caesura before the much-hyped Summer of Love and its masochistic aftermath. Planes were falling from the sky. Gunmen were shooting from rooftops. Walt Disney died. One can imagine a young scholar gathering together a Wiki-pile of references and proposing a title “1966: The End of Innocence”. But it was a year, like most years, that showed other faces as well: 1966 was also the year of Globe Unity.

Unity Orchestra in der Berliner Philharmonie, Berliner Jazztage 1966 © Hans Harzheim

What became an orchestra and a richly communitarian concept that was destined to last longer than all the artificial hearts and strange alliances around that year began life as a commission for the Berlin Jazztage. It became the leader’s first recording and the beginning of a story and of a philosophy that extends to the present. As with anything viewed in hindsight, memory plays false. It’s possible to find reference entries that confidently announce the origins of Globe Unity as an “international collective” devoted to free improvisation. The reality is that it all began with the pragmatic coalition of two existing groups, Manfred Schoof’s sextet and Gunter Hampel’s group – to play a new composition by Alexander von Schlippenbach. The personnel was, at first, anything but international. That came later.

In the same way, hindsight and a forgivable need to see order in evolution led many to see Globe Unity as an anarchic free-for-all, a mutated jazz response to John Cage’s suggestion that we should all say “Yes” in the chaos together. Listening to a fortieth anniversary convocation of the Orchestra, critics came away with the startled recognition that they were hearing form, in much the same way that a few years before they had been surprised to hear Derek Bailey, the archpriest of musical freedom, playing tunes. Again, the reality is different. Listening to the original “Globe Unity”, and to its often forgotten companion piece “Sun” (which was von Schlippenbach’s version of “Pet Sounds” and “Revolver”, replete with little instruments and denatured sounds), is a little like watching pack ice for a while. At first, it all seems like chaos and randomness, but after a while patterns emerge and a trajectory establishes. The tiresome debate about improvisation v. composition, a long-standing heavyweight bout, has settled down into the even more tiresome consensus that they aren’t so very different after all and that the one always partakes of the other. All anyone had to do was listen with attention to what von Schlippenbach was doing on those early scores, sometimes presented graphically or verbally rather than on paper, and see that even in its earliest incarnation, Globe Unity was about finding order in the surrounding chaos, or allowing simple ideas to find their own boundaries. All that he had learned from Bernd Alois Zimmermann about Klangkomposition, about composing in acoustic fields rather than classical lines, was coming out richly.

Alexander von Schlippenbach © Frank Schindelbeck

It all seemed a step away from American jazz, taken in a country which still had a large Allied military presence and still a post-war mentality. If there was a model for this kind of project, it was either Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz or John Coltrane’s “Ascension”. The latter piece, another of the defining releases of 1966, sounds like chaos if you approach it half-way through. Its title sounds like vapid mysticism if you don’t recognise that it might also reference a real moment in the oppression/liberation of African-Americans. Coltrane added a note to a phrase out of the tune that had been obsessing him for years, “My Favorite Things”, gave it to his players and let them shape it as they would, in two large phalanxes of instrumental sound that were as far removed from dancehall hedonism as “Eleanor Rigby”, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” or any of Brian Wilson’s hymn-like tunes.

If you assume that “globe” means “planet”, then Globe Unity sounds like an expression of utopian optimism. But a globe isn’t a planet, just a miniature representation of one. Von Schlippenbach was no Global Village idiot. He had more in common with a medieval mage contemplating eternity in a glass sphere or a Chinese philosopher finding oneness in multiplicity. The original liner notes for Globe Unity stated that “[t]he cosmic eye at the central point and on the periphery of the sphere can see all the structures from every angle at the same time.” If he had stopped there, we might all have simply sunk into a lotus position and contemplated The One, but it went on:

“From the divine indifference of the sphere emerge the solos with all the impulse of revolt. The lines they trace are the images of life”.

And there you have it. What united much of the best, the greatest, music of 1966 was a commitment not to ideology or doctrine, but to life-as-lived, in active resistance to the pressures bearing in. The Beatles and the Mothers, and in his strange way, Brian Wilson, were showing that music need not be about sex and romance, but about all the other things that life consisted of. And, with Coltrane, they showed that music could effect its own transcendence, outside the churches. Music writer Nick Kent twice made reference to the music of that year as sounding like a “Catholic mass”, meaning that pop had moved towards pomp, away from “Louie, Louie” and towards liturgy.

Globe Unity was not a religious concept as such, but its subsequent meetings had something of the underground seriousness and joy of the Early Church, oppressed and persecuted (certainly by the critics who attended the first Jazztage performance), but united by a common practice and hope. In time, the Orchestra did become international, or poly-national. Looking at Globe Unity through British (which in this case means Scottish/Irish) eyes, the morning after a vote to “leave” Europe, is a slightly strange experience. The debate had lurched between mendacious economic arguments, most of which defied arithmetic, let alone the higher mathematics, and plangent pleas on the Remain side not to lose the rich cultural connections with Europe that Union membership had supposedly granted us.

The truth is that Britain in 2016 is already more culturally isolationist than she was in the 1960s, when young men from Liverpool and London could serve musical apprenticeships in Hamburg and where a generation either just out of uniform and having just escaped uniformity could experiment with like-minded players on a much larger stage than bombed, chastened Britain could offer. The recruitment of British players to Globe Unity was an important aspect of its “second intake” and the creation, between 1973 and 1979, that supposedly damned decade when nothing happened, of some of the most vibrantly alive music of our period: records like “Live In Wuppertal”, “Rumbling” and, just so that Gog and Magog could stretch their legs, “Compositions” and “Improvisations”.

An odd amnesia hangs over some of those early days. While he has near-eidetic memory of things even further off and farther away, Evan Parker admits to not quite remembering how he became involved with Globe Unity. This has nothing to do with hedonism but a lot, I think, to the absorption and comradeliness of those times, when the players were in the centre and on the periphery at the same time, unconcerned about market status or political marginality, focused on making a music that said Yes. Parker told me that he was ill with flu before the recordings for von Schlippenbach’s “The Living Music”.

“I was in the studio waiting for a taxi to the train when they started. The FMP festivals at the Akademie der Künste were where I really started to feel part of Globe Unity. In those days we were still using pre-arranged elements which we’d rehearse in the afternoons, [but then] unforgettable nights often concluded by staring at the dawn outside ‘Zwiebelfisch’ on Savignyplatz.”

Parker, Paul Rutherford, Kenny Wheeler, Derek Bailey (the latter three no longer with us) were all part of the Globe Unity story, as were Dutchmen, a Japanese wife, others. It became an international phenomenon, but as the specificity of Parker’s retrieved memory reminds us, it was an experiment that played out in real Charlottenburg, not in the abstract. And yet the Globe Unity philosophy, which engages and sustains us still, Brit and European, irrespective of passport, is the one expressed on that first record, where von Schlippenbach quotes the painter Paul Klee on how living vividly in this world and with others allows you to create another, and better.

“You leave behind all that belongs to this side, building yourself a new world on the other side, a world in which everything is totally ‘Yes’.”

In a city that, in 1966, was still defined and demarcated by a wall, could there be a more powerful dream?

Globe Unity Orchestra will perform at Jazzfest Berlin 2016 on 4 November 2016, 19:00 at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.