Free Jazz Needs a New Audience
If you’re a fan of free jazz, you know you’re in a small, small group. Overall, jazz accounts for a tiny sliver on the pie chart of annual CD purchases, and free jazz is a speck-like crumb of that razor-thin slice. Phil Freeman is a free jazz fan, and so it is with the best of intentions that he offers his new book, *New York Is Now!* The genre needs a new audience, one that can be found not in the world of jazz, but in the world of rock, he argues. He aims this book at those people, angling to give them a base of information with which they can venture forth in the choppy seas of free jazz and explore.
He is more successful than not in this endeavor. The book offers detailed, in-depth profiles of some of the genre’s leading lights, puts the music into context both within the worlds of jazz and rock as well as within the social and political winds of the art world at large. It is also provocative. Freeman is not shy about calling bullshit on things he thinks are wrong, nor about naming names of those he holds responsible. But at times this reads like contrariness for the sake of being contrary. The result is a handy primer for newcomers to the music and those taking the first tentative steps into free jazz, and a manifesto of sorts that will likely become the fulcrum of debate for years to come. Freeman sets himself up for grief by focusing solely on New York musicians and mostly in their work in the past decade, and taking shots at critics who don’t cover free jazz for the same reason Roger Ebert doesn’t review many low-budget films. But, shortcomings aside, this has value if for no other reason than that it is among the first mainstream, book-length looks at free jazz, and as such, it sets the agenda for the discourse that will surely follow.
Freeman starts swinging right out of the gate. In the opening chapter, he chronicles his own journey to free jazz through a love of heavy metal. He was looking for another form of music that shared metals extreme sounds. He writes that the two share a “commitment to the transformative power of music,” and that metal is mirrored the “balls-out pursuit of transcendence that fuels a lot of the more crushing free jazz recordings.”
Freeman’s path to free jazz isn’t unique. Most jazz fans seem to settle into a comfortable spot somewhere around the post-bop of the 1950s and ‘60s, or with the earlier work of stars like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. A few venture toward John Coltrane, stopping short of his out-there excursions on later works like Ascension or Interstellar Space. Rock fans, he argues, are familiar with dissonance and noise and challenging structures, and are more open to free jazz. Free jazz proponents would be wise to promote the music not in mainstream jazz publications, but in the fringe publications of alternative rock, say Alternative Press or Magnet (two of freelancer Freeman’s employers, it should be noted). It’s a good point. If the only place to find rock reviews was Rolling Stone, he writes, a lot would go uncovered. Rely only on Downbeat or Jazz Times, and you find a similar stagnation in jazz.
While you wait for that shift to occur, Freeman offers a chronological discography that shows where free jazz came from and where it’s going, touching on Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. The middle chapters are devoted to biographical sketches of seven of the top performers in free jazz. He puts the musician’s works into context one with the other, and discusses the contributions each makes to the form. Stalwarts like saxophonist David S. Ware, pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker are joined by trumpeter Roy Campbell, guitarist Joe Morris and saxophonists Charles Gayle and Daniel Carter.
In these chapters, Freeman intersperses his own views on each artist with interview passages, letting the musicians expound on ideas at length, capturing more than a sound bite. By doing so, he takes them beyond the usual, rote response often offered and helps them break through to meaningful analysis of their music.
You’ll build up a length “to-buy” list in reading this book. Freeman has an extensive collection of free jazz work, and goes to great lengths to give his opinion of many of these artists best work. A discographical list at the end of the book will serve as a handy buying guide for those looking to move beyond the book and into full immersion in sound.
Anyone coming to the book with a passing knowledge of free jazz will still find plenty of new material here. Freeman is particularly successful in the chapter devoted to guitarist Joe Morris, placing Morris’s guitar playing in a chronological and stylistic timeline with the likes of Grant Green, James “Blood” Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock and Derek Baily. And while frequent Morris collaborator Mat Maneri doesn’t get his own chapter, Freeman spends considerable time in this chapter discussing Maneri, sharing his importance to Morris’s music.
From here, Freeman deals more generally with the music, hitting on live performance, recordings and coverage. He deals extensively with the Vision Fest, the annual New York City free jazz festival that seems to have been his baptism by fire in the genre. Freeman names names when talking about critics who don’t give the festival adequate coverage in his eyes. It’d be nice if they did, but it’s naïve of Freeman to assume that mainstream newspapers have the resources to cover what is essentially still a fringe event. He continues to poke away in the next chapter, the challenging “Lies Critics Told Me.” He blasts mainstream critics like the New York Time’s Ben Ratliff who he says ignore or belittle free jazz. Freeman also takes a shot at Ken Burns’s “Jazz,” though by now it’s a dead horse he’s beating. The only rational argument against the documentary is that newcomers might see it and consider it the be-all end-all chronicle of jazz and, save for Wynton Marsalis, fail to explore any music made after 1970 or so. Freeman makes that point, but not strongly enough, choosing instead to ape the cries of many who fail to see “Jazz” for what it is: a broad overview by a handful of people of a wide-sweeping genre. If “Jazz” was so terrible, the answer isn’t to criticize it. Go make your own documentary. Freeman has done so with his book, though he seems a bit too myopic to draw the parallel.
In the penultimate chapter, he offers an informative write-up about three free jazz labels: Aum Fidelity, Eremite and No More. The men behind these New York-based labels are nearly as important as the musicians themselves, because without these businessmen, the music would be heard by far fewer people than the few who hear it now.
He closes with a chapter that details the sessions for the David S. Ware Quartet’s new disc, Corridors and Parallels. Ware, after several discs of questing music in the saxophone, bass, piano and drums format, shakes things up by having pianist Matthew Shipp move to synthesizer. The result is the most interesting album of Ware’s career, a work that transcends expectations and pushes the musician in new directions. It’s a fitting end to the book. Free jazz is hard to define, and with people like Ware at the forefront, it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
Ultimately, Freeman’s book is a mixed bag. He is right to state that the free jazz musicians he profiles could use more live venues and better coverage, but the bottom line is that such decisions are market driven. If people think they can make money with free jazz, they’ll give it a shot. I’d love to see David S. Ware’s quartet out here in Iowa, but I realize it makes little sense for any venue to bring him in, and even less sense for him to make the investment in time and money to come. Freeman doesn’t seem to understand the economics behind the windmills against which he tilts. As such, the book is strident and needlessly confrontational in places. Still, his energy is at least channeled toward expanding horizons, and it is well-served through most of this passionate, learned analysis. Despite its flaws, this book definitely fills a niche. Freeman has offered a snapshot of free jazz today with New York is Now! It’s a book that will be a bit out of date just a year or two from now, but will still offer a solid base of knowledge for anyone looking to jump in and take a look around.