Sound American 8 : What Is Jazz?


KV: If we seek self-definition and a better way to discuss our work and that of our peers, the understanding of the meanings of Free Music, not as a way to limit its potential but as a way to give it a specific foundation from which it can expand and regenerate seems essential to me. Your description above is very useful to express the inclusionary nature of Free Music; I am curious about the specifics of inclusion. For example, if Free Music is (in part) a reaction against the contemporary systemization of jazz, does it still include some of the aesthetic precepts of what that music was, aside from its inherent creative freedom? Such as the nature of soloist(s), the rhythm section, tonality vs. atonality, the expansion of instrumental technique to extend artistic expression? Or does it leave these “jazz components” behind as a means to find new aesthetic ground? I’m guessing, based on your own music, that many elements from the history of creative jazz would be present in Free Music as well, but there are certainly many examples of great aesthetic developments taking place in the arts when there is (an apparent) full scale push against previous aesthetic developments and creative history in favor of a new paradigm. I’m thinking of the early work of the “British School” of improvised music, or the artwork of Donald Judd, or the cinema of Michael Snow.

Where does Free Music fit into these potential continuums? And what specific aesthetics and methods does it include or reject to make it different from other kinds of music, including contemporary jazz?

JM: The way it all works, past present and future, is the same. Every innovation is a response to what preceded it, and every period is presented as a methodology made by the musicians. But we are discussing Free Music as another way of understanding what has been called jazz. We aren’t discussing composed music. Composition is a component of Free Music. In Free Music composition implies or states the parts of the methodology that informs the improvised parts.

KV: I love this statement, that in Free Music “composition implies or states the parts of the methodology that informs the improvised parts.” What a beautifully succinct way to express a primary system of creative organization that was found in the jazz tradition of invention, and how it continues now in your idea of Free Music.

JM: I also don’t think that there is an obligation to any particular cultural, ethnic or classical kind of continuum in Free Music. There are people who feel that there is, and follow those obligations, but historically many diverse people have engaged in making Free Music without even being permitted to be part of those more obligated groups. But I do think there is a shared (to many different degrees) sense of subversive, justice seeking, forward human evolutionary sensibility that we all aspire to align ourselves with. And I think the origins of that should absolutely be attributed to African-Americans. Their situation and the struggle to overcome it through art, music, the do-it-yourself, because there is no other option approach, the we-will-do-it-anyway, because we are locked out of every other way approach are factors that I think qualify the highest expressions of Free Music.

KV: Beautiful, I couldn’t have said this better or with more agreement, Joe.

I’d like to continue this discussion with Joe for a much longer time than we have, but there are deadlines to meet, and I know that our discourse (which has never really stopped since it first began years ago) will be ongoing and will encompass many, many topics. Since I am faced with the realistic limits of duration provided by Mr. Wooley, I’d like to conclude my statements by proposing a question, something that I feel is worth considering, even if it doesn’t have a specific answer or set of answers.

Why did it seem necessary for certain members of the cultural establishment to define the parameters of jazz so severely that they’ve limited it, as Joe aptly describes, to be an interpretive music, as opposed to an innovative art form? I ask this because if you look at the cinema- an art form that, like jazz, was created and developed during the 20th century and will always be directly associated with it- the world of film is allowed to keep moving into the future, with all its variants and methodologies, wrestling with the implications of experiments and international discourse, and not limited to what the cinema was. The discussion is also about what the cinema is and can become.

Why is this no longer true for jazz? Certainly the parallels that exist between these two art forms point to a discrepancy- the fact that jazz, as now defined in the mainstream media, has become static, while the cinema remains an active outlet for innovation and individuality. Both arts were developed very thoroughly in the early part of the 20th century, and the fundamental aspects of a functional set of languages- one with sound, one with images- were set in motion by the 1920s, and both would expand to incorporate an ongoing set of innovations and individual forms expression well past the early work of the peers of Louis Armstrong in one case, or the silent era of film in the other. Revolutions in melody, rhythm, and harmony took place decade after decade in jazz, while the cinema incorporated new technological developments (sound, color, lighter cameras) and different techniques of communication. The various analogies (including those that are negative- politically and socially- such as the racism within certain systems of manufacturing and payment; and the ongoing argument about art vs. entertainment) continue to at least the point of The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s brilliant examination and deconstruction of many aspects of jazz history into the 1970s, musically and otherwise, and Jean Luc Godard’s early films which explore his inquiry into film genre and semiotics.

And now? Why are the films of Bruce Conner and Michaela Grill still considered to be part of cinema, even by people who may not enjoy them, while Anthony Braxton or Ab Baars’ work, as part of the jazz continuum, would be called into question by the people who currently define and run the jazz establishment? Why is the cinema alive as we continue to move into the 21st century- with all its variants and systems of expression, its creative successes and mass market failures and successes- while jazz, when defined and understood through current status quo culture, has become a dead language? Was it necessary to kill jazz by codification in order for it to survive as a commodity?

JM: Understanding the way in which music is made (codification) didn’t, as you say “kill” jazz. Misunderstanding it did. But the only dead parts in the culture of making music in this way are the parts that are stuck in the past as orthodox rules or ideas based on narrow-minded technical or aesthetic practices and belief—the parts that fit within the limited understanding or people who want to control the culture of it by denying it’s true formulation. That part of the Free Music canon, the part that is approvingly referred to as “jazz” has been stunted and solidified. The other parts are fluid as ever and not surprisingly still beyond the gaze and understanding of those who are unwilling to even attempt to understand them. And that situation just opens the door to more new and beautiful things.

Originally published at:

Nate Wooley, editor.

March 11th 2014

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