Sound American 8 : What Is Jazz?


JM: I use Free Music as a name because I feel it is more accurate in describing the ideal approach and the actual historical unfolding of jazz—an inclusive, invented music free of the oversight of institutions, industry or the critical establishment. Beyond that I wouldn’t expect to define anything. Jazz was, and Free Music is, a future-forward approach to making music. In other words, no one knew or knows what would [or will] happen. Anything might happen. Jazz used to be that, and that is what made it special. Now it isn’t that. Instead it is a set of orthodox and exclusive rules and expectations that work really well for interpretive music and musicians (neither of which I have anything against) but very badly for inventive musicians. The latter will define what Free Music means through their music, which already includes idiomatic elements that don’t fit the current jazz model.

Duke Ellington described Jazz as a tree, with roots, a trunk, limbs, and fruit that falls off and plants seeds. That is a perfect description of jazz before the lumberjacks showed up. We know who they are. Just like in rock, and classical music the business of jazz has become a controlling power. The tree can’t exist on it’s own anymore, because the lumberjacks can harvest it for money. I see the idea of Free Music as a new start for anyone who is akin to Ellington’s idea of the tree. One gets cut down in the forest owned by the lumberjacks but another one is growing somewhere away from their control, or from any other control.

KV: Yes, I completely agree with the analogies, and your points about what the idea of Jazz was, and what the idea of Free Music can be, Joe. I guess my question about the understanding of Free Music is not an attempt to define it stylistically (which is what I think has happened to Jazz), but to get a grasp of what you feel this methodology includes that makes it different from other kinds of music making. This isn’t an attempt to pin it down, but just create a set of loose parameters around which Free Music can be perceived from a constructive basis. For example, I’m guessing that if Free Music is an extension of where Jazz was before it became commodified and sterilized, then Free Music focuses on issues and innovations for improvisation, but does it also include the development of pre-organized/composed materials that interface and create cause and effect between those components and improvisation?

JM: I don’t define Free Music stylistically. I define it as music made through methodology. I don’t define Free Music as a methodology, but rather as music made with methodology, or methodologies. I don’t define Free Music as an extension of Jazz, I define it as a different, more accurate and more inclusive way of understanding all of the music that is called jazz and all of the music that is constructed in the same way that is not called jazz because the more inaccurate and exclusive view of that excludes it. And, I meant that in Free Music all of it, whether it is based on a harmonic structure, melodic structure, sound or timbre structure, is all expanded through the use of improvisation which is done by using the material embedded within the operational methodology that the performers create, interpret or synthesize.

KV: Excellent- this puts the the term Free Music into a framework that doesn’t limit it, yet explains its parameters in a way that shows its differences from other kinds of music, and music making. And I also like the idea of methodologies as it pertains to the concept of Free Music, the idea that there can be many systems of organization and development that are valid and that can evolve, that we’re moving past the idea of stylistic concerns toward the idea of actively creative concerns. The key, for me, seems to be improvisation and how it is impacted by the “operational methodology” as you call it- which can be a compositional basis, a conceptual basis, a spontaneous basis.

From my perspective, even a term like “free jazz” can create a lot of miscommunication because it meaning was never clear. To my mind, if it was a reference to a period of aesthetics order dutasteride 0.5mg that were developed between, say, 1957 and 1967- as a kind of parallel to the way BeBop is generally recognized- then there’s a way to understand free jazz that is viable in a discourse about music. However, the way it is often used as an umbrella term that includes everything developed post-chord changes in the jazz continuum isn’t helpful. For example, I am often referred to as a free jazz musician, but the way I create my music is very, very different than that of Cecil Taylor or Archie Shepp or Ornette Coleman. Terminology isn’t useful if isn’t clear and, ironically, one of the things that the neo-con jazz institutions and artists have done has made their definition of jazz so clear and so specific, and they have marketed this definition so well, that their efforts have superseded the verifiable history of nearly a century of creative work that contradicts their very definition of that artistic field.

JM: I agree. Free Jazz only meant that the music was not based on a harmonic structure. Then no one bothered to try to understand that it was based on a melodic structure, but was otherwise just as organized as the Jazz music that was based on a harmonic structure. The term Free Jazz diminished the music. The music known as free jazz was constructed using a melodic structure and just like its predecessor it also used pulse, form, interaction and was built from and aesthetic approach, performed on a distinct platform and made by a particular community of musicians. In other words it was exactly the same as Jazz but made using different materials. By the way, so-called European Free Improvisation is also exactly the same. It’s certainly not jazz, but it is Free Music just as, to me, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bill Evans are Free Music too.

KV: I would add that, from my standpoint, Free Jazz was also built from a number of rhythmic breakthroughs in addition to the shift away from a specific and predetermined harmonic structure. Listening to Ornette Coleman’s earlier music in retrospect, and as someone who was born after its initial impact was made, it’s very difficult to hear how incredibly radical his group’s music was at the time (it is of course quite easier to hear how incredibly great the music was, and is), but when I listen back to the process of Cecil Taylor (who I consider to be an essential part of the Free Jazz revolution) deconstructing the idea of the bar line and regular pulse of jazz, or the detonation of the limits of pitch and rhythm by Albert Ayler’s music, I hear the expansion of rhythm, not only harmonic structure, as a crucial part of the innovations of Free Jazz.

JM: The way the pulse is expressed is also a constantly changing in Free Music. When Cecil [Taylor] and [Albert] Ayler displayed the pulse only by implying it, the haters said it was no longer Jazz. To me they were just too completely disrespectful to bother to learn what was actually happening in the music that made the pulse feel different. The same thing happened when the articulation in [Anthony] Braxton’s music was more staccato, or more informed by Webern, where the articulation is like the expression of an individual sound, with an attack, envelope, sustain, and decay on every note. Or when the sense of pulse in his, or other’s music was proportional rather than metric. All of these things are exactly the same in artistic value as their opposites, but the Jazz orthodoxy expects adherence to the rules. Of course they forget that the rules were never rules at all. They were ideas that helped the performers engage with the spontaneous flow at it spoke to them. The point always being to invent new music. Now it seems that jazz wants to interpret old music, or interpret old materials and ideas. I don’t have any problem with that as long as it’s said out loud and called what it is. Interpretation can be inventive to some degree too. But it does not replace the need for invention of a higher percentage.

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