Free Form Evolution
Andy Sheppard, of Trio Libero and Sax Massive comments, "Improvised jazz has always had a small audience and gigs are difficult to find. It is harder now than 20 years ago." Alan Wilkinson, of Flim Flam (Ryan's Bar) laments the reduction in the number of venues willing to offer a platform for free form players."There are definitely less places to play" he says."When I started playing this music in the late '70s/early '80s and until relatively recently, you could go to an improv gig every night of the week. There'd be nobody there but you could play and watch it. The fall off maybe coincided with the changes [the] Labour [Party] made to music licensing laws in the UK, making it harder for casual gigs to happen. Now venues have to abide by strict and expensive regulations and are much more conscious of needing to get people in. With Ryan's Bar, where Flim Flam happens, I'm very lucky because I have a long and good relationship with the owner and don't get thrown out because there's only three people in the audience. In order to grow, free form needs places where there's no pressure to fill the place."
Peter Brötzmann, a founding father of free form comments, "In the 1970s it was possible to spend weeks travelling north to south down Europe. There were small venues and radio stations which gave new players a chance. But then the small venues and radio stations that welcomed new players began to want known 'names,' larger audiences and nights when new players could play to a handful of customers disappeared."
Now the venues are scattered and disjointed in Europe with gigs in Lisbon, Oslo, London and Madrid perhaps. This is good in many ways but in order to work you have to be prepared to travel a long way from home. Brötzmann says, "This is not good for youngsters who miss the social experience of music. For young people, being on the road, playing to a different audience and maybe different musicians each night is important but this is missing so Europe needs more places for them to work and particularly smaller venues."
There are exceptions and a few enlightened managers realize the continued value of supporting free from music. Ian Storrer, promoter, Jazz At The Albert in Bristol, comments that," For me, this style is the contemporary form of jazz as much as modern art is to painting, installation art and sculpture. However, in order to make a living in jazz, the music is perceived to need a widespread audience to be successful and attract a following that is not readily available in the free movement." Luckily, Ian supports free gigs. Improvisation remains important in free playing because out of improvisation, has come different ways of playing. As Storrer says, "Many projects have emerged from new and improvised jazz, developing in different ways to end up within the mainstream of jazz.'' If we lose small venues willing to encourage free form players, music as a whole will be poorer.
There is acknowledgement among players and promoters that, while gigs remain small and less commercially attractive, free music offers an opportunity for great things to happen. Many promoters accept that if they are to be taken seriously they need to offer a varied and responsive repertoire and free playing is very much a part of this. Some compromise by offering free form gigs among ones which draw in the crowds to cover their license fees and realize that free form offers musicians a chance to continue developing and breath renewed life into jazz music.
Free drummer Terry Day says, ''One of the things about getting gigs and why it might be difficult for me is that when people book me they never know what I am going to do. Sometimes I play the drums, sometimes I might squeak my balloons or read poetry.'' Should musicians be willing to compromise to get regular work? Should they offer a branded product? Or should more venues be willing to take a chance on free players, knowing that often, something magical happens? When you speak to Terry, there is no arrogance. He just can't imagine playing anything other than what he feels like at the moment."It depends on the audience, the mood and the feelings,'' he says.
However, the changing economic situations mean commercialism has stormed in and stolen some of the freer sides of music making and, in order to have venues to play, players need to adapt in order to give something back to supportive venues. They need to attract clients who will stay, drink at the bars and listen. Many players, therefore, tailor their craft to suit a paying audience and intersperse free playing amongst more popular genres which keep them economically afloat.
In some ways, the very fact that free players have to adapt, play other genres perhaps and change how they play in order gig, has maybe even added to the evolution of the music. After all, the essence of free form is reaction to social changes, and economics is part of that.