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The Free Musics by Jack Wright


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The Free Musics
Jack Wright
316 Pages
ISBN: 1537777246
Spring Garden Music Editions

Saxophonist Jack Wright's first encounter with free jazz occurred in 1967, when a chance meeting with Charlie Haden resulted in Wright's being invited to see Haden play with Ornette Coleman. Wright, who had been a conventional jazz saxophonist, describes the music as having struck him as "chaotic" and the experience as having been "traumatic." Nevertheless, five years later he was moved to seek it out again. Staring into the abyss had been frightening but compelling. So much so that by 1979, Wright was himself playing free improvisation; since then, he has gone on to sustain a decades-long career as a free player.

Wright's attraction to free playing—and the inherent attractiveness of playing freely improvised music at all—is captured in what he wrote to describe the aspiration behind his first recording: To play "a music deep into the present time...done for the love of playing...risking itself for its own sake." It is music that goes "beyond the score, genre or prepared aesthetic" and consequently is "a blank tablet on which to write experience not known to be musical." This is the spirit common to those varieties of improvised or otherwise spontaneously created music that fall under the encompassing category of free music. But this spirit needs to be embodied, and an interpretive history of the forms it took is what Wright sets out to give.

Wright's book is a genealogical anthropology of free playing. It traces the historical roots of contemporary free playing while at the same time seeing that history as the product of concretely situated practices developed by generations of musicians who formulated them, took them up, modified them, and otherwise worked with them. It is in addition very much a personal history, filled with sharp observations and often shrewd judgments, with a focus on North America. It doesn't claim to be a comprehensive history or exhaustive description of free improvised music in America, but is instead an insightful account by a long-involved, widely-traveled participant.

The Free Jazz Period

Wright's starting point is the upsurge of free jazz around 1959 and its development through the 1970s. Because he was a jazz musician he was introduced to free improvisation through free jazz, and the jazz tradition remains for him a central point of reference.

Free jazz debuted during a period of ferment and radical challenges to established artistic conventions not only in music, but in other disciplines as well. Free jazz specifically challenged the norms that had governed the formal and expressive language of jazz. The most obvious challenge came with the initial shock of what might be called the phenomenology of the music, or the way it appeared to the ear. This was certainly the case with Coleman's free jazz. What Wright first heard as chaotic in Coleman's music was the way it had been organized along new, more egalitarian lines.

Coleman's music disrupted the standard structure of jazz—music improvised within the confines of a pre-existing harmonic and rhythmic cycle and in which a distinctive solo voice was prominently foregrounded against a supporting rhythm section—and replaced it with a more fluid, polyphonic form. Wright emphasizes Coleman's innovation in blurring the leader/sideman distinction and introducing a general measure of ambiguity into the normal functions of the jazz ensemble's constituent parts. Early jazz had also used collective improvisation, but within limits set by the composed song form and melody. Free jazz showed how to free players not only from a rigid figure/ground distinction of soloist and accompaniment, but from song form and rhythms divided and defined by the barline. To be sure, other free jazz artists—and Coleman himself at times—retained some semblance of the soloist/accompanist distinction, but in principle the way had been cleared for a collective improvisation of equals.

Music lacking recognizable chord cycles and insinuating a polyphonic texture in place of a distinctive solo voice could be expected to make novel demands on the musicians, and free jazz did. Although some jazz musicians considered the music to be the domain of unskilled players, Wright notes that free playing entailed not a loss of skill as such but rather a "shifting of players' skill orientation" from following chord changes to following the sounds that other players make in real-time. A typical free jazz performance would eschew improvising within more or less elaborate given structures and instead would create structures arising exclusively through the process of playing and responding to others' playing. This emphasis on spontaneous creation ex nihilo meant that what Wright describes as "personal motivation"—biography and identity—became significant elements in the content of the new music. Interpretation of another's composition was effectively replaced by interpretation of oneself and one's immediate musical environment, in real time.

If free jazz made extraordinary demands on musicians, it made them on listeners as well. Wright was far from the only contemporary listener to find Coleman's music chaotic. Without the familiar landmarks of harmonic and rhythmic cycles to orient them, many listeners became disoriented, and as a result, the music struggled to find and sustain an audience. Retrospectively, we can hear Coleman's music as carrying and carrying on the influences of blues, gospel, and then-contemporary jazz, but at the time listeners—even knowledgeable listeners as familiar with jazz conventions as was Wright—couldn't detect that substrate beneath the seemingly-disorganized surface. And what was true of Coleman's music specifically was true generally of the music of other free jazz musicians as well. But the immediate result of this incomprehension was a loss of an audience for the new music. At a time when even the more conventional forms of jazz were losing commercial presence, free jazz was economically marginal at best. And yet the attraction and retention of an audience was crucial for artists who, for many and often complex reasons, were dependent on a market.

Improvising at the Margins

Unlike their counterparts in the world of experimental art music, free jazz artists were not accepted as a legitimate avant-garde. Consequently, they would have difficulty securing support from the kinds of institutions that supported, say, the New York school experimentalists gathered around or associated with John Cage, or the West Coast composers and performers associated with the San Francisco Tape Music Center. By contrast experimental musicians, as members of a recognized avant-garde, were able to draw on the support of institutions both critical and financial rather than having to depend on having an audience. At least in its initial phase, free jazz lacked this institutional critical and financial support.

Wright points out that there were deep-seated social attitudes underlying free jazz's lack of institutional acceptance; he notes that its practitioners weren't accorded avant-garde legitimacy because they fell on the wrong side of the "economic division of white artist and black entertainer." This division was underscored by basic facts governing the professional possibilities and trajectories of the free jazz artists: Like more conventional jazz, free jazz, at least in its early years, was strongly performance-based and its players formed by a kind of working apprenticeship. Experimental music artists, by contrast, largely had conservatory or academic training and followed established Western art music traditions of producing discrete works that were replicable—at least in theory—and enshrined in notated scores. In that regard, they conformed to many of the conventions associated with and conveying artistic legitimacy, whereas free jazz musicians, despite the seriousness with which they pursued their art, were seen not to. Standards of what constitutes and conveys artistic legitimacy have since changed and were in fact changing at that time, but in the 1960s that change was still in its early stages and hadn't yet become established enough to have been perceptible.

Also working against the economic viability of free jazz was the rise of the rock counterculture, which through psychedelics and its own version of free-form music offered audiences extreme experiences that could compete with, and out-compete, the experiences offered by free jazz. Wright characterizes free jazz's position vis-à-vis this new culture as an unenviable one of "market obsolescence." Free jazz's market obsolescence only worsened during the 1970s and the rise of what Wright calls "neo-traditional" jazz—whose highest-profile figure probably was Wynton Marsalis—which defined the main body of jazz and thus further marginalized free jazz as a kind of anomaly standing outside of, and largely irrelevant to, jazz as a discipline.

Wright describes several different responses to this difficult situation. By the 1970s, many free jazz artists, in order to survive professionally, had turned to less confrontational, more commercially viable kinds of music and/or went into new programs established by the universities—although largely, he notes, on a part-time basis. And as Michael Heller documents in his recent study of the New York jazz avant-garde in the 1970s, some musicians were able through their own efforts to secure funding through government and private grants, and to present their music in alternative spaces. But even this means of reaching audiences came to an end largely by the close of the 1970s, partly through increases in the once-low rents that made such venues possible, and partly by the absorption—incomplete, to be sure—of the music into clubs and other more mainstream outlets.

Despite only partial success, the New York musicians' efforts at self-organization—inspired in part by earlier avant-garde jazz musicians' associations in Chicago and St. Louis as well as in New York—provided an important precedent and lasting example not only for free jazz, but for other forms of freely improvised music that were to follow. But Wright sees this as having mixed implications for the future of the music. While he describes the turn to self-organization as "an emancipation" from a largely unsympathetic commercial establishment, he sees it at the same time as "a defeat." It was a defeat to the extent that it initiated a process he terms "de-professionalization" in that musicians now had to become responsible for the business side of their careers and not just the specialized work of making music. One of the risks self-organizing musicians ran is falling into what Heller calls the "organizer's dilemma"—a situation where an artist's organizational and administrative activities begin to eclipse his or her artistic activities. Additionally, de-professionalization entailed abandoning the hope of being able to make a living entirely from music—a particularly common predicament facing artists working with challenging, and thus commercially marginal, forms of music. Wright sees de-professionalization as an increasingly common characteristic of free music; often by necessity and sometimes by choice, the history of post-free jazz free improvisational musics is the history of non-career players.

The Free Music Revival of the 1980s

In the 1980s, there was resurgence of freely improvised music largely independent of free jazz or the jazz tradition generally. And for the first time Wright was a participant, having begun playing free music exclusively in 1979.

The 1980s free improvisers were essentially a small underground community that got little or no outside attention and lacked financial and media support. But it was held together by the participants' commitment to its practices. Commercial success or even viability wasn't an aim, or at least not a realistic one; the more immediate desire was to bring together musicians—and in some cases non-musicians working with sound—to exchange ideas and collaborate with each other. In this regard the self-initiated, self-sustained culture that grew up around this wave of free improvisation resembled the contemporary DIY cultures of the cassette underground, with which it had some direct, personal links, and punk.

These free improvisers set up relatively few, if any, barriers to participation. In contrast to the professionals who had played free jazz, they largely lacked or otherwise rejected standards of technical expertise and selectivity in regard to what kinds of musicians they would play with. They were generally unconcerned with convincing others that they were "serious musicians." Which many of them probably weren't interested in being anyway. In a useful analogy, Wright draws a parallel between free improvisation and automatic writing—the "pure psychic automatism" that Surrealist André Breton defined as the essence of Surrealist practice. For free improvisers, the spontaneous upwelling of sound-creating gestures, without the restraints and second-guessing imposed by self-editing, would produce an improvised music liberated from the mediation of deliberate, and deliberated over, structures, let alone pre-existing labels or genres.

During this period free improvisation was a marginal activity relative to any purportedly legitimate musical establishment—Wright recalls having to find "less discriminating venues" to play in his home base of Philadelphia during this time. As a community it was nevertheless widely distributed geographically, if sparsely populated. There was even enough interest and infrastructure to support something like a performance circuit for those willing to try: Wright estimates that between 1984 and 1989 he played seventy locations in North America over the course of fourteen tours.

Eventually, though, this marginality took its toll. Wright describes a situation where free improvisers became discouraged because of what seemed to them to be their permanent consignment to an ignored underground; as a result, some stopped playing or began playing other kinds of music in addition to or instead of free improvisation. Wright, however, continued to play free music exclusively.

Free Musics at the Change of the Century

Wright saw a new interest in free improvisation beginning around 1996 and lasting through approximately 2008. This renewed interest was partly afforded by the internet, which facilitated easy communication among like-minded artists regardless of their physical location, and by the widespread use of digital technologies for sound creation and reproduction. With many of the newly-available digital tools, there was very little need for the hours of practice it would take to master an ordinary instrument; with little more than a sense of curiosity an artist could start improvising with the devices virtually just out of the box. Curiosity—about sound as such—was and in fact still is the primary motivation for many free improvisers; for those artists the goal is not necessarily to make a piece of music per se but rather to find out what sound does under certain circumstances.

Wright characterizes this period of resurgence as being distinguished by an influx of new players/listeners—often the same people; the separation of career from non-career players; and a split between jazz-based improvisation and free improvisation. He also noticed that, in contrast to jazz-rooted improvisation and earlier types of free playing, these newer improvisers were often likely to combine electronics with acoustic instruments, or acoustic instruments with home-built instruments.

An important and influential force during this period was the interest in the reduced, minimal sounds of lowercase improvisation. Lowercase music, which framed improvisation in terms of restricted volume, density and expressivity, brought to the free improvisation of the 1990s-2000s a set of significant changes of aesthetics and sensibility relative to other varieties of improvised music. One of the hallmarks—indeed, the signature strategy—of lowercase improvisation was the close attentiveness to what other players were doing. Wright sees this emphasis on the primacy of listening as engendering a distinct, qualitative change in free improvisation, one that put a premium on receptivity to sound and sensitivity to the performance as a whole rather than on making personal statements or displaying instrumental ability.

Correlatively, the generally introverted sensibility of lowercase improvisation manifested itself in transparent textures and incrementally developing sound structures. This focus on contemplative microsounds provided a contrast to the more expressive, extroverted jazz-based free music, and widened the divide that had been growing between jazz and free improvisation. Instead, the sound profile of lowercase music was consonant with, if not deriving directly from, the experimental side of contemporary composed Western art music. (It's important to note here that musicians trained within the Western tradition had been experimenting with free improvisation since at least the early 1960s. In addition to the New York School composers, who for philosophical reasons may not have wanted to acknowledge the improvisational implications of the indeterminate scores they were creating, there was The New Music Ensemble, the Gruppo Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, and experiments by Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley and others associated with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to name just a few.) Wright was himself introduced to lowercase music in 1998 by Bhob Rainey and the Boston group Nmperign; it was to have a profound effect on him as an instrumentalist and collaborator. Although its tendencies ran counter to his established style of physical, expressive playing, it did expand his technical vocabulary and widened the range of musical contexts in which he could contribute effectively.

Enabled by its emphasis on lower volumes and close listening, lowercase improvisation also afforded the nuanced exploration of timbre for its own sake. This further separated free improvisation from jazz-based improvisation. Free jazz had made liberal use of unconventional timbres, but as the vehicle for musical expression. Lowercase improvisation, like avant-garde and experimental composed music, tended instead to treat timbre as an object of research and to foreground it as a musical element. Considered as an independent musical parameter on a par with pitch or rhythm, timbre offers a common ground on which acoustic and electronic instruments can meet. A good part of the original appeal of electronic instruments lay in their ability to provide an almost unlimited number of timbres; at the same time that electronics began to establish a significant presence within music, advances in instrumental techniques broadened the timbral palettes available to acoustic musicians. Wright himself often plays with electronic improvisers; his engagement with extended technique on saxophone is deep and nuanced, and his performances are often marked by sounds that diverge quite dramatically from what a conventional saxophone makes.

Structurally, lowercase imported a sense of continuity and coherence into improvised performances. Lowercase improvisations might be based on compositional structures, no matter how minimal; alternately, they often featured a consistency of tone that could create the impression that there were compositional structures undergirding the music, even if there weren't. Wright describes this as a "syntactic" approach to improvisation as opposed to free improvisation's otherwise "paratactic" approach—an approach based on linear development rather than on a discontinuous chain of episodes.

Worth mentioning in this regard is the influence of 1970s non-academic electronic music on post-1980s free improvisation. Many artists of the late 1990s-mid 2000s worked with purely electronic instruments, sometimes solo and sometimes in pairs or small ensembles. Their playing often took its cue from the floating, improvised soundscapes created by electronics artists active in Berlin and elsewhere in the post-psychedelic era. As with improvisation animated by lowercase principles, this music too was permeated by a sense of architecture—though sounding worlds away.

Free Music as a Non-Career

For Wright, the wave of improvisation that welled up in the 1990s completed a shift in the kind of artists predominant in the improvisation community, a shift that had begun with the punk and free improvisation scenes of the 1980s. Wright observed that non-career players—artists who weren't and seemingly had no interest in becoming professional musicians—became more numerous than professionals. The de-professionalization of improvised music that Wright first saw setting in with the free jazz artists' efforts at self-organization was now more or less complete.

Improvisers at the change of the millennium, being free of the professional's dependence on building and maintaining an audience, consequently had no need to be aware of let alone follow current musical fashions, and could replace external motivation with a purely internal motivation. On the negative side, the de-professionalization of the music meant that it lacked the cultural prestige of other musics, including jazz. In practical terms, this manifested itself in a relative or absolute lack of institutional support and major media interest. It also brought significant changes to the way free musics were (and are) distributed. Non-career artists, not being dependent on selling music to make a living, tolerated or encouraged the free distribution of their music over the internet. For many current creators of improvised and experimental music this is a matter of principle rather than of circumstance, and thrives with the proliferation of netlabels and an active Creative Commons movement.

And now? Free music continues as a largely self-organized practice, usually within a broader network of allied musics. The picture Wright sketches is of an unorthodox music that's thriving in unorthodox ways. Costs in major urban areas are high and make the sustenance of venues and communities difficult, but there has been growth outside of the larger metropolitan areas—the Midwest and Southeast in particular are seeing more interest in improvised music—and touring is increasing. The venues themselves are still relatively small, frequently ephemeral, and often take the form of house shows, alternative art galleries, and pop-up underground spaces.

Contemporary programs of experimental music are likely to include sets of freely improvised music alongside electronic noise music, DIY sound art and even performance art, poetry and dance. Although relatively uncommon, some of these programs include contemporary composed music, generally of an "experimental" type. (As Wright observes, the label "experimental" now simply connotes virtually any kind of unusual or unconventional music.) An occasionally, free improvisation will be on the same bill as—yes—free jazz.

Free improvisation, then, lives. As a practice, it is liable to undergo cyclic periods of dormancy and resilience, of flagging and cresting interest. As a self-motivated art form answering to its own sense of curiosity, freely improvised music will continue to be made as long as there are people who feel it must be made.

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