So what shall we call it?

My friend and fellow musical explorer, Steve Buchannan, opened a can of worms in a discussion on this blog about the term “Free Jazz“. Yes, the term is misleading and has long outlived whatever limited usefulness it may have had.

Free Jazz was the name of an album by Ornette Coleman. Somehow, this album title became the de facto term used to describe all spirited improvisational music from the US – music that was often highly structured – hence not “free” and music that had nothing more to do with Jazz other than being performed on similar instruments as those sometimes used in Jazz bands of previous eras.


How did this happen?

I’ve spent most of my life as a so-called “Free Jazz musician”. One thing that i have discovered (and taken great delight in) is that this approach to music making is full of exhilarating and challenging structures, methodologies and processes. Far from Encyclopidia Britanica’s assertion:

“The main characteristic of free jazz is that there are no rules.”

So what do we replace the expression “Free Jazz” with?

Do we even need to identify the Music in this way at all?

Anthony Braxton has his Tri-Centric Musics. Pierre Schaeffer had Musique concrète. Maybe what we’re doing is simply Improvised Music and we should dispense with the convoluted term “Jazz”.

What do you think?

Coordinate structure 240412a


4 thoughts on “So what shall we call it?

  1. Freedom has nothing to do with structure or lack of structure. Freedom is an internal state that is recognizable but undefinable. One must be willing to let go. Actually, willful action is the wrong metaphor. One cannot will oneself to be free, as one cannot will oneself to fall asleep. We submit to something else and we wait for the dreams that call to us. We pray to our muses.

    An illustration is best. I was playing street music last week in a New Jersey town, near a busy corner sitting on a low wall, playing The Thrill Is Gone using a loop pedal for backup. It was a beautiful afternoon. Two families with young toddlers came by at the same time, seemingly by chance. There were five or six very small kids bobbling around, tottering in that drunken-like wondrous stupor that little kids often evince. But what appears like a stupor is a state of extreme wakefulness. They have no filters, no need for categories.

    The kids literally went mad in the presence of B-minor blues guitar. I never saw anything like it. Their parents had to chase them down constantly and corral them to keep them from running into the road.

    One mother was capturing video of the joyful moment, the pandemonium, on her iPhone. People were smiling. It was one of those precious moments that comes upon us in life where the information, the flux density, outpaces our ability to process it. Thankfully we slip into a state of forgetting and being, nothing but existing.

    I was a grateful observer to all. The absolute wildness of the children fed my playing. I became one of them.

    There was one little girl waving her arms in the air, looking at the sky. I was in wonderment watching her. She might have been two or three years old and her movements were so free. It was like 60s psychedelic drug-induced dancing but it was all natural, it was all from her nature. We only take drugs later in life to remind ourselves of our natural state. It was so clear to me, a moment of epiphany, that this is the natural state of human beings, to dance with full grace under the open blue sky, to revel in the moment, to drink in life. In such a state nobody would ever think of money, war, fighting, class, race, religion, hunger, hoarding, envy, jealousy, greed, and all the other things that separate us from nature and each other. It was a gift to see this little girl and the other children go wild, like whirling Dervishes going mad for the music. That was my gift in return for making the music, to see these little kids go mad with wonder and delight.

    The universe is a stochastic system and entropy rules. Old Leary was onto something, in some sense, when he realized that the command and control approaches to life (i.e., all the fear-based systems and religious commandments) do not work and advised, “tune in, turn on, a drop out.” He understood on some intuitive level the value of chaos.

    The freedom that the little girl and the other children exhibited did not constitute a learned kind of behavior, a choice, or a willful act. Rather, freedom is a natural reflex and automatic response to the apparent chaos in the universe. The children get to this so quickly because they are unburdened by filters and categories.

    Adults have to learn to shut off the opposing fear-reflexes, so deeply conditioned, to apprehend chaos, which is the essence of freedom.

    One might never argue successfully for or against a deterministic universe. If it were deterministic and every happened for a so-called reason, then nothing is free and nothing is improvised, including jazz.

    Therefore freedom might be thought of as an internal state in which one experiences the illusion of choice, in which one apprehends and embraces the chaos and entropy that apparently permeates all things.

    If freedom is an internal state the external frames become relatively less important. Beethoven alluded to the relative unimportance of playing a wrong note and emphasized passion. And what is passion if not the love of chaos, the love of possibility?

    ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time.’
    –William Blake

    Similarly, the style of music and the labels, and the arbitrary dichotomization of improvised versus non-improvised music, is really less important then one’s passion and one’s ability to cultivate an inner sense of freedom, choice, and the sense of adventure that flows therefrom, i.e., those beautiful illusions that keep us making sounds and keep us breathing.

    Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream. That about says it all.

    Perhaps freedom is nothing more than being aware.

    We might rid ourselves of the Ten Commandments, which are in truth man’s Ten Amendments, i.e., his feeble attempt at a command-and-control universe.

    Perhaps there is only one commandment, Thou Shalt Dance.

    The little girl knew it well, and so she taught me and I learned from her.


  2. I believe the term “free jazz” has it’s historical connotations (Coleman,Taylor,Ayler) as well the critics wish to coin the musical expression of some kind of music…musicians seem to make up their own minds about this…we also have the controversy about composition vs improvisation ?…for many years ago I thought they were completely different, even opposites of musical creation!…today I think not…there are also Derek Baileys notions about some ” non-idiomatic improvisation ” which I don’t subscribe to…some time ago I wrote to this page how I view the possible difference about composition and improvisation…when we meet in the street by coincidence….we will probably (hopefully?) communicate freely by speech…with sounds…that’s improv to me!….the same goes for agreeing to meet up in the bar/pub…it’s like a concert…date and place decided…but what to speak about isn’t decided is it ?…when I write a letter to a person…I communicate by written signs…that’s composition to me…but…we also compose our conversation in the street!…and…although we haven’t decided to meet and what to talk about when we meet by coincidence…it would be wrong to say…in my opinion…that it’s “unprepared”…we have a history together…we have a language we share and/or mix to understand each other…etc…but we can repeat a ” composition ” in some sense…but an improvisation we cannot…anyway what would be the point?…it’s funny how people make up their view about what we play…” what to call it “…for my whole life I’ve been annoyed of some musicians insistence to claim that I play “rock guitar” when some of the sounds I use are a distorted guitar…rock equals distorted guitar…OK it’s true in some sense…but my lines and textures…actually in content…harmonically and rhythmically…has more to do with Edgard Varese,Krzysztof Penderecki, Alice Coltrane, Olivier Messiaen, Anthony Braxton etc…than Bo Diddley,Eric Clapton,Eddie Van Halen,etc…in my view it’s a very shallow definition that…a special sound equals a special idiom of music…and that could be from our fellow collaborators my friends…not an uniformed audience!…so…I guess the word “jazz”…if you want to use it…could or would mean something more extensive…than a sound…or traditionally/conventionally playing on “chord changes”…I don’t consider myself a ” jazz musician ” because I improvise…not a ” free jazz musician ” either…but I would recognize I couldn’t be the musician that I am…without the acknowledge of Miles Davis,John Coltrane,John McLaughlin,Alice Coltrane,Tony Williams,Don Cherry,Larry Young,Pharaoh Sanders,Ornette Coleman and many more wonderful creators…if they played “jazz” or not isn’t important to me…and “improvised” music from other cultures…India,Turkey,Japan,Morocco,Indonesia are important to me as well…I’m OK with “improvised music”…but it doesn’t tell you that much does it?…it just says how the music are “made” ?…”free jazz” tells the audience, perhaps, more what to expect ?…that the ” jazz tradition ” whatever that means…defines in some sense where you come from?…and think about the the term “electronic music”…today it could mean everything from the most easy-listening kind of house music to the most extreme noise music…to conclude…the term “free”….”free” could mean ” free from”…free from pre-established idiomatic chord changes, rhythmic patterns, overall structures…to me it could perhaps better mean ” free to “…free to “use” or “choose” any sounds, rhythms, forms as you like and you prepare…free to be as free ” as you want “…free to choose your “topics”…free to choose your own “frameworks”…free to choose the importance or unimportance of repetition and discipline and determinacy….easier put…”free” to what to and how to ” speak about things ” ?…


    • Great to hear from you, Magnus. One issue that keeps nagging me is that all of my “Jazz heroes” never considered themselves “Jazz musicians”. Many of them rejected the “label” emphatically, while others – particularly Braxton – were denied entry into the hallowed halls of “Jazz”.

      At the same time, i as a Black American musician, born in the 1950s, seem to have some sort of default connection to the “J-word”. No matter how hard i try, no matter what i do, someone, somewhere will insist on valuating my musicianship with the “J-word”. By the same token, if Dianne Reeves is Jazz, i am certainly not. If Louis Armstrong (from any period) is Jazz, i certainly am not. What’s the connection? The only connection i can see is “pseudo-national”. Also, it is mostly “Jazz festivals” and “Jazz clubs” that are most receptive to presenting my music.

      I don’t know. If the shoe fits?


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