• It’s always nice to see some writing on this type of music, especially one that highlights people like Jeff, Justin, Rob, and Andy. However, I’m consistently disheartened by the way writers hedge their bets by emphasizing a generalized skeptic’s view (often caricatured), then presenting exceptions (like Jeff and Justin) that ultimately prove the rule. One is left feeling that this music has no significant history (other than some ties to jazz), and that these trailblazers are taking what was once an asocial, huckster-driven, oedipal middle finger of a movement and finally giving it some class.

    Anyone who has ventured into the waters of free improvisation has probably had an extremely memorable experience of some truly awful performance. There will always be aloof, incompetent, narcissistic artists who make people feel ripped-off. But the character of “the conceited eccentric, blowing silly noises out of his horn in an ostentatious attempt to distance himself… from the mainstream musical world that shuns him,” is a remarkable rarity in this music. Bringing that character into this article, even if only to contrast him with a more venerable musician like Jeff Albert, only serves to strengthen prejudice against the music (and the people who make it) as a whole.

    Having performed and recorded highly “experimental” improvised music over the past 15 years, I’ve known and worked with countless musicians who have made this practice a significant part of their lives. Without exception, they are humble, intelligent, open-minded people who love a broad range of music and art and regard their audiences with extreme respect. Their work leaves them vulnerable in a way that few genres can match, and the trust required between audience and performer is heightened to the point of being a little psychologically dangerous. This is not some ostentatious distancing; this is treating people like strong, autonomous, free-thinking, responsible adults.

    I must take issue with the idea, brought up by Andy Durta and supported in some sense by the author, that musicians making this music should be accomplished in some other, more “respected” genre, usually jazz. While it is true that many newcomers feel the need for “reassurances”, there is no reason that this style of music should be required to prove itself in a way fundamentally different and more demanding than other styles. An article on DJs wouldn’t waste any ink exploring the possibility that DJs should be proficient on the piano. An article on rap is unlikely to entertain the notion that rappers should also be able to sing gospel. Yet there are many people skeptical of both disciplines who may hold similar beliefs. There is no need to entertain the skeptics if the article addresses the music as a sincere, mature practice driven by dedicated practitioners and communities.

    And this music is exactly that. It has been in existence in a form distinct from the jazz tradition for over 40 years. It is practiced by people all over the planet. It is represented in recorded form by a hundred or so record labels. The communities supporting it may be small, but they are dedicated and have proven faithful over a significant stretch of time. Should more articles be published here on this music (and I hope they are), I hope that they forgo the standard apologies and caricatures in favor of some more thoroughly researched, gutsy writing on the music itself.

  • Anonymous

    Bhob – Thanks for the lengthy thoughts, even though I don’t agree with your assessment of the story as a whole. I also winced when Andy said he needed to feel like players were technically adept to be interested. I don’t need to know that a pop musician can also play blues, or that a metal guitarist can also do country picking, and really, I don’t need the musician to be anything other than able to make his or her music. His or her ability to read music is beside the point as well. I thought about whether the piece sent the implied message that that was the “right” approach and didn’t see it, particularly after the attention paid to Justin’s percussion-and-computer performance presented in the intro.

    The role of history – I suppose the years of improvised music being viewed suspiciously makes many people jittery and defensive, and the artists often relate it to conventional jazz history instead of the history of improvised or avant-garde music. I wished Rob would have talked about improvised music’s past, but I understand the impulse to try to connect this music with a frame of reference that might help others find their way into the music.

    The straw man – I didn’t see the evocation of the stereotypical avant-garde figure as reinforcing the notion that such a person exists, but perhaps I’m too conscious of local issues and missed something. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival books Kidd Jordan every few years, seemingly out of necessity – he’s too respected and too well-known – even though he polarizes the audience and chases many out after 10-15 minutes. He’s the only improvised music artist to play regularly, which makes me wonder if Jazz Fest books him to keep alive the charade that this is self-absorbed, confrontational music as a way of minimizing the call for improvised music by Jeff Albert or James Singleton. I feel like I’m seeing that character constructed, so it didn’t seem as much like a needless straw man when Zach wrote him into the story.

    • Thanks for your reply, Alex.

      This article is fairly mild in its use of skepticism, and, on the whole, my response may be unfairly charged by its similarity to so many other articles on improvised music that have appeared over the years.

      Imagine if every article on the United Nations both assumed that Americans in general were ignorant of what it did (a fair assumption) and also attempted to address the typical reservations held by neo-conservatives on its role in the world (reservations held by many people). It would be nearly impossible to get any reporting into that article. The impression would consistently be of an organization practicing esoteric mumbo jumbo with very little public support. Perhaps an article could be written now and then that addresses these specific issues, but more often we would prefer something that talks about what the UN is actually doing and what effect that has on our lives.

      Granted, I don’t think that reporting on free improvisation has the same import as the goings on at the UN. But I am pretty weary of the practice of always starting at square one: there’s this crazy music; it borders on chaos; the money is short; a lot of people think it’s pretentious goofing, but some people like it. And I’m tired of the straw men and the hedging. The music has a history, and so does the reporting. The internet gives us easy access to both, so why consistently rewrite the same article?

      It probably isn’t obvious, but I’m reluctant to be criticizing an article that is clearly meant to be (and often manages to be) positive towards improvised music. But fighting the detractors, the people who do believe in the straw men, is an ugly, pointless battle (we fight them by making the best music we can for the people who enjoy it). I think, especially in New Orleans, that it’s the supporters who need to step it up and quit apologizing for something they believe in.

      • Alex Rawls

        Zach would likely be surprised that you’re reading any skepticism into his piece since he brought the story to me because he enjoyed the Open Ears Series. That said, I understand your frustration entirely. My radar is pretty finely tuned to the myriad reiterations of the national version of the New Orleans music story, and I’m irritated by how often the same story is told (and sometimes sent to me for consideration by well-meaning fans); perhaps because I’m frustrated by how often this music is marginalized, I let another version of the same story go. I’ll watch that in the future. Although the usual nods to the jazz tradition are true, I doubt they’re actually opening anyone’s mind to the music and they imply that there’s something deficient about the music. When I read Rob Cambre’s reference to Louis Armstrong, I flashed on high school teachers who told me that if I liked rock music, then I really liked poetry, then argued the point by throwing out almost everything I liked about rock. In the end, I wasn’t convinced. I like poetry now, but because of what poetry is, not what it’s similar to.

  • That memory of high school teachers and rock/poetry is spot on. I completely appreciate your take on this.

    “Zach would likely be surprised that you’re reading any skepticism into his piece since he brought the story to me because he enjoyed the Open Ears Series.”

    I would completely understand if he felt blind-sided, because it’s absolutely clear that he’s a supporter. In some sense, he’s also doing a journalistic duty by presenting the opposing view and offering arguments to the contrary. But the argument, as it exists on the jazz/legitimacy plane, is going nowhere fast. Let’s take it to another plane. There are more nuanced oppositions and ways of countering them that don’t require that they be explicitly referenced.

    And, anyway, what fun is “objective” music journalism?