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New York Is Now!: The New Wave Of Free Jazz

Phil Freeman

New York Is Now!: The New Wave Of Free Jazz

Author:Phil Freeman
Publisher:Telegraph Company

By John Duffy | Posted 9/12/2001

Criticism of Ken Burns' epic-length Jazz series centered almost exclusively on the documentary's shoddy discussion of free jazz or anything even bordering on the avant-garde. Artists long accepted as pillars in the development of jazz were damned with faint praise (Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis), dismissed as self-indulgent (Cecil Taylor), or deemed unworthy even of mention (Sun Ra), to the disgust of many serious jazz scholars.

Music critic Phil Freeman writes that he had no intention of entering the post-Jazz literary fray when he began work on New York Is Now, but he ultimately felt compelled to address the issue. In fact, he reserves some of his most acerbic and scathing words for what he sees as Burns' effort at nothing short of musicological revisionism: "An abortion and a travesty. Effectively a work of fiction."

Freeman was a longtime a fan of death metal who entered New York's free-jazz community almost accidentally around 1996. Here he exhaustively chronicles the work of underground artists such as David S. Ware, Charles Gayle, Joe Morris, Roy Campbell, and Matthew Shipp, as well as the small community that supports them. Along the way, he pointedly asserts that by largely ignoring any post-Coltrane/pre-Wynton Marsalis jazz, Burns and his minions (including critics like Stanley Crouch and a handful of Marsalis brothers) have presented a version of music history that is dangerously conservative and unapologetically reactionary. And that, he argues, is a terrible thing: Jazz was viewed largely by a nonjazz audience that likely came away from it not knowing a thing about some of the genre's most exciting sounds.

Freeman considers most jazz magazines, Down Beat, Jazziz, and JazzTimes included, to be complicit in influencing in Burns' rewrite. The end result of this backlisting, however, has been the adoption of free jazz by the indie- and alternative-rock communities, with their small boutique labels and dingy clubs and performance spaces. According to Freeman--and he backs this up with personal experience--rock publications such as Alternative Press, CMJ, and Magnet are more likely to publish reviews of free jazz than the top mainstream jazz publications.

Despite Freeman's well-directed stabs at Burns' exclusionary film, he enters difficult territory when he tries to write specifically about the artists and their music. It is a very difficult thing indeed to write about free jazz--to describe melodies, themes, rhythms, and chords when the central focus of the music is to reject or at least skirt those boundaries. Eventually, Freeman's adjectives fall short, and what he's left with are some dry paragraphs about specific albums and who played on them, which record companies dropped a certain artist most recently, and how underappreciated the artists are. (For a richer and broader treatise on free jazz, check out Valerie Wilmer's somewhat dated and highly political As Serious as Your Life: John Coltrane and Beyond.)

The end result is that half of New York Is Now! is straight biography of free-jazz mavericks, while the other half is an angry indictment of everything stunting the growth of jazz and its audience for the last 30 years. Freeman displays a passion for the music and a keen awareness of the jazz world, but he's not able to unify his two separate themes. There are, in fact, two books nestled within New York Is Now!, but Freeman doesn't fuse them into a cohesive whole.

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