The reason I’ve been using the term “free playing” is that “free improvisation” has come to unite two different things that have by now clearly grown apart. First, it’s long been celebrated as “a new way of making music,” and twenty years ago postmodernists such as John Corbett said it was “looking for lands yet undiscovered.” Today academics idealize all improvisation as a lifestyle and ethic beyond its origin in music. On the other hand the title refers to an institutionalized minor genre of music (more debatably, a subgenre) that has been already made and recorded, competes in the marketplace, and is represented by a hierarchy of mostly European professionals. They are tilling lands they discovered decades ago, in most cases, and would probably not claim otherwise. This is not a criticism of the musicians, just a reason for expanding and radicalizing the first meaning away from the second and examining the relation between the two. Were its defenders to drop the claim that the term for an approach also refers to a historical form of music, they would be left with something of seemingly less value, certainly of even less presence in the world than it has. To distinguish the concept of free playing would do just that, only from the perspective of the subculture of free improvisers the divorce would allow less to become more. Most reasonable would be to grant free improvisation as the title for a kind of music, leaving the approach to find its own term, which for me is free playing. The two might coincide at times but not necessarily.
It’s common in postmodern culture to think we are progressive if we can validate more art than earlier eras, and see only difference rather than conflict and rejection. This means dropping not only genre boundaries but that separating music and sound that is not music; despite decades of (John) Cage polemics this move is still considered somewhat radical. But the stance of the open-minded listener/consumer/composer is not that of instrumental musicians, who know the difference between what they do in practice or warming up and performing. They make no claim that the former is music, and not because it’s of low musical value; it is simply in a different category. Listeners criticized John Coltrane in some of his late recordings for practicing; they were simply unprepared to hear a musician in the midst of transforming his practice into music, investing scales with meaning right in front of them.
Free playing is the situation—most commonly a private session–where players don’t know if the sound they produce has meaning or not; the door is open to dismissing it as pure exploration that only might make musical sense. “Making music” in this way does not refer to music as socially functional, what knowledgeable musicians have reason to believe will convince a significant number of listeners. Rather it means to be in the midst of all the possibilities of sound-making, and imagining that something surprising and wonderful might happen that might never become “music.” Instead of enjoying and displaying their knowledge, as they might on stage, players bring all their resources to the enterprise of active not-knowing, confronted with infinite possibilities, and having to make instant judgments. This is an impossible situation if you think that every time you play you must come up with something that will function as music. Music is, but also music wants to be. The latter is the realm of free playing, where it is not constrained by what music is. There is no felt need to create something worthy of audience or one’s career, as in a rehearsal. Players might spend long periods doing nothing but free-playing, or move back and forth between the session and the stage, such that a performance is not a presentation but an actual exploration that will engage non-players at the same time. It might lead to wonder or terror, and for this reason players do not expect it to reap immediate and rewarding appreciation.
Free playing is not the site of music making but of players’ immersion in the difficulty of desire—how do I discover what I want, what I’m missing. It is the mode of playing that is the infinite game rather than the finite. Unlike the religion of art (art for the sake of art) it merely postpones the dialogue between the two to a different moment. The distinction between good and bad moves and strategy is suspended and there are no mistakes, no critic to discriminate good from bad improvisation. This is not a respite from the “real world,” the fanciful emancipation from the world of rules and values that is the utopia of conventional left culture. It is submission of the artist to the condition of freedom, which can be joyous at times but also frustrating and overwhelming.
Krin Gabbard [editor of Jazz Among the Discourses] has included Corbett’s essay on free improvisation alongside those on jazz, but nowhere in the book is there evidence of a musicological border distinguishing them, nor their historical relation. The general postmodern celebration of cultural difference opposes it to both homogeneity and conflict, thus tending to lessen such distinctions; today all improvisation is treated as a singular continuity. This is especially true for genres, whose boundaries are thought to be more and more violated and meaningless (and viewed as a positive development). However, the tendency has been for all musics in this period (with the exception of pop) to be perceived and sold as traditions, cultural memories that must be distinguishable to be effective. In terms of the demographics of listener response these memories are acquired by specific groups but are also generalized for the population at large such that major genres are widely and quickly recognizable. Thus jazz performed today, properly termed neo-classical, has fixed meanings; a certain sound or way of playing recalls in the listener the entire genre and perhaps its specific place within the official repertoire, very much as European classical music does. As with verbal language that sound will be fixed in memory, such that it will not be confused with music that explores a different sound. An unclassifiable sound or musical structure lacks genre identity and so might be accpepted as music (the apparent intention of the musician) but still lacks an identity that will enable its market presence, or “real” existence. There is then no chance for a new development to be considered within jazz that would make listeners question what they’re listening to, as was the case when audiences could expect jazz to present them with innovations. That situation created debate and controversy that continues today but does not concern what is presently being performed.
Besides genre identity, each instrument has its proper sound, reinforced and stabilized by institutional training, and that sound is not to be confused with any other. Neo-classical jazz has shifted away from the historical jazz it claims to represent, when each individual was expected to have a different voice, identifiable with a specific player, defended and marketed as the sign of the player’s creative soul. A similar issue is that one instrument is confined to connoting a singular genre: the saxophone means jazz. Saxophonists who wish to avoid being automatically dismissed by those who spurn jazz must go to extreme limits of introducing unorthodox sounds. At the same time, that strategy makes it difficult to assert that what they are doing is in fact in the broad tradition of jazz, and has a claim to be heard by the jazz audience.
All this relates to the marketability of different musics, which experimental musicians don’t like to talk about but which, were the situation were to change, would deeply affect their lives and playing. Consumers are most likely to buy regularly when they can define their interest according to genre, and when that identity is quickly and unequivocally secure. The shift of performed jazz today to homogeneous sound for each instrument and for each subgenre of the repertoire means that live music customers need not be sold on the individual player but will buy anything in their favored category. This is perhaps why jazz clubs can avoid hiring the higher-priced celebrity players and still sustain themselves. With jazz in survival mode, to support it one simply goes to the club where generic jazz is played. Celebrities who have a better audience draw most likely attained their status in an earlier era and are fewer in number all the time, so the strategy of standardizing jazz is a good one for marketing the genre and of course for jazz instruction.
The postmodern world contradicts postmodern thinking; things have not worked out as expected. In order for any approach to playing to provide careers and a public presence, its players must agree for it to become a distinct genre with a cultural memory. That applies to jazz, free jazz, and the free improvisation Europeans initiated in the late sixties. For the latter, this has required hedging on the idealized interpretation of free improvisation that was taken up by postmodernists, beginning with Corbett. According to that understanding players would be constantly open to radically new musical ideas, an to become loyal to. Process is a selling point, not an actual strategy for success. Compared to jazz it has been difficult to impose musicological standards on free improvisation, so to survive and maintain an audience it has had to rely for that memory on its iconic founding players and new generations that associated with them—a scene. In the UK (and unlike the US) there is a music world (institutions and writers) and iconic players identified with historical free improvisation, a situation that has by now provoked a question whether this tradition has a right to survival or is passé. What has not been asked is whether the marriage between the “new way of making music” and the tradition of free improvisation needs to be questioned.
 Jacques Attali, Noise, The Political Economy of Music, [1985, written in 1977] p.134. The full quote is “Complex, vague, recuperated, clumsy attempts to create new status for music—not a new music, but a new way of making music—are today radically upsetting everything music has been up to this point.”
 John Corbett, “Writing Around Free Improvisation” in Krin Gabbard [ed.] Jazz Among the Discourses , p.232 This writing was stimulated by Corbett’s essay. He does not make the distinction I do here, but his strong support for the approach of free improv (he is a practitioner himself) points the way.