A trail shows hazard time

gives the flat sense its due

a nose to bridge a nose

  and back again, occult,

  recollecting things of things

  the air for grief, burns

on the take, out gets caress of

 willow-sized, bit

the arrows heaven petrified

  slime and goop across

 casualty fever so miniscule

 gasp in the lake

 misbegotten atrophy with

halter pending, apple blue

 saves a writched life

and awaits comeuppance


this nowhere of a hairsbreath                             

pours for a fountain wish                                       

  immaculates gross feelings

  imbibes its silver time


 sliver-rich dirigible of

box nail length

 vacuumed our porch-dog

 gave him what to think


some garrulous people

bleeped out the neighborhood

 trusting the animal business


[The above from 1990-91, inspired by Chris Culhane]

There’s a notion common among improvisers, drawn from the sixties heritage of self-affirmation and positivity (today’s “good job”): Don’t criticize your playing, and be humble in not defending it as well. Free improv has no established standards, so whatever we do is OK. (And the corollary–“I’m OK, you’re OK,” don’t judge others, or they will judge you—which I am violating here.) This happy home is a recipe for stagnation, endless repetition of lame clichés, making us bored with what we do without noticing it. It provides a certain security but is a far cry from the wild adventure that originally attracted us to improvisation. Identified with “my music” I stick to it and hesitate to do something I might not like. The excitement becomes just the fact of playing another gig and not what we play moment by moment.  The small improv audience reinforces this. It consists mainly of supporters, not people looking to be excited by something they haven’t heard before.

Self-satisfaction is the hole, indeed the pigeon-hole, in which free improvisation finds itself, and has for many years. (I said something similar in The Improvisor magazine almost 30 years ago.) For this musical approach in particular, it is possible to move into what we’ve never experienced—and perhaps what others have not experienced either. Yet improv musicians are typically like a society of explorers meeting in comfort and no longer facing the unknown out in the field. We’re only humble because there’s nothing to be proud of besides our refusal to heed the siren call of public success. However essential that is to art, if critical self-judgment is lacking it doesn’t prevent complacency. The standard critique of free improv is correct: self-indulgence.

The escape from the comfort zone is simple but not easy, and it promises to bring us back to our original interest in this strange musical approach. It is a self-imposed discipline: Playing privately, we start from scratch each time, just like the blank canvas or page. However, we find that every sound is familiar, and instead of turning away we allow ourselves to feel the revulsion, the disgust with our confinement. This meets the criticism of “self-indulgence” head on, for we are the first to accuse ourselves of it, having accepted what we can no longer tolerate. The risk of arousing this sensitivity is that we might quit playing altogether—a necessary option. Or we might search for years, feeling there must be some way we can truly and justly become excited by our playing in a very specific and concrete sense. We might not be proud of what we’re doing musically, but we’ll have a sense of commitment to wandering through the wilderness on a path of our own making.

On the other hand, that revulsion might immediately intensify the pleasure we get in the act of playing by narrowing it down to near-disappearance. Instead of all-inclusive self-acceptance or vague disquiet we’re then on a very thin tight-rope, where we must pay exclusive attention to avoid falling off. There’s not even room to think, “Here’s a good sound!” With this concentrated intensity we find ourselves  twisting each sound out of its familiarity, altering its context, turning it into something we have not yet experienced. All the while, to stay on that tightrope we must not allow that new thing to become itself precious, but must twist it again as it comes around. The familiar becomes alien, then joins the family and is in turn bent into a new shape. Playing that had lost its claim to spontaneity has, in staying balanced on this tightrope, regained it.

Whatever path we’re on, we are overcoming the fear that we will ever reach the end of discovery. The North Pole can be absolutely anywhere, for it disappears and goes into hiding every time it’s discovered. Like all art, musical work that has met the high standard of critical-in-the-moment playing is an achievement we have every reason to be proud of. The search outside our “safe place” takes us outside the bounds of music-as-we-know-it. It is what free playing is  all about, its mobile home, where it has every right to bask in its triumph.

Despite its left-liberal audience, The online Guardian news has roots in the (British) labor-oriented Left and so has been more sympathetic in its coverage to the situation the Trump voters find themselves in than The NY Times. That press is the organ of the centrist Democratic Party, which simply wishes the Trumpists would go away and the world would return to the neoliberal status quo. I find the Guardian’s lead article today about Ohio Trump followers, possibly a microcosm of them nationally, worth commenting on. The balance of their position has apparently shifted to become more personal and defensive, and less political and confidently offensive. Previously they ignored the liberal press as simply the voice of poor losers motivated by resentment at Trump’s victory, and lying to cover their weakness. Their accusation sounded like the thirties-era Communist Party’s attack on the establishment media as the “kept press,” referring to it as the mistress to the real bosses of Wall Street and Washington. The right-wing media the Trumpists relied on was their authentic truth, directly paralleled by their liberal opposition, which trusted theirs as factually true.

Even then the White House signaled its weakness by calling its facts “alternative,” which like “alternative culture” is not quite the “mainstream.” Now that weakness is having effect. Trumpists are apparently checking and believing some of the liberal media, for they admit that Trump occasionally lies , and they’re not hearing that from their most trusted sources. To be able to ignore the opposition meant they were confident they were winning, and that confidence has been dwindling, especially since the government shutdown. In politics this is called “realism.” The tables have turned; now the gloating behavior has passed to the other side. Trumpists have shifted to underdog status in a man-to-man fight, which is a personal defense, not a political argument. They claim that the opposition is also personally motivated, just “out to get” their man, and they’re right that the Maddow-following left can be as motivated by that as the Trumpists have been. Now that opposition is getting him, like a team coming from behind with an upset in its sights. In this drama, it’s underdog to underdog, zero-sum winner take all, which is how the  established press is also viewing it. Self-pity and support for Trump as beleaguered and valiantly fighting on sounds like a losing battle. Trump’s frequent “sad” has come back to haunt them. It doesn’t speak confidence of winning the political game.

I say this as an observer of current politics and not a team booster. The left-liberal team is on a roll, and I’m reporting from the sidelines, not rolling with it. To my mind, the spectrum view of politics obscures, sets up politics as a spectacle where everyone gets to participate. The condition is that they locate themselves where they feel most at home and can call the cops on the noisy neighbors rooting for the other team. 

On tour with Roughhousing and reading Stephen Barber, Antonin Artaud—Blows and Bombs (1993). Unlike any culture that exists today, that of the French middle class of the 20th century interwar period considered artists fundamentally different from ordinary people. Artists were not to be judged by common standards, for they had a psyche that operated abnormally, driven by strange obsessions that seemed bizarre to outsiders. Beyond that, whether backed by wealthy patrons and promoted by media or not, artists were those whom, for its own good, society should not hamper. They would not be judged negatively if they lacked entrepreneurial skills or their art failed to attract buyers or an audience. Indeed if “neglected” artists and “cursed” poets were treated dismissively, it would not be without envy for being able to work outside the box of “useful” citizens. Even those completely hidden from public view embodied artistic autonomy, perhaps a carryover from the medieval respect for monastic beggars and others who were religiously obsessed and sacrificed their normality for otherwise inexplicable reasons.

As a teenager Artaud was incarcerated in various sanatoriums, a common practice for bourgeois “problem” children. His behavior and activity there convinced people that he should be categorized as an artist, and when he moved to Paris he was put in the care of Dr. Toulouse, who specialized in treating “artistic geniuses.”

Almost all his projects failed to be realized in his lifetime, yet he was well-known among the educated middle class. Right here is a sharp contrast with today, which no sociologist or art critic has yet to point out: who today knows a single artist who has consistently failed to achieve their projects?

Given the tradition of educated Americans’ high respect for European art, some part of that aura surrounding artists, composers, and poets survived at least through the fifties. Poets were ridiculed as beats in New Yorker cartoons, but many of the middle class suspected these nonconformist “n’er-do-wells” of having insight to what they were missing. Without that secret envy of a life that escaped the 9-to-five or housewife job, the fame of the beats would have been nil. (The image was of course a distortion, as if the writers weren’t obsessed with writing.)  Some of the same respect surrounded abstract expressionist painters, jazz and blues musicians, and helped them subjectively to survive marketplace failure. Like the French cursed poets, they too sacrificed a normative middle-class existence for their artistic work, turned their backs on society, and relied on a few fellow artists for support and criticism.

For artists today who are similarly obsessed, this protection and quiet encouragement has since been erased. The culture prides itself on its creativity yet honors only past artists for embodying artistic non-conformity. It dismisses non-commercial contemporary artists as artistic failures, based on their lack of media visibility and institutional sanction. Artists are thought to lack cultural value unless they have climbed the institutional success ladder, the very ones the cognoscenti minority previously held up to scorn. To think “outside the box” is prized and well paid, but only if it adds a margin of profit to the box. The elimination of art and artists whose abnormality disturbs is the primary reason that art funded by government, academia, and the media can get away with backing such boring crap as it does. Independent cognoscenti might exist and be disgusted by the spectacle, but they have no voice that can be heard. Credentialed contemporary art, music, and literature occasionally titillates, and since Trump must signal liberal political values, but like all consumption it must please an audience in quantified terms and/or serve the needs of institutions. It is systematically incapable of upsetting the thinking and psyche of functionally-oriented society.

Artistic creativity worthy of historical memory impacts people the most when it provokes an ambivalent response, and not a vote of “likes” or official endorsement. I was reminded of this recently when an audience member at a basement show  gave his opinion of the concert: “I don’t like it, but I dig it.” That is a mind in motion, unsettled by what he heard, and a joy to the ears of aberrant musicians like ourselves.

Commodity fetishism for Karl Marx “is not laid to a subjectively errant consciousness, but objectively deduced from the social a priori, the exchange process.” Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 190. However, consciousness of that social exchange might spark real change, especially in the field of art. Why else bring it up?

Musicians now operate in a service and entrepreneurial economy. In the past they were professionally oriented union members, most of whom exchanged musical commodities–live music–for their sole source of income, which depended on audience judgment. Today career musicians are exchanging service to the music world (funded venues, print publications, jazz radio, academia) for prestige and the stamp of authenticity, with a significant loss of livelihood. Musicians once treated as highly skilled workers are now middle class entrepreneurs selling their services to an industry. And only a tiny minority earn their income strictly from performing.

Fifty years ago, for the best-paid musicians prestige followed sales of their fetishized commodity. The buyers of jazz music in particular prided themselves on making their own judgments; they argued over relative musical value, even publicly taking the media critics to task for their judgments. Especially for the avant-garde musicians such as Sunny Murray, enough fans were active in advancing their cause to make a difference, though in the long run the support manifested in sales and poll figures wasn’t enough to pay the bills. The money passed through many well-paid hands before it trickled down to the musicians. Free Jazz was largely supported by media critics but given the worker-management imbalance it was defeated by the greater popularity of rock music. Musicians blamed the record companies for the lack of royalties, but for reasons beyond their control = Free Jazz was losing customers.

The audience for an Eric Dolphy was too small, given his strangeness to most jazz ears, which forced him out of the American market. Those with more aggressive, proud personalities like Murray railed against the media for not boosting him enough, and against other musicians for copying his ideas and cheating him. (In his memory I recommend the 1965 interview, the first time Murray’s verbal sparks were flying, in 19+ Conversations with Jazz Musicians, conducted by Garth W. Caylor Jr.) The jazz avant-garde led the way for the entire music industry in attacking their bosses, and part of their prestige among audiences came from that boldness.

Today things have turned around almost 180 degrees. Sales of goods and ticket prices follow prestige, which is determined not by audiences but by the music world institutions. The “critics” of mainstream publications are mere publicists, available for hire by ambitious musicians who can pay the price, so long as the music can pass as conventional. Part of why the fifties and sixties are called the heyday of jazz is because audience and critic judgments changed regularly, since they depended on the actual judgments of audience and critics. Today the hierarchy of names is  uniform throughout all institutions, and once promoted to the list no musician will ever be demoted, regardless of how repetitive and boring their playing. The lack of lively dissent is a sign that music has escaped the realm of subjective judgment and is now a fully fetishized commodity.  The singularity of the entire music world judgment is offered to the consumer as if it is a gift of nature, untouched by human hands. Ambitious musicians match their musical interest with the positions available and create an image as traditionalist or avant-gardist according to what they feel comfortable with and are capable of. Has anyone of the current generation of musicians taken the music world to task, as did Sunny Murray, much less get respected for it?

The docility of today’s name musicians is not considered a scandal, however, audiences are left out of the picture and cannot imagine themselves bucking the system. The system of music world institutions, like the banks, is too big to fail. One whose name becomes recognized as avant-garde is tagged as already radical, implicit in the musicians’ inclusion; to make it explicit, by challenging their bosses and audience taste, would be to violate their unspoken contract. To bite the hand that feeds them is just not done. But, thinking realistically and sympathetically, where would it get them? After all, to say the system is rigged would invite accusations that one’s own position was fraudulent.

The jazz and avant-garde audience of today does not have the means to interfere and advance its own decisions contrary to what is offered. To listen to music in hopes of having their heads turned around, to pay a decent price for something that is not a guaranteed pleasure, is not something they’d plunk down their money for. The proliferation of musicians and product that has flooded the market is to the great advantage of this system, as if to say, if you don’t like the names we’ve chosen, there’s thousands more, all equally unknown, for you to find by picking through the bin. As individuals, you will have no means to rally support for one name over another, and anyway, for us to pick up on your selection would break our tacit agreement with those who have already signed with us.

For musicians who have been willing to sell their name and get official recognition in return, this is all a perfectly reasonable arrangement. By the same token, it should be no surprise that the thorny musicians of the past, often bitter and complaining publicly at their fate, do more for the music industry now, assigned to the avant-garde museum, than in the era of their greatest creative strength. Were a few Sunny Murrays to appear today, with fearless, proud personalities and a bold music to match, how would we ever hear of them?

Or just maybe the water needs testing from time to time. Any volunteers?

It’s been almost a year since my book, The Free Musics was published. In the meantime I’ve been reflecting on the subject, elaborating and sharpening what I said. As follows:

To demand to be taken seriously as a musician, in society as it is currently structured, is a demand to be paid, or its poor substitute today, to simply receive attention and recognition from the music world. That demand is a declaration that one is willing to sign the professional-musician contract, which under the cover of ambition is never made explicit. Every contract is binding and coercive, it will restrict what one can play in order to satisfy the other party—standardized audience taste, media, academic and funding institutions. The contract that musicians believe enables them to do what they want musically, in fact constricts them. For instance, no audience today is expected to have a taste for what they don’t already like; that is even the meaning of “taste.”  Even the most adventurous art consumers will only pay for what they want, at least in the long run. This limitation should be obvious from any examination of the actual playing done by the current generation of avant-garde musicians who are “taken seriously.”

On the other hand, if we refuse the contract and are happier to be outside its law of exchange, then we have no right to make that demand for recognition. Support for us will have nothing obligatory about it; whatever we get—praise, surprise, confusion, or donations–is purely a gift. Music world institutions on the other end of a contract are not in the business of giving gifts; they have no reason to pay attention to those unwilling to submit to their needs. Even more, they should not if they want to avoid self-destructing. Accidents do happen, but were they to give attention and “real” money to such musicians consistently, out of some belief that they are honest judges of music, they would quickly find themselves betrayed by those who never asked for their favor.

In free playing we are too interdependent to give each other what can be called gifts. The gift we receive is from listeners, who are few in number, generally have little to give financially, and since most gigs are by donation, many don’t give even when they can. They are completely powerless to affect the machinery of consumer attention and funding sources. But what this does is to transform what we players are doing. Instead of offering music specific to the needs determined by the other, we are offering them a gift free of obligation. A free gift creates the free gift, a continuous circle, a true infinity. It need not expand for it to exist, which means it does not provoke the anxiety and bitterness of “when will the audience we deserve start showing up?”

When our freedom from the obligation to please people—once called “artistic autonomy”–causes them to walk away confused, they are reluctant to pay. Even when they say we have excited or moved them, which is the usual case, they know instinctively that we are playing outside the contract. They have caught some glimpse of our freedom. This is an abnormal situation within normative society. That confusion and that excitement is their gift to us, as the phrase goes, “more than money can buy.”

This is not to deny that I myself, organizer of tours and feeling responsible financially to the others, follow the normal arrangement to the extent of pointing audiences to the donation basket with the hope they will be generous. But when all is said and done, I can easily remind myself that playing freely in front of others, together with the highly varied responses we get, is more than enough reason for doing what we do. Coming to this conclusion has been a long road, for I did sign up for recognition decades ago and had to discover the hard way that one’s actual playing is only heard and judged only to confirm two things: that it will ruffle no feathers and that it will not embarrass the music world that makes the judgment. Music that is in motion, that breaks new ground and keeps doing so, disqualifies the musicians. There is no evil to blame here, for we cannot escape this postmodern world, where the excitement of ground that can be broken is simply off the map, outside of “outside the box.” Avant-garde music is a commodity so thoroughly fetishized that, unlike the fetish of primitive religion that is broken when it fails to deliver, it cannot be broken. The miracle, presumably is that the fetish keeps working even when when adventurous audiences have moved on to other musics. 

Our unfree society produces hidden anxiety, disappointment, and stagnation for all artists who sign its contract. No one can ever get enough when they feel they deserve something substantial in return for their efforts, long years of service, and artistic product. Free playing lives and thrives in the cracks of that economic and psychological system. It seems paradoxical that only when we refuse the social contract to please the other and demand our rights in exchange, is the free gift possible. People speak of the precious gift of life: here it is.

To get a gig scheduled for myself and partners, the line almost always starts in the rear–first-come, first-served. That puts me in good company, the vast field of unrecognized musicians, the status of almost all my current partners. Unlike the cliques of career-oriented musicians, the field is unlimited, and adventurous playing is always a possibility, since our first thought is our own pleasure and discovery in the moment of playing . My only complaint is the long hours it takes to organize a tour, and the financial limitation on where we can go. To play the career game is not an option, for, as i argue in The Free Musics , that would limit the range of what we can do, and it’s well worth the trouble not to be confined by career needs. 

To observe the situation objectively is helpful. Given the huge number of performance-oriented musicians today, it’s increasingly difficult for musicians to get gigs who have not sought or gained approval from the music world of media and institutions, or are not part of a career-oriented clique. For myself this has meant abandoning the search to perform in NY; I organize in the more accessible Midwest and South instead. I’d rather spend my time traveling than hassling. 

Today in the states it is rare for curators to make decisions by actually listening to the music and being selectively excited by it. Some operate in terms of relative market value, with the consistently media-supported names at the top, whom they will exclusively, or preferably book. Others cater to the bulk of musicians who lack such status. In either case, for those booking a venue with an assured audience to make a decision based on their excitement about the specific music, as heard on a sample recording, is not to be expected. For those booking musicians of no media significance it seems undemocratic to do so, and “democratic” turns out to be bureaucratic but not meritocratic, just opaque. No one wants to say, ‘THIS is the music I want to make happen.” To exercise personal aesthetic judgment can be accused of elitism, criticized for exercising the power to make decisions. Left-culture Americans in general don’t like to admit they have power; even when they obviously do–all power is supposedly evil, so it must be denied. They’d rather think they’re “serving the people”–which means every single one who asks to perform will be allowed to do so in an orderly, bureaucratic fashion.

Most audience members are not good consumers, for they are willing to pay while ignoring their desire, their need for pleasure. They could exercise the right to their own judgment but don’t do so if it contradicts the media-created hierarchy, the brand names. They are egalitarian when they drop a couple bucks in the hat at a house show, but wouldn’t dream of treating socially validated musicians like that, or comparing the two acts musically. Musicians of no known value are lumped together on one plane, and the approved names on another, and like the rich and poor in our society,  increasingly the two are distanced socially and economically and never meet. Is the distance musically that great? What comes into play is a prime example of the “managing of consent”, which this audience would quickly critique if the topic were politics, but goes unnoticed here. Why is that? Is the honor of Art at stake?

If curators of media-recognized and -unrecognized musicians wanted to be truly democratic they would take seriously the actual music of everyone who asks to perform, and book according to their judgment. They would have to be willing to  take risks and face criticism for the sake of the music. It might take a cultural revolution for that to come about.