We can only put things right in reality when we have a different perception of reality as it is, including conventional constructions and the uses to which they are put, and work to find ways to express the reality in our lives and discourse. For instance, in the time since a dual-gender grammatical construction began to be substituted for the pronoun “he” in expressions that in actuality could refer to either gender, the habit of thinking automatically in terms of male agency unless the female is specified has been materially affected, and with it the evaluation of the work and personhood of women. The dual gender construction is a reminder of what we already know on a conscious level and would like to affirm, and what the former grammatical convention would encourage us to forget. A new construction was boldly asserted, resisted, and resistance largely overcome, and it became a new convention more reflective of what is in fact the case (the possibility that a “he” might be a woman) and aided in making that more likely to be the case, the expansion of women into traditionally male roles and jobs.

Every “world,” including the art music world and the jazz world, is grounded in conventional constructions which are taken for granted as real. The idea that one musician is better than another can be a subjective judgment according to taste, but as soon as it appears in discourse it is taken as fact, and tacitly defended according to a presumed common standard. A musician who is “better known” is a name that is the collective property of more lips than others; the process by which that comes about lies in the background, with some making judgments, others merely wanting to know about what is already known and to be included in the knowledge circle. A comparative value arrangement is a hierarchical order, with standards that are functionally necessary to enable meaningful communication. Even to say that so-and-so is a “good musician” is shorthand for the code of standards, obviating the need for the longhand version to be examined. If one were forced to state the qualities of a “good musician” one would only invite dissensus, which is counter to the ease of communication.

Apart from a particular music world there is no such thing as a good musician apart from a constructed code of standards. If reminded of this we might give our assent, but then return to conventional usage. Why? Because the standards are functional to our relation to others and to the specific world of which we are and wish to be a part. To speak of good and bad musicians indicates our participation and legitimacy in that distinct world; for instance, popular music would not encourage such a judgment. The art music world is a reality, the question is the status of that reality, the extent to which one asserts one’s belonging to that world, and its relation to other worlds to which one belongs. “Worlds” are separable, without one’s thinking much about it. For instance, those who identify themselves and ground their material existence in art music, first of all musicians, would respond negatively to a politics that declared certain persons to be of lesser worth than others, but when it comes to the world specific to their musical identity they will not hesitate to affirm such distinctions. What is conventional for one’s political identity (as tolerant, liberal, egalitarian) is unconventional for one’s work role identity. And despite their frequent protest against it, musicians know and must know their rank and are expected to act accordingly, not demand more than their “worth.”

Good and bad valuations indicate who is most worth paying attention to, listening to, learning from, and buying. Especially performances are unimaginable without organizers presuming that spectators will hold such a scale of values in common.  To argue that there is no objectively good or bad when it comes to art music or musicians would commonly indicate that one would not attend such a performance and does not wish to participate in the discourse of that world, in fact that one does not belong there. Similarly for the jazz world, where except for the occasional critic’s “underrated” labeling the iconology is fairly settled, a remark to a denizen of that world that Miles Davis no more worth listening to than one’s teenage neighbor would disqualify oneself from further discussion; there would be nothing to discuss. From another perspective than that world, however, there might be an arguable justification for listening to an inexperienced player, something to be learned even by the advanced player, for instance, whose highly developed embouchure is incapable of producing certain sounds that are characteristic for a beginner. For the art musician, some extended techniques can be seen as re-creations of sounds one has lost through conventional training, an attempt to loosen the strictures of what was strongly enforced and rewarded.

How to listen, think, and talk about music apart from this value hierarchy? A first step would be to recognize when the value system is being challenged and we feel we must give our assent or dissent. That shows us that the edifice is not rock solid but fragile and human, and perhaps the instances where we continue to assert it are equally challengeable.

John Cage’s suggestion to listen to traffic as an aesthetic experience was met with with skepticism at the time but now it is commonplace; a university course in “sound” is possible that would not have been at the time of Silence. David Ake, in Jazz Cultures, spends a chapter discussing Miles Davis’ decision to leave a creaking sound in the final mix of a studio session rather than edit it out; this is a challenge on a similar basis, that supposedly extraneous sound can be aesthetically appreciated. On a more macro level of Western conceptions, the line separating what is and is not to be considered music has been steadily trending outward to the point of being a meaningless distinction for many.

What is and is not music, what is and is not art, what is and is not jazz—these are border questions that still animate discussion. Within the borders, whether a large and established territory like jazz or a small anonymous taste group, the value system is taken for granted. The significance and visibility of a music world in relation to others depends on the ability to establish and enforce a code, standards, and elaborated hierarchy of validated and invalidated individuals.

Musicians laugh at the terms “major” and “minor” musician used in publicity but they are designations of value that can be objectively determined by comparing average fees, sales of recordings, size of audiences, number of reviews per recording, and so on. In a catch-22, the extent to which one wishes to be a full participant in the art music world one must accept this designation as valid. For a musician who is not in demand to deny his or her place in the hierarchy would be to argue that the music world has somehow made a mistake in its calculation, whereas it merely registers and enforces the solipsistic system. The proper denial would be to question the hierarchy at its weak point, where there is a presumed identity between musical worth and hierarchical worth.

This gets into a larger question, one of worldview and not just the worlds of the various art forms. One can trace the contentious relations between aesthetic (erstwhile “spiritual”) value and commodity value; in a highly commoditized society such as ours it is unusual, and requires articulate argument and boldness to defend, a positive response to what has a low commodity value. It might be argued that a minor musician’s personal worth is not being evaluated, but the effect of one’s status is that one is treated as a less than fully human subject, in other words, dehumanized. The self-serving hierarchical art music system determines who will be listened to, who is an artist, and who is not. What is actually making the determinations, reinforced by the figures, is a complex matter out of sight of consumers and meant to flatter them as the true determinants.

The correlation of musical value to the calculated value applies to forms of music as well. Music advertised as jazz that delivers on its promise, providing coded indicators that it is indeed jazz, will do substantially better in the marketplace than music presented as the broader category, “improvised music,” and lacking such coded indicators. The musical experience of listeners to freeform music that lacks significant jazz-code indicators is often profoundly effective, provoking discussion and individual comment from a high percentage of listeners. Yet these are rarely paying gigs, more likely pass-the-hat, with listeners often reluctant to come up with even gas money for the players. This materially affects whether those who wish to spend a larger percentage of their time playing and performing music will freely improvise or not.

In my experience listeners who have never attended a concert of free-form music are the ones who seem to receive the strongest impact and give the most articulate responses. It is from these that little financial reward is forthcoming, either attendance or recordings sold. If we take the post-show comments as an indicator of listeners’ evaluation of musical value, then there is a negative correlation of the hierarchy of musical form and income, the very opposite of what the art music world would claim. The hierarchy is thus inverted. Listeners are responding to an experience that opens them to new ways of imagining music as a spiritual experience (as some of the Free Jazz players did in the sixties period of its heights), and apparently this response is incommensurable with commodity valuation. The same listeners who so positively respond doubtless would not hesitate to fork over considerable amounts for cd’s and concerts of more conventional music, so the experience they had at a house, gallery, or record-store concert is in a separate category.

“Free music” then relates to “free” in several ways, first and conventionally meaning the relative effort and ability of musicians to leave coded gestures and structures behind, or make them tentative. But also signifying an experience that frees the listener from prior conceptions, akin to what has been called “spiritual experience” in post-Christian times. Finally, “free” indicates a giveaway, a glimpse of what it’s like to be free of the commodity hierarchy, if only for a moment.

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