Academic discourse of social and cultural studies, the arts, and what might still be called the humanities commonly reaches into a grab-bag of unanalyzed terms that are presented as if from a neutral and ahistorical lexicon. These terms stand for concepts one does not feel the need to argue, points of consensus with the presumed audience of academics that are presumed by any thesis. To employ these marks one as a contemporary. This is not specific to academia, of course; every social group does the same, and does not normally need to point out what its fundamental concepts are. It is a simple matter to locate these and subject them to analysis, but we can only imagine that such would be considered counterproductive, and academia is a place of productivity and knows itself to be judged as such.

One of these common terms is “marginalization,” which asserts that society is divided between those who have and do not have power, and that the haves are at least complicit in the creation of the have-nots by excluding them. This concept grew out of the new social movements of the late sixties and seventies which in turn expanded on the early sixties integrationist model of the civil rights struggle. It was meant to be descriptive and quantifiable but was also a political concept in defense of the rights of the marginalized, who, once identified and characterized as such, were entitled to be defended against those who presumably wanted them marginalized. It was the first term of a black/white dichotomized pair into which all were assumed to be sorted, with the second term being a concept of the mainstream or normative society, static and resisting “change,” always defined as positive. In that politically motivated era, to question the use of the term would make one appear complicit with the marginalizers. It was presumed that those cast as marginalized were hopeful of inclusion and potentially self-assertive. They would benefit from being so identified and would welcome the academic treatment (just as whites in the early civil rights movement had assumed, before the turn of Black self-assertion, when they were told to take care of their own backyard). The younger academic generation, which inherited the position of earlier white civil rights workers, promoted the concept as a moral division and identified itself with those subjected to marginalization, thus countering any guilt of holding (at that time) a relatively secure and accepted social role and status as faculty. This identification was not pure sympathy on their part but an imagined alliance of solidarity, for as activists fighting for their ideas and new areas of study these academics were still excluded from the top ranks of their profession.

In gross terms, academia today (excluding the natural sciences and practical disciplines) is the result of the victory of those who were once the underdogs, and its rhetoric continues to validate it. A consensus has been arrived at and is challenged only in its details. Despite its the façade of quantitative sociology “marginalization” is not neutral; it would be difficult for an academic today to defend something on the grounds that it should be marginalized. Yet to direct focus on what one has chosen and ignore everything else, a move implicit in all argument, could well be called intellectual marginalization. But it wouldn’t. When one wishes to exclude something from consideration one would merely say it is irrelevant, already discredited, out of place, a distraction. Contrariwise, to bring attention to one’s thesis or data one might say it has hitherto been marginalized. To pull out the term and concept of marginalization is useful in a society where the powerful can only justify their power by posing in some way as an underdog, however transparently false.

The marginalization card will not be deployed if there is prior, tacit agreement that something should be marginalized. If I wanted to present as valid the thought of a humanist, for instance, I might reasonably say that he or she had earlier been marginalized because of their humanism, excluded as irrelevant or worse. Though the exclusion may be true, this would not be an effective tack, for the dismissal of humanism was the result of an historically achieved consensus that it should be marginalized, and defeated in its remaining vestiges (humanism is assimilated to theism, which has been all but universally dismissed by the academy as an outsider discourse). Academics who express humanist points of view will describe themselves otherwise, not wanting to arouse a fight where even the dullest attacker feels perfectly secure in the audience reception. For reasons of internal politics and advancement as well one must avoid the accusation of not being truly contemporary. Similarly there is a canon of acceptable and unacceptable Marxists, which is why the philosopher Zizek’s citation of Stalin at times is so provocative; it individualizes his thought, since no one dares follow him in this. One cannot bring into view the signified, “marginalization,” without raising questions that the community feels are settled and would be a waste of time to indulge in. The very stability of the academic world rests on the fantasy of the open forum or dialogue (which used to be called the marketplace of ideas) to which nothing is alien or taboo except the fantasy.

This is to preface a specific question of mine, as a musician outside the academy: what is the relation of musicology and music history discourse to music played without pre-structures, or as it’s commonly called, free improvisation? This music has been excluded from treatment on its own terms; references to it in the literature are always to something other than the freeform approach to playing. The first ground for dismissal, reinforcing all others, is that quantitatively it is of such minor significance that one can safely ignore it when talking about music as cultural practice. Social and cultural studies are based on the proposition that first of all we must consider the music that most people validate through consuming it (for instance pop music, which was previously marginalized). Secondly, what is not of quantifiable magnitude must be an expression of a group of some political significance to the investigators, particularly a marginalized group. The dichotomy is reproduced of the relatively powerless expressing their resistance to marginalization through music and the powerful marginalizers cast as the mainstream. (And since we’re talking about music, which unlike visual art is a matter of taste for practically every member of society, what is also eliminated is any cultural practice in which no investigator either has any stake of personal interest or can conceive that his or her colleagues might.) The wonderful efficiency of dichotomy is to eliminate the need to investigate what might exist outside it: what has little quantifiable presence and is of no political interest to advance.

It would be inherently impossible to confirm, but consumer taste for free improvisation may be quantifiably the smallest of all musical practices; with typical audiences of five to ten it does not even register. Nor does it refer the investigator to a social group validated as marginalized, and whose cultural practice therefore could be treated as an expression of resistance. When “free improvisation” is named it is assigned to jazz as a subgenre, further out on the branch called “free jazz.” As an offshoot of jazz, free jazz is a relative of a currently respected family.  A writer defending “classic jazz” has no reason to complain of marginalization today and so will not bring in that discourse. It will rather be those favoring free jazz who will play the marginalization card (an indication that the heated debate over jazz that began in the twenties continues, though under contemporary terms). If free improvisation is just another name for free jazz then the politicized and unquestioned virtues of spontaneity and free personal expression the former purportedly represents will be said to characterize free jazz rather than the structures and training that lean free jazz towards the jazz tradition of the song form. It is thus of benefit to the defenders of free jazz as a marginalized music to include free improvisation under it rather than to perceive that free improvisation exists as a practice (though not historically) apart from the practice of jazz.

It is commonly stated that it is impossible to define jazz. Indeed to do so would close off discussion and arouse resistance from those who are excluded, which academic professionals would hesitate to do. Jazz is treated as something of a mystery, with all its lovers crowded around their object, agreeing to disagree. Instead, the center-periphery model is used in practice, where nothing is excluded absolutely; marginalization is then not absolute but relative. However, this model is that which defends a colonial relationship, which is as negative as “marginalization,” and so to be named as such would be counterproductive. It would be impossible to include everything under jazz, so after speaking broadly of inclusiveness one must draw a line somewhere. For instance, one contributor to the recent Jazz/Not Jazz: The Music and its Boundaries (ed. David Ake) assigns NY Downtown Music (established in the 80s) to “out” jazz, and goes on to claim the defining character of the jazz musician as one who has a responsibility to relate what he or she does to the jazz tradition. This tradition is however a construction; the fact that many iconic jazz musicians have denied that what they play is jazz cannot be reconciled with it, and certainly not the diverse group of figures that goes under the name of Downtown Music or the experimental avantgarde.

Those who play non-structured improvisation have no artistic identity assigned to them, such as jazz musician. For one thing, most of them play other kinds as well, whereas a jazz musician is expected to play essentially jazz, with perhaps some other musics as a sign of versatility. Besides the lack of public identity, to describe free improvisers as marginalized would not be correct, for such players are not the silenced or inarticulate outsiders, nor have they sought to be included as players of this music. Even to describe them as obscure is to refer them to a framework outside their practice. On the odd chance that it is included in a fringe festival it is presented as other than it is. Those playing this music know they don’t belong, that it would be incorrect to hear what they do as a branch of jazz or (in my opinion at least) of the avantgarde. What does belong to the typology of music categories, however, is free jazz and other currents that claim affiliation and marginalization in the music world. It comes down to this: to be worthy of study and academic discourse, to be included as a competitor for a place in the music world, one must claim to be playing a category of music that either finds itself with sufficient support (financial, institutional, commercial) to assume its identity, or that it has been unjustly excluded from discourse by those who already have that support and acceptance. There are only two sides of this fence. What reason would there be to investigate something that turns its back on the division, that does not claim any injustice has been done, and does not seek an artistic identity (even that of “transgressor of the norm”) and an unfenced space for itself?

That is the situation of non-structured improvisation. It is assigned an identity when it is subsumed either under free jazz or under non-jazz art music, the tradition of experimental avantgarde composition. As a subsidiary of free jazz it will be judged as to whether it shows any signs of wanting to be accepted as jazz and it will be found wanting. As a member of the so-called experimental avantgarde, since “experiment” requires a thesis to be proposed and tested, it will be seen as in violation of the requirement of composition and so lacking in form. Free improvisers are often also composers, but when they play freeform they are not playing under the rule of realizing a composition.

The question I raise is, why would free improvisers seek to change this situation, argue for an understanding of what they do independently of the categories to which their playing has been assigned? What advantages would it bring beyond what already exists–wide open opportunities for playing this music, at least in N. America? Turning to my fellow players I would ask, what do we need that we do not already have? Here I draw a blank. Everything I come up with that would accrue to achieving an academic discourse around it is either irrelevant to the music itself or harmful. Its below-the-radar, anomalous existence seems to be a safe place for it to do its job. For one thing, no one is drawn to the music because it promises any reward outside the immediate playing situation. No one plays this music in order to achieve recognition, to draw an audience, or to secure funding. Reward is as blank on the assets column as formal identity for the players. Academic acknowledgement would change that situation by offering players a role and goals to achieve, that is, normalization, the possibility of career development and a competitive structure for players to find their place in. Inevitably it will be studied, and then this odd musical behavior will have to decide what to do with the analyses, the hierarchy of recognized players, the evaluation of this player or recording over that, and no doubt advocates of it for a share of music world respectability, all of which it has thus far been able to avoid.

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