Mystery is what holds people in thrall to music, as if enslaved by something they cannot resist. Analogous to religion of an earlier age the mystery of music for the audience (society) is in but not of the sound, it is beyond consumer taste, beyond entertainment, beyond words to explain it. To love music is to love its mystery, a kind of essence, the thing-in-itself beyond the surface phenomenon. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong in speaking of jazz, “If you have to ask if it’s music you’ll never know.” The two musics most considered capable of this effect are the high and low art musics, classical European and classic jazz, neither universally popular but each has its devotees and wide respect from others. For most listeners, what sounds most like music is these two genres; to identify what is truly music is to be drawn to its mystery.

The musician is the social figure with the job of regularly reproducing this mystery that binds people and its effects. In our society those most sanctioned to play such music are expected to be professionals formally trained in their respective codes. These codes are based on musical forms that have come down to us from a hallowed past, examples of the kind of work to be achieved. In order to be effective, unlike traditional religion, an element or appearance of spontaneity must be present in reproducing the code, something coming from a present person that goes beyond mechanical imitation, but only so long as the code itself is referred to and maintained. Like the priest in Catholic religion, the mystery passes through the musician to reach the people; unlike the priest, the functionary of music is rewarded by elevation and respect to the extent that he or she is seen as the bearer of that mystery.

The composer was once thought to be the sole creator of music, in the form of a score that the player-musicians were trained to faithfully execute. In the traditional orchestra the conductor was the one expected to provide the creative spontaneity of the moment. When in the sixties some composers called on musicians to create their own music by improvising they resisted; they were being asked to violate their strong sense of role. However, given the slow rising tide of democratization, some jazz musicians asserted this. That was the origin of Free Jazz in the early sixties, and then free improvisation a little later in Britain. It was primarily those who were jazz entertainers who were attracted, for departing from the code was already part of their job, as well as their off-stage playing. As they got farther from the code that produced what “sounded like” music to the audience, they were accused of not fulfilling their proper role. For the bulk of the audience mystery and freeform playing did not mix. “The thrill is gone” they said, just as classical European audiences had decried Arnold Schoenberg when he abandoned his earlier romantic expressionism. The musicians however felt they were right at the heart of the mystery.

The musicians and the audience historically diverged on where the mystery of music is located. And so today. Musicians who play freely in sessions with no pressure from that audience could be said to have the most direct, hands-on access possible to it, but that is quite different from what sounds most like music. They are no longer in the role of learning and reproducing a code; they are making it all up as they go along. One might say they have usurped the composer’s role and so are illegitimate in terms of the culture. For them, the mystery behind the ritual codes is exposed; they are created by human hands, and the players have no need or wish to solidify a new code for the audience. In a sense it is their democratic right not to do so. For instance, there are certain kinds of endings for each genre that are appropriate for confirming the piece, in fact to play pieces of music at all is the confirmation that it is music that has been performed and not sounds thrown together on the spot. For free playing the ending is simply when they stop playing; they are in charge. Music is in the hands of creators who will not relinquish it.

Compared to what the audience seems to need, players are comfortable dispensing with the substantiality of what they do, its reality as “music.” Free playing is an implicit denial that they are producing music because the flip side is to assert that it is music, and that can only be determined by conforming to what sounds most like music. For the world outside the free session, mystery is a circular question that answers itself, an essence that manifests through specific instances that music lovers feel they can identify but can’t explain how. Free playing happens where there is no distance from which a question might arise, circular or otherwise. What is beyond question is the mystery, just as Louis Armstrong said about jazz. If it doesn’t sound like music it is because the attempt to make it so is in contradiction to the making of it, with no one to judge otherwise.