New York is Now!: The New Wave of Free Jazz
by Philip Freeman
The Telegraph Company
New York holds a special place in the hearts of jazz fans. When you think of high water marks in jazz, so many of them happened in New York. In the 1930s, the big band scene was sizzling in Harlem. Bebop was born in the clubs around 42nd Street. The avant garde broke surface in the lofts and galleries of lower Manhattan. Playing New York is still something of a rite of passage for jazz musicians. The city still has a lively jazz scene, which is chronicled in New York is Now!
Author Philip Freeman wrote for metal magazines before discovering the NYC jazz underground. His book has the passion of a rock fanzine with about the same level of critical analysis. Freeman’s “us against them” orientation is almost as frustrating in its own way as Ken Burns’ backward looking Jazz documentary. Both works evangelize a specific interpretation of jazz history. Both works tweak events to fit their vision. Both works ignore people, places, and events that don’t support their ideas. Freeman is at least up front about his bias. He describes his book as a New York-centric polemic. I happen to share a lot of Freeman’s biases. I right there with him when he’s channeling the spirit the NYC free jazz. I generally agree with his bashing of conservative jazz critics who want to keep jazz safe from the musicians. These things Freeman does very well.
Freeman is best when he is most passionate. He is a zealous fan who wants to convert everyone he meets to the gospel of Ware, Parker, and Shipp. He is eager to share his discovery with anyone who will listen. Reading Freeman is a little like reading Lester Bangs’ slash and burn ravings about rock and roll. Little things like facts and accuracy are not as important as evangelizing for the cause. Praise the lord and pass the alto saxophone.
I am in strong agreement with Freeman’s assertion that jazz and rock music have common ground. Fans of adventurous forms of metal and punk would probably like avant garde jazz if they were just heard it. He begins the book with his conversion to free jazz at the Vision Festival. I can definitely relate to his description of seeing The David S. Ware Quartet for the first time. I had a similar experience with Ornette Coleman and Prime Time. The music can be strange and overwhelming, but if you listen for awhile, it all makes sense. I also agree with Freeman that free jazz players get a better hearing in the rock press than they do in jazz magazines. Freeman takes us to a Sonic Youth show where David S. Ware won over the audience. We meet Steven Jorge, who learned the record business with the indie rock label Homestead before founding the indie jazz label Aum Fidelity. Music is as universal as people allow it to be.
I like it when Freeman lets key players on the New York jazz scene speak for themselves. More people should know about Test and their streets-and–subways performance ethic. Daniel Carter and Tom Bruno get to tell us why a subway platform is a good place to play improvised music. Matthew Shipp gives us his feelings on composition, improvisation and the jazz market place. Patricia Nicholson tells of the evolution of the Vision Festival. Charles Gayle, Roy Campbell, William Parker, and David Ware get to say their piece, too. This much is good.
What I don’t like about New York is Now! is that the narration is often shallow and sometimes contradictory. If you take Freeman literally, the only people who play real jazz are a small cadre of musicians in Manhattan. They band together to keep the music alive while being ridiculed by jazz critics and ignored by record labels. They are barred from the “tourist” clubs like Birdland and the Village Vanguard. Hucksters at the Knitting Factory exploit them. Only punks and metalheads are able to understand that jazz didn’t die in 1967.
There is validity to these complaints, but it gets old quickly. It also gets confusing. Why is it evil when a Downbeat critic compares David S. Ware to John Coltrane, but not evil for Freeman to do the same thing? The Knitting Factory crowd is portrayed as awful in one chapter, then praised a few chapters later.
When your focus is on one community, it’s natural that some things will be omitted. Maybe I’m just spoiled by Kevin Whitehead’s excellent tome, New Dutch Swing. Whitehead’s book on Dutch jazz shows how it is linked to developments in Germany, the US, and elsewhere. In Freeman’s book, if something didn’t happen in New York, it didn’t happen. The decision to focus exclusively on New York means we don’t learn anything about how the New York scene is part of a thriving network of jazz hotspots. At least touching on some of these other locales would give added weight to his thesis that jazz is alive and well and worth checking out.
What bothers me most is that New York is Now! contributes to the myth perpetrated by Ken Burns that jazz was all but dead until Wynton Marsalis rescued it from oblivion. In Freeman’s book, the savoir is David S. Ware leading the charge, with William Parker and Matthew Shipp bringing up the flanks. It bothers me because there were people making respectable free jazz during the ’70s and ’80s. They were doing it on the margins and often off shore. They were making records in Italy, Germany, Norway, and Japan. They were there if you looked hard enough. Someday, that story will be told, but not in this book.
Despite its shortcomings, New York is Now! serves a useful purpose. It brings some much-needed attention to today’s free jazz scene. If this book turns at least a few new people on to David S. Ware and Test, then they can find their way to other free jazz players. Anything that brings more people to jazz can’t be all-bad. Then again, I said pretty much the same thing about Ken Burns’ Jazz.
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