Negotiating Freedom:

Values and Practices in Contemporary Improvised Music


David Borgo, Ph.D.

Black Music Research Journal 23/1 (Fall 2004)


Free improvisation is not an action resulting from freedom; it is an action directed towards freedom.  – Davey Williams (1984, 32)


A compromise between order and disorder, improvisation is a negotiation between codes and their pleasurable dismantling.  – John Corbett (1995, 237)


            During the last half-century, an eclectic group of artists with diverse backgrounds in avant-garde jazz, avant-garde classical, electronic, popular, and world music traditions have pioneered an approach to improvisation that borrows freely from a panoply of musical styles and traditions and at times seems unencumbered by any overt idiomatic constraints.  While a definitive history of this often irreverent and iconoclastic group would be impossible – or at least potentially misleading – to compile, this article will highlight several values and practices that have been, and continue to be, negotiated within the contemporary improvising community.

            Freedom, in the sense of transcending previous social and structural constraints, has been an important part of jazz music since its inception.  The syncopated rhythms and exploratory improvisations and compositions of jazz have consistently stretched the structures and forms of American music.  The music has also provided a symbol and a culture of liberation to several generations of musicians and listeners both at home and abroad.  But when Ornette Coleman offered the jazz community Something Else in 1958, he galvanized an approach to freedom that had been circulating among diverse musicians and one which has continued to inspire and inflame many in the jazz community.[1] 

            At that time, Coleman and other like-minded musicians began to explore performance practices that rely less on preconceived musical models and explicitly defined ensemble roles. For sympathetic musicians, critics, and audiences, the "freedom" implied by these new musical approaches allowed for creativity unencumbered by the constricting harmonies, forms, and rigid meters of bebop and swing styles.  It evoked a return to the collective practices and ideals evident in the earliest forms of jazz and pointed the way towards a more inclusive musical approach that could draw on insight and inspiration from the world over.  To unsympathetic listeners, "freedom" resulted only in musical mayhem devoid of the swing, melody, and harmony that made traditional jazz music so vital and technically demanding.[2]

            At approximately the same time that "freedom" was becoming a rallying point and a musical goal for many modern jazz musicians, improvisation resurfaced in the Euro-American "classical" tradition – after a century-and-a-half of neglect – in the form of indeterminate, intuitive, and graphically designed pieces.[3]  Composers not only expanded the amount of real-time creative input demanded of performers, but they took, in substantial numbers, to exploring the potential of improvisation on their own, in a sense conflating the act of creation and performance together by removing the interpretive step from the accepted musical equation.[4]

            Since these pioneering early years on both continents, an approach to improvisation drawing on these and other traditions has emerged in the contemporary music community.  A variety of names have circulated at various times and in various locales to describe this musical practice, each with its own group of adherents and each with its own semantic shortcomings.[5]  The preferred terms tend to highlight the creative or progressive stance of the performers and the cutting-edge or inclusive nature of the music itself; e.g., free or free-form, avant-garde, outside, ecstatic, fire or energy, contemporary or new, creative, collective, spontaneous, etc.  Stylistic references (jazz, classical, rock, world or electronic) are variously included or excluded, as are cultural or national identity markers (Great Black Music or British Free Improvisation). 

The primary musical bond shared between these diverse performers is a fascination with sonic possibilities and surprising musical occurrences and a desire to improvise, to a significant degree, both the content and the form of the performance.  In other words, free improvisation moves beyond matters of expressive detail to matters of collective structure; it is not formless music-making, but form-making music.  Musician Ann Farber explains:


Our aim is to play together with the greatest possible freedom – which, far from meaning without constraint, actually means to play together with sufficient skill and communication to be able to select proper constraints in the course of the piece, rather than being dependent on precisely chosen ones. (Belgrad 1997, 2)


            To define free improvisation in strictly musical terms, however, is potentially to miss its most remarkable characteristic – the ability to incorporate and negotiate disparate perspectives and worldviews.  Jason Stanyek (1999, 47) asserts that free improvisation is above all "a fertile space for the enactment and articulation of the divergent narratives of both individuals and cultures."  Individual improvisers have frequently joined together to form artist-run collectives aimed at establishing creative and financial control over the production and dissemination of their work and ensuring the proper respect and remuneration for their efforts.[6]  Although the lifetime of these various collectives runs the gamut from months to decades, the impulse to pool resources and to pursue communal approaches to creativity remains strong among improvisers.


Defining Freedom


            Improvisation has received some scholarly attention, although its emphasis on in-performance creativity and interaction often defies the standard musicological tools of the trade and the accepted conservatory methods for evaluating competency and aesthetic value.[7]  Authors interested in free improvisation vary considerably in their approaches to the subject, producing everything from biographical and formalist work to in-depth social, cultural and political analysis.  Arguing that the arts are predominantly autonomous or self-referential discourses, some authors present the "freedom" in the music strictly in terms of varying degrees of liberation from functional harmony, metered time, and traditionally accepted performance roles and playing techniques (e.g., Jost 1994 [1975], Dean 1992, and Westendorf 1994).  Other authors have interpreted free jazz and free improvisation as a social and cultural response to the appropriation and exploitation of African American music styles (e.g., Jones 1963, Kofsky 1970, Wilmer 1977, and Hester 1997).  They focus considerable attention on the birth of the practice during the civil rights movement in the United States and on the music’s place within the context of an emerging post-colonial world.  Still other authors have allied themselves with Marxist or neo-Marxist critiques of hegemonic culture and have chosen to focus on free improvisation’s implied critique of capitalism and its related market- and property-based economy (e.g., Prévost 1995 and Attali 1985).

The diverse and emergent strands of free improvisation have problematized, for many, issues of identity and idiom.  Not only has dissent raged within the jazz community since the early "assault" of Ornette Coleman and others, but the development of a distinctly European approach to free improvisation and the extreme hybridization of the music – incorporating avant-garde, electronic, non-western, and popular music practices – has further strained issues of idiomatic coherence and cultural aesthetics.[8]  John Litweiler (1984, 257) states that "the precedents of free improvisation [...] are in all kinds of music, and no single kind."

For some, one's approach to energy, virtuosity, and stylistic inclusion or exclusion can define quite clearly one's idiomatic allegiances.  Despite their many differences, the first generation of African American free jazz musicians all seemed to share an intense approach to energy, momentum, and rhythmic drive; think of Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Henry Grimes, Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray, and many others.  The second generation of African American pioneers along with many European contemporaries began to explore other ways – both more and less dense and more and less structured – of creating intensity.  And for even later generation improvisers, this extreme range of approaches to energy and aesthetics can provide fertile creative ground, but it also present a point of considerable contention in the community.  The spectrum of contemporary improvisation appears to be both strongly linked to the traditions of free jazz and, at the same time, increasingly open to artists with little-to-no jazz experience.  Steve Day (1998, 4) argues that "true, jazz always contains improvisation, but improvisation does not always contain jazz."  Nick Couldry (1995, 7) describes free improvisation as "a hybrid of both classical and jazz traditions."  Tom Nunn elaborates on this often-mentioned connection:


One of the common links that developed between these two traditions was instrumental virtuosity, wherein techniques expanding and extending the sonic possibilities of instruments provided the material of improvisation.  The use of atonality, dense textures, asymmetrical or non-metrical rhythm, and open forms or forms derived from the music rather than imposed upon it are other examples of developments common to both jazz and the avant garde leading up to today’s free improvisation. (Nunn 1998, 13)


            Despite any sonic similarities between the emerging avant-garde traditions, many contemporary composers have remained extremely critical of musical improvisation and reluctant to challenge the implied hierarchy of composer-performer-listener.  For example, Luciano Berio (1985, 81,85) dismissed improvisation as "a haven of dilettantes" who "normally act on the level of instrumental praxis rather than musical thought […] [B]y musical thought I mean above all the discovery of a coherent discourse that unfolds and develops simultaneously on different levels."

            This and other passages by respected twentieth-century composers frequently betray a belief that musical notation is the only means to inventing complex musical structures and, by extension, the only valid measure of musical creativity.[9]  This tendency to view all modes of musical expression through the formal and architectonic perspective of resultant structure is deeply entrenched in the music academy and derives in great part from a bias towards the study of Euro-American composed-notated works.  A story from African American pianist Cecil Taylor recounted by A.B. Spellman (1966, 70-71) highlights the issue:


I’ve had musicologists ask me for a score to see the pedal point in the beginning of that piece [“Nona’s Blues”].  They wanted to see it down on paper to figure out its structure, its whole, but at that point I had stopped writing my scores out […] and the musicologists found that hard to believe, since on that tune one section just flows right into the next.  That gives the lie to the only structured music that is possible is that music which is written.  Which is the denial of the whole of human expression.


            A pronounced dichotomy between notated and improvised forms of musical creativity appears to be less apparent in the African American creative music community.  Black composers, including Olly Wilson, T.J. Anderson, Hale Smith, William Banfield, and Alvin Singleton, have incorporated improvisation into their work.  And many African American improvisers – particularly those with close associations to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) – interact with and incorporate notation in a variety of performance contexts.  Trumpeter, composer, and AACM member Wadada Leo Smith, for instance, has devised an open-ended symbolic framework he now calls "Ankhrasmation," the purpose of which is "to create and invent musical ideas simultaneously utilizing the fundamental laws of improvisation and composition" (Porter 2002, 265).  According to George Lewis (2002, 128), the definition of “composition” among African American creative musicians can be a fluid one, “appropriating and simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions, and employing compositional methods that did not necessarily privilege either conventionally notated scores, or the single, heroic creator figure so beloved by jazz historiography.”

            Eric Porter's (2002) new book focuses on the frequently neglected ideas of African American "jazz" musicians and the self-conscious aspects of black cultural production.  Through a close reading of texts by Charles Mingus, Abbey Lincoln, Amiri Baraka, Yusef Lateef, Marion Brown, Wadada Leo Smith, and Anthony Braxton, Porter raises many important issues about the relationship between so-called jazz, classical, and popular musics, the role of improvisation and composition in musical creativity, and the political, economic, and spiritual dimensions of the new jazz.  He, along with other recent authors including Ajay Heble (2001), Sherrie Tucker (in press), and Julie Dawn Smith (in press), also focuses the critical lens of feminist studies on this music, which has traditionally been viewed as a predominantly masculine pursuit.  Many jazz musicians are only now beginning to realize these embedded inequities.  Anthony Braxton, for one, finds it ironic that many of the politically and spiritually aware musicians of the 1960s could also function as "chauvinist and oppressor" (Porter 2002, 284).

The frequently touted "openness" or inclusive nature of free improvisation does at times obscure the gender sensibilities and the different cultural aesthetics represented by its practitioners.  George Lewis (1996) has made a strong case for a clear distinction between an "Afrological" and "Eurological" approach to this music.  His terms are not ethnically essential but instead refer to historically emergent, social and cultural attitudes.[10]  Lewis’ study focuses on the work of two towering figures of 1950s American experimental music: Charlie Parker and John Cage.  Both artists continually explored spontaneity and uniqueness in their work, and Lewis argues that each musician was fully aware of the social implications of his art.  The essential contrast he draws between the two lies in how they arrived at and chose to express the notion of freedom.  Cage, informed by his studies of Zen and the I Ching, denied the utility of protest.  His notion of freedom is devoid of any kind of struggle that might be required to achieve it.  Parker, on the other hand, was (paraphrasing Leroi Jones 1963, 188) a nonconformist in 1950s America simply by virtue of his skin color.  Lewis (1996, 94) argues that for African American musicians, "new improvisative and compositional styles are often identified with ideas of race advancement and, more importantly, as resistive ripostes to perceived opposition to black social expression and economic advancement by the dominant white American culture."  An Afrological perspective implies an emphasis on personal narrative and the harmonization of one’s musical personality with social environments, both actual and possible.  A Eurological perspective, on the other hand, implies either absolute freedom from personal narrative, culture and conventions – an autonomy of the aesthetic object – or the need for a controlling or structuring force in the person and voice of a "composer." 

            Contemporary free improvisers often struggle with the issues implied by Lewis’ Afrological/Eurological model.  English guitarist Derek Bailey (1992, 83) betrays a Eurological perspective when he describes his practice of "non-idiomatic improvisation" as a "search for a styleless uncommitted area in which to work."  Gavin Bryars, a celebrated English bass player and early improvising partner of Bailey, chose to "abandon" improvisation after 1966 in order to focus exclusively on the aesthetic autonomy offered by an Eurological approach to composition.  Bryars argued that, "in any improvising position the person creating the music is identified with the music [...] It’s like standing a painter next to his picture so that every time you see the painting you see the painter as well and you can’t see it without him" (Bailey 1992, 115).

Not all European improvisers, however, favor a Eurological approach to the practice.  English saxophonist Evan Parker clearly sees his approach as part of the African American jazz tradition:


What’s important to me is that my work is seen in a particular context, coming out of a particular tradition.  I don’t really care what people call it but I would want it to be clear that I was inspired to play by listening to certain people who continue to be talked about mainly in jazz contexts.  People like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor – these were people that played music that excited me to the point where I took music seriously myself.  That continues to be the case.  That’s where what I’m doing has to make sense, if it makes any sense at all.  (Lock 1991, 30)


Contrasting Bailey’s and Parker’s approaches, British critic Ian Carr writes:


[W]ith monastic vigilance [Bailey] tries to avoid the habitual side of playing.  Compared with this religious sense of purity, this sense of keeping an untainted vision, Evan Parker’s approach is secular, agnostic, and robust.  He is prepared to rub shoulders and get involved with all sorts and conditions of musicians, and seems able to do this without losing his essential identity. (Carr 1973, 70-71)


            These and other remarks reflect an intriguing tension within the community of free improvisers between Afrological issues of personal and cultural identity and Eurological conceptions of music as an autonomous art.  African American drummer and composer Max Roach stated concisely the issues and his intentions:


Two theories exist, one is that art is for the sake of art, which is true.  The other theory, which is also true, is that the artist is like a secretary [...] He keeps a record of his time so to speak [...] My music tries to say how I really feel, and I hope it mirrors in some way how black people feel in the United States. (Taylor 1993, 112)


Roach's comments highlight the fact that African American jazz and improvising musicians have frequently sought to celebrate aspects of black life and culture and, at the same time, cast off the burden of race, especially when that burden of "racial authenticity" infringes on the marketability or the creativity of black musicians and their music.  This dilemma has played out since the 1960s most clearly in the tension between black nationalism and universalism evident in the commentary of many celebrated African American improvisers.  Despite the helpful and often illuminating distinctions between Afrological and Eurological perspectives, the continued hybridization in the community of contemporary free improvisation has made discussions of cultural belonging a very prickly topic.[11]  As multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton wryly comments: "Why is it so natural for Evan Parker, say, to have an appreciation of Coltrane, but for me to have an appreciation of Stockhausen is somehow out of the order of natural human experience? I see it as racist" (Day 1998, 35).  George Lewis (2002), in a more recent article, advances the notion that experimentalism was becoming “creolized.”  Where the so-called “third stream” movement (a proposed fusion of jazz and classical styles) had failed, Lewis argues that “independent black experimentalism challenged the centrality of pan-Europeanism to the notion of the experimental itself” (126).

Several AACM members rejected early on the prescriptive tenets of cultural nationalism and questioned the idea that black music is a hermetic field and yet still presented their work as an example of creative black music and as an homage to black people.  As saxophonist Marion Brown poetically states, "I'm like a man walking into the future backwards" (Porter 2002, 247).  Weaving together cultural naturalism, pan-Africanism, and universalism offered, to many, the most effective means to negotiate the constraints put upon their creativity by the hegemony of Western economic, discursive, and aesthetic ideals.


Performing Freedom


            How do individuals and groups negotiate these diverse ideas of "freedom" in musical performance?  In what ways do culture and creativity, memory and muscle factor into improvisation?  And how does context affect the meanings and economics of performing improvised music? 

Venues for this music can run the gamut from small, local coffeehouses to well publicized and attended international festivals.[12]  And the featured ensembles at these venues cover the full spectrum from one-time meetings between improvisers (the "all-star event”) to the many longer-term associations with essentially unchanging personnel (the "working group”). The former can provide a sense of immediacy, excitement, novelty, and risk to participants, while the latter may offer an intimacy and depth unavailable in the earliest stages of interaction.[13]  Tom Nunn (1998, 58) believes that:


Free improvisation, by virtue of its open and incorporating nature, invites (indeed demands) the development of personal and group styles.  As an improviser accumulates experience, a unique style develops naturally.  Likewise, as a group develops rapport and players within a group become increasingly familiar with one another’s musical tendencies (i.e., personal style traits), a general style peculiar to the group will usually develop.


            Free improvisers, in general, share the view that technical and improvisational accomplishments are arrived at better through in-context development and experience rather than through isolated training.  The idea of "rehearsing" during playing sessions, however, is less common since, as the term implies, the "re-hearing" of musical details in order to perfect a musical gesture, formal section, or complete performance runs counter to the aesthetics of improvisation.  Bassist Reggie Workman told me in a clinic setting that he would like to rid our vocabularies of the verb "to try."  In improvisation, you do not try, you do![14]

            This is not to say that practice techniques are unheard of in the world of improvisation. One common device used in both free and idiom-specific improvisation traditions is handicapping.  Handicapping refers to a self-imposed challenge designed to limit material or techniques available to the improviser.  These may be conceptual or even physical handicaps imposed on the performer. Conceptual handicaps could involve playing only one note or within a specified range, or aiming for a uniform mood to an improvisation.  Bassist Bertram Turetzky recently told me that his first instruction to classical musicians who have no previous experience with free improvisation is to play the note Bb continuously for several hours in as many ways as possible.  Physical handicaps might include using only a particular part of an instrument or only one hand.  In a recent clinic for example, kotoist Miya Masaoka asked a student drummer to improvise using only his elbows.

While from one perspective these devices may appear to limit individual creativity, they can also remind each participant to focus attention on the collective statement and the musical moment rather than to become easily overwhelmed with the enormous scope of individual musical possibilities.  Tom Nunn finds the biggest mistake made among first-time improvisers is to focus exclusively on what they, as individuals, are responsible for.  Or, alternately, participating in simple cat-and-mouse type does not allow for meaningful musical relationships to emerge and be explored.  He writes, "they are under the misconception that free improvisers make the music.  Therefore, they each feel personally responsible to make something happen, yet nothing happens as a group, nothing congeals" (Nunn 1998, 70).  Evan Parker comments along these same lines:


However much you try, in a group situation what comes out is group music and some of what comes out was not your idea, but your response to somebody else’s idea [...] The mechanism of what is provocation and what is response – the music is based on such fast interplay, such fast reactions that it is arbitrary to say, "Did you do that because I did that? Or did I do that because you did that?" And anyway the whole thing seems to be operating at a level that involves [...] certainly intuition, and maybe faculties of a more paranormal nature. (Corbett 1994, 203)


Many free improvisers discuss spiritual, ecstatic, or trance-like performance states.  Total mental involvement is cited by some, while others describe a complete annihilation of all critical and rational faculties.  Musicians stress performance goals ranging from complete relaxation or catharsis to a transcendental feeling of ego-loss or collective consciousness.  The sheer energy and density of sound at times experienced in free and collective improvisation can potentially create a state of hyperstimulation verging on sensory overload; Cecil Taylor, for instance, claims to enter a trance every time he plays.  The idea of spirit possession also appears in the improvising community.  Saxophonist Jameel Moondoc describes a time when "the music got so intense that spirits came into the room, just hovering around, and in one aspect it was incredibly scary.  It was almost like we were calling the ancestors, and they came" (Gershon 2001, 15).  Others describe a voluntary, self-induced form of trance – more akin to shamanic practices – as they guide the listener on a spiritual journey (Borgo 1997).  Despite these diverse belief systems, a feeling of spirituality and reverence pervades many improvised performances.  David Such (1993, 131) quotes celebrated bassist William Parker:


Free music can be a musical form that is playing without pre-worked structure, without written music or chord changes. However, for free music to succeed, it must grow into free spiritual music, which is not [...] a musical form; it should be based off of a life form.  It is not about just picking up an instrument and playing guided by math principles or emotion.  It is emptying oneself and being.


While the spiritual concerns of improvisers can be diverse and often difficult to analyze, the economics of performing contemporary improvised music has been a topic of some concern for both performers and scholars of this music.  The previously mentioned tendency to form improvising collectives was and is, in great part, a direct response to the often racialized notion that jazz and improvised music most appropriately belong in the under-funded club and cabaret.  In a recent article surveying the development of the AACM and investigating the racialized notions of “New music”, George Lewis (2002, 121) writes:


For the black musicians, on the other hand, the “club,” rather than the concert hall, had been heavily ideologized as the ideal, even the genetically best-suited place for their music.  Early on, however, black experimentalists realized that serious engagement with theater and performance, painting, poetry, electronics, and other interdisciplinary expressions that require extensive infrastructure, would be rendered generally ineffective or even impossible by the jazz club model.  In this light, the supposed obligation to perform in clubs began to appear as a kind of unwanted surveillance of the black creative body.


For a time in the 1970s, the “loft” became an “alternative” space for performances of this increasingly multimedia expression, and creative scenes began to flourish, particularly in and around New York City.  But just as the term “jazz” had been criticized for decades as a boundary-imposing and financially-limiting label, the new loft venues ­– perceived to require minimal infrastructural investment and therefore undeserving of extensive financial support by established arts funding agencies – quickly became another obstacle to the recognition-seeking and border-crossing strategies of creative musicians and improvisers (see Lewis, 2002, 121-123).  Although the situation has arguably improved since that time, venues and funding for “New music” tend to still be hypersegregated according to racialized categories.[15]


Experiencing Freedom


            How do listeners and performers of this music engage with the sounds and practices of "freedom"?  Can improvised performance offer a window into different conceptions of musical structuring and complexity?  Improvisation, by virtue of its emphasis on collaboration and in-the-moment creativity, does seems to invite different approaches to performance, listening, and analysis – approaches that focus as much attention on the human and cultural aspects of music making as on the formal structure of the musical work.[16]

Since, on hearing the initial sound in a free improvisation, neither the performers nor the audience know what direction the music will take, open and attentive listening is essential to creating and maintaining the flow of the music and to extracting meaning and enjoyment from the experience.  The fact that both the performer and audience perspectives begin at the same point offers, according to Tom Nunn (1998, 93), "a level of excitement, involvement and challenge to the audience listener that is unique, at least in degree, to free improvisation.”

Free improvisation requires that performers and audiences listen actively rather than passively and perceive the entire acoustic soundscape as "musical." Barry Truax (1986) has described three general modes of engaging with the acoustic soundscape: background listening, listening-in-readiness, and listening-in-search.  For Truax, background listening is akin to "distracted listening" while the listener is actively engaged in another activity.  Listening-in-readiness involves focused attention, but that attention is to familiar sounds-associations built up over time that may be readily identified.  With listening-in-search, one scans the acoustic soundscape for particular sounds, attempting to extract or create meaning from their production or the environment’s response to the sounds produced. [17] 

            Mark Bradlyn (1991) adopts visual terms to describe further this soundscape to which listeners may attend.  He states:


The first step in learning to listen is stopping still and opening our ears, first to figure, next to ground, next to field.  The field, the aggregate soundscape is the most difficult to perceive […] [T]here must be a constant flux, a never fully focused shifting among figure, ground, and field [...] One performer’s playing may suddenly emerge as a stark figure against the ground of another’s only to just as suddenly submerge into the ground or even farther back into the field as another voice emerges. (15)


Bradlyn’s conclusion is that collective free improvisation may falter if participants and listeners fail "to hear the texture, the field, in pursuit of the dramatic figure, the gesture" (18).  And he further suggests that improvisation "succeeds as music only to the extent that listening achieves equal status with playing" (15). Even these active and inclusive approaches to listening may not take full account of the variety of emotional, spiritual, cultural, and even political dimensions to experiencing improvised performance.

            Stanyek (1999, 47) finds even more at stake in the process of listening than the "musical" success of the improvisation.  He asserts that "if free improvisation has anything emancipatory or 'anticipatory' about it, then this kind of proleptic vision is contained within the act of listening, not in the sounds themselves."  For Stanyek, "listening is the way identities are narrated and negotiated and the way differences are articulated."  He elaborates:


Indeed, the critical nature of free improvisation, its ability to accommodate the disjunctures which invariably arise out of any intercultural encounter, (and perhaps the fact that free improvisation resides outside of many of the economic and aesthetic strictures of the culture industry), all help to provide a welcome antidote to the music-as-a-universal-language trope which pervades many intercultural collaborations. (44)


The "freedoms" frequently associated with contemporary improvised music are mediated by specific personal, social, and cultural experiences.  Since the 1960s, the revolutionary timbres, textures, and approaches of this music have resonated in extremely varied ways, from Black Power or transcendental spirituality to post-modern angst and confusion.  And yet, in the moment of performance and through the act of listening, our personal, social, and cultural understandings – and interpersonal and intercultural sensibilities – may be powerfully changed in the rapture and rupture of improvisation.


Documenting Freedom


            Can and should improvised music be recorded?  How do we engage with the sounds of "freedom" when they are detached from their original context and replayed at a different time?  The many issues surrounding the recording of free improvisation have received considerable attention (see Bailey 1992, 103-104).  Tom Nunn (1998, 154) argues that "much of the unknown-about-to-be-known is lost in recordings.  The image of the musicians playing together, communicating, collectively creating in the moment is impossible to capture on tape."  Cornelius Cardew (1971, xvii) believes that "documents such as tape recordings of improvisation are essentially empty, as they preserve chiefly the form that something took and give at best an indistinct hint as to the feeling and cannot convey any sense of time and place [...] what you hear on tape or disc is indeed the same playing, but divorced from its natural context."  David Roberts (1977-1978, 39) finds that "for musics not predicated upon the dissociation of form and performance, recording can, and often does, spell the kiss of death."  Vinko Globokar insists that recordings of this music should be listened to once and then discarded. 

            These artists and authors seem to agree on two central points:  (1) an audio recording, no matter its fidelity, necessarily reproduces only a limited spectrum of the performance experience, and (2) the act of listening to improvised music away from its initial performance context and on several occasions forever alters its meaning and impact.  Their disregard for the simple utility of recordings or of the sense of tradition that they can and do engender also seems to betray a certain Eurological perspective; one focused on the aesthetic autonomy of the artistic/performative experience.  Martin Davidson, of Eminem records, expresses a rather different viewpoint.  He argues that "recordings and improvisation are entirely symbiotic, as if they were invented for each other [...] the act of improvising is filling time (either a predetermined or an open-ended amount) with music – something that could be called real-time composition, and something that has more need and more right to be recorded than anything else" (Davidson 1984, 23).

            Most free improvisers acknowledge the advantages that recordings offer in actually establishing and disseminating a tradition.  Networking is a critical means of survival and exposure in the dispersed and marginalized free improvising community, and the exchange of recordings is a helpful means to that end.  Many improvisers also conceive of recordings as important documents or milestones in an evolving career.  Derek Bailey (1992, 104) remarks that all that is usually claimed for a recording is "that it should provide evidence of musical identity or of changes in identity."  Many performers also acknowledge the educational value recordings can offer through repeated listening. 

            Scholars of African American and improvised music have frequently engaged – and struggled – with the issue of an oral/literate dichotomy in music performance and analysis (see Sidran 1981).  The increasingly interconnected and technologically sophisticated context for modern culture challenges us to view contemporary music as a complex site wherein new oral/aural cultural forms and practices are electronically inscribed into society.  Tricia Rose (1994), in her recent study of rap music, adopts (from Walter Ong) the concept of "post-literate orality" to describe hip-hop culture.  She writes that "the concept of post-literate orality merges orally-influenced traditions that are created and embedded in a post-literate, technologically sophisticated context" (86).  Arguing a similar position, Daniel Belgrad (1997, 193) states that African American music offers a model of "secondary orality" in a postliterate culture, "the possibility of asserting the values of an oral culture within a culture already conditioned by writing." Well before these scholars began to tackle the subject, Wadada Leo Smith addressed this same issue:


In ancient times when all people held improvisation as their art-music form, it was said then that theirs was an oral tradition [...] In our times now, an oral-electronic tradition is being born, and this signifies the age of a new improvisation-art-music-form.  One only needs to think in terms of the media and its proper use to understand how any significant event, and I’m speaking culturally now and particularly of music, can be immediately received anywhere in the world within seconds or minutes depending on the transfer in time lapse through satellite techniques: indeed an oral-electronic tradition. (Smith 1973)


            Improvisers, while often centered on collective and spontaneous contribution in performance, are equally aware of developing an individual sound and style and defending a career path within the music industry.  Yet their approach confounds many established legal and cultural norms of music ownership and the standard practices of music copyrighting and royalty compensation.  For example, before 1972 it was not possible to register an improvised sound recording with the Library of Congress.  And royalties – an important economic component of countless musicians' careers – are still dispensed almost exclusively to composers (or to the record labels that maintain copyright over the recorded sound) to the detriment of improvising artists.[18]  Improvisation also challenges us to rethink ingrained notions of musical value and traditional approaches to musical analysis and discourse.


Evaluating Freedom


Can free improvisation be criticized?  If so, then by whom?  What is implied by the word "criticism"?  According to Marion Brown, "'Criticism' is by definition a product of the gulf between musicians' ideas and those of the audience.  Once a listener determines that his or her interpretation does not match the performer's," Brown argues, "one becomes a critic" (Porter 2002, 251). 

Even among performers, a gulf can surface between divergent interpretations.  While some artists freely engage in conversations and critical reflection immediately following a group improvisation, others are loathe to do so, since each member’s immediate impression of the improvisation may differ considerably and candid discussion can make subsequent improvisations by the group too self-conscious.  Listening to recorded playing sessions at a later date, either alone or as a group, is one common means of self-evaluation and group feedback in free improvisation.

The jazz critical establishment has historically been harshly divided over the relative merits of freer forms of improvisation.  Both journalists and musicians appeared to take sides almost immediately after the arrival of Ornette Coleman's quartet in New York and the subsequent debate has hardly subsided to this day.  Beyond the stylistic quibbling, however, it may be the apparent critical vacuum that has done more harm to the reception and recognition of this music.  In 1973, Marion Brown self-published Views and Reviews meant to accompany his collectively improvised album Afternoon of a Georgia Faun released three years earlier.  In so doing, he set forth his personal aesthetic philosophy and positioned the artist as the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of his or her own work.  And, somewhat paradoxically, he also debated the applicability of language to represent musical experience.  Perhaps most importantly, though, he challenged the critical status-quo of writers who betray a preference for composed music and who, by virtue of their powerful institutional positions, can dramatically affect the lives and livelihoods of black avant-garde artists.  Eric Porter (2002, 253), paraphrasing Brown, writes that:


[O]ne is prone to judge a piece of music by its formal, or compositional, elements.  Because this presents a problem when analyzing fully improvised music or compositions that include improvisational elements, Brown proposes that a different set of aesthetic principles must be invoked when evaluating such music.  'Balance' is achieved in improvised music not through a compositional structure but through musicans' personal expressions and the emotional bond they create with their audience.


            George Lewis (2002, 123-125) further highlights the issue of how, where, and by whom this music should be criticized in his discussion of the treatment afforded various “downtown” musics by the Village Voice in the late 1970s.  The Voice, at that time, separated critical discussion of various musical genres under the headings “Music” (“i.e., reviews of work from the high culture West”) and “Riffs” (“the low-culture, diminutively-imagined Rest”).  Lewis concludes that the AACM and other creative artists with similar ideologies were “destined to run roughshod over many conventional assumptions about infrastructure, reference, and place” (124).

            The practice of so-called “jazz” musicians and “improvisers” engaging with extended notation and graphic scores, electronics and computers, and multimedia approaches to performance directly challenged the binary thought ­– black/white, jazz/classical, high culture/low culture – that was and is still common in critical discourse.  Lewis points out that even African American critics and activists were not immune from attempting to regulate and restrict African American creativity.  Amiri Baraka, whose important early work (Jones 1963) strongly supported the then emerging “avant-garde,” later derided many black creative musicians for being unduly influenced by European modernism (see Lewis 2002, 129).

            Several journals and magazines consistently publish reviews of free improvisation recordings, performances, and festivals and provide a window into the critical values espoused by the contemporary print media.[19]  As with music criticism in more traditional veins, comparisons to previous recordings or similar well-known groups or players factor prominently in these writings.  Malcom Barry (1985, 173) writes:  "inevitably there is difficulty in separating the form from the individuals practicing that form [...] [T]he anti-composed music becomes identified with particular figures just as composed music does.”

Free improvisation critics most often base their evaluations of the music on the perceived level of ensemble rapport.  Did the musicians and music congeal in a meaningful way?  Were the ensemble or sectional transitions effective? Did the musicians explore novel and interesting relationships? Reviewers also frequently comment on the presence (or absence) of references to established musical styles (jazz, rock, classical, electronic or world) within free improvisation.  While these comments can be helpful in orienting the reader (or prospective buyer) prior to actually hearing the music, critics variously praise or denounce the use of these "style signs" as ingenious layerings and postmodern juxtapositions or as unfortunate byproducts of too heavy a reliance on established techniques and practices. 

Even if most overt idiomatic qualities are consciously avoided by the performers, free improvisers still incorporate and experiment with the accepted tools of artistic expression: stability, interruption, repetition, contrast, etc.  Performing freely improvised music involves a constant balancing act between complexity and comprehensibility, control and non-control, constancy and unpredictability, a balancing act that can invite considerable debate and disagreement.  The issue of control verses non-control brings to mind an issue touched on earlier in this essay – the idea of virtuosity in improvisation.  Do our standard conservatory conceptions of virtuosity provide an accurate measure of a musician's improvisational skills?  A frequently recounted story may serve to illuminate this issue.  By his own account, multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford likes to explore the totally controlled and the totally uncontrolled.  His expansive approach to instrumental technique, however, allegedly got him ostracized from a 1977 Company Week (Derek Bailey’s annual meeting of improvisers) because his approach to his instruments was deemed "insufficiently serious" (Lake, 1977).[20]

Nick Couldry (1995) devotes a rather extensive discussion to the subject of virtuosity in improvised music.  He highlights, in addition to conventional notions of instrumental ability or more contemporary notions of so-called "extended techniques," the idea of "a virtuosity in finding," or the ability to imagine new sounds and discover an individual voice.  He also finds an "intensity of application" – in his view more virtue than virtuosity – important to the demeanor of improvised performance. 

So-called "extended techniques" – the exploration of unconventional sounds and devices on conventional instruments – has been, and continues to be, an important part of the vocabulary of many free improvisers (see Borgo 2003).  And critical evaluation is often based on a perceived mastery of these difficult techniques.  For example, Tom Johnson wrote in a 1980 Village Voice review of an Evan Parker solo performance: "In short, this was not a hit-and-miss affair the way it is with most woodwind players when they turn on their multiphonics.  This was a musician who had transformed these new sounds into a vocabulary that was familiar to him as major scales are to most musicians" (Johnson 1989, 461).

"Intensity of application," however, would seem to imply, if not conventional notions of virtuosity, at least a sense of personal conviction and performance energy.  And this intensity can arguably be heard in the full spectrum of sounds explored by contemporary improvisers, ranging from the incredibly dense and loud to the almost unimaginably soft and sparse.

Perhaps what is most often missed, however, in critical discussion of freely improvised music is its functional quality.  In his Views and Reviews, Marion Brown seeks to dismantle the Western aesthetic that elevates art as an object of beauty above and beyond its functional purpose.  Brown argues not only that improvised music is as 'valid' as composed music but also that, even when 'arrived at through mutual cooperation at a folk level, [it] may be as successful as any other kind of music" (Porter 2002, 251).

This may, however, beg the question that many of the music's detractors are quick to level at it; if this music is as social and as liberating as many profess, then why is it not more popular?  This question is by no means new.[21]  Many politically and socially active black avant-garde artists have faced this continuing question of why black creativity is seemingly so removed from African American communities.  Anthony Braxton, in his Triaxium writings, casts blame on a general lack of recognition of artistic creativity in American society and on the market forces that promote popular music to black audiences (Porter 2002, 283).  George Lewis (2002, 129) additionally finds that academic cultural studies has frequently downplayed or even disparaged those indigenously black musics that are not obviously or predominantly based in or represented as mass culture.  Lewis argues that in this context, “the entry into classical music by black composers becomes, rather than bourgeois accommodation, an oppositional stance” challenging “fixed notions of high and low, black and white” (130).  He summarizes:


Thus, in the age of globalized megamedia, to the extent that certain oppositional black musical forms have been generally ignored or dismissed by academic theorists, the idea is thereby perpetuated that black culture, as academically defined and studied, is in fact corporate-approved culture, and that there is no necessary non-commercial space for black musical production. (129-130)


Porter (2002), however, finds historical evidence for a strong connection between creative music making and a vision to make progressive music meaningful to a wide spectrum of people.  He expresses that, "difficult as it was to implement effectively, [this vision] can be understood as a reflection of the Black Arts movement in the jazz community, where making a living went hand in hand with making music relevant" (207).


Final Remarks


            Clearly, the diverse personal experiences and opinions of free improvisers and the transcultural and hybrid nature of the musical activity make generalized discussions of critical values within the community somewhat problematic.  Yet despite the frequently expressed desire among certain free improvisers for a "styleless" or "non-idiomatic" approach to music, more than four decades of recorded documents and live performances attest to a growing tradition and reveal certain shared traits to the music.  Within this dispersed and disparate community, there does appear to be­ – at the very least – a shared desire to meet together, often for the first time in performance, to negotiate understandings and embark on novel musical and social experiences.

            Free improvisation, it appears, is best envisioned as a forum in which to explore various cooperative and conflicting interactive strategies rather than as a traditional "artistic form" to be passively admired and consumed.  Improvisation emphasizes process over product creativity, an engendered sense of freedom and discovery, the dialogical nature of real-time interaction, the sensual aspects of performance over abstract intellectual concerns, and a participatory aesthetic over passive reception.  Its inherent transience and expressive immediacy even challenge the dominant modes of consumption that have arisen in modern, mass-market economies and the sociopolitical and spiritual efficacy of art in general.

            According to George Lipsitz (1997, 178), jazz music has offered "cultural, moral, and intellectual guidance to people all over the world."  John Gennari (1991, 449) asserts that jazz has served – and continues to serve – "as a progenitor of new forms, an inventor of new languages, a creator of new ways to express meaning."  Ajay Heble (2000, 8) writes that "from its very inception jazz has been about inventiveness, about the process of change," and "that sense of change and inventiveness is most powerfully registered in its cultural forms that accent dissonance and contingency, in music making that explores the sonic possibilities of traditionally outlawed models of practice."  But Jerome Harris (2000, 122) reminds us that "The movement of jazz onto the global stage is a trend that may be judged to hold some dangers."  Among other things, he identifies "the possibility that jazz may lose benefits that derive from cultural closeness between the makers, mediators, and audience – among them, some easy broad consensus about its aesthetic direction."  Slyly referencing Ornette Coleman's seminal work, Harris concludes that "The shape of jazz to come may differ from that which has come before" (124).

The increasingly global participation in free improvisation does seem to preclude the possibility of a "broad consensus about its aesthetic direction."  But as musical devices and relationships are negotiated within freely improvised performances and within the community of improvisers, musicians do offer important rhetorical commentary on desirable social organization, the politics of representation, the public function of art, and the possibilities for resistance to embedded cultural and historical constructions.  And by paying attention to the ways in which artists and involved listeners define, document, perform, experience, and evaluate this music, we may gain insight not only into the process of artistic and cultural innovation, but also into the processes by which we engage with our natural and social worlds.  Nearly all societies and artistic communities have an "avant-garde”; a cultural site in which new ideas may be expressed and explored.  As musicians and musical practices continue to work across and between national, cultural, and stylistic boundaries, free improvisation may play a special role in both generating and coping with complexity.





[1] The arrival of Ornette Coleman’s quartet at the Five Spot in New York City in 1959 and his subsequent albums for Atlantic Records (The Shape of Jazz to Come and Free Jazz) further polarized early support and criticism for the music. See also David Ake (2002).

[2] See Tynan (1961), Welding and Tynan (1962), and McDonough (1992) for examples of this debate.

[3] In an unpublished talk at UCSD titled "The Secret Love Between Interactivity and Improvisation, or Missing in Interaction: A Prehistory of Computer Interactivity," George Lewis focused on the ways in which terms such as "interactivity," "indeterminacy," "intuition," and even "happening" or "action," have frequently been employed to mask the importance of improvisation in the arts.

[4] Composers who have experimented with improvisation include: Amendola, Austin, Barlow, Barrett, Bryant, Cage, Cardew, Carlos, Clemente, Curran, Eaton, Erickson, Evangelista, Foss, Gubaidulina, Guy, Harvey, Ives, Leandre, Levine, Mazzola, Nono, NŅrgärd, Oliveros, Partch, Riley, Rush, Rzewski, Scelsi, Scodanibbio, Sender, Stockhausen, Subotnik, Uitti, Vandor, and Young, as well as the groups FLUXUS, Il Gruppo di Improvisazione da Nuova Consonanza (GINC), KIVA (at UC San Diego), Musica Electronica Viva, New Music Ensemble (at UC Davis), and the Scratch Orchestra.  Pioneering work by composers in the American “third stream” such as Gunther Schuller, George Russell, Bob Graettinger, John Lewis, and others, could be mentioned as well.

[5] One treatment of the problems associated with categorizing such diverse musical approaches under a single, often misleading heading is found in Such (1993, 15-29).

[6] Important artist-run collectives in the United States have included the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago (which has continued to the present date), The Jazz Composers’ Guild (organized by Bill Dixon shortly after his famed October Revolution in Jazz in 1964) and Collective Black Artists (CBA) in New York City, the Black Artists’ Group (BAG) in St. Louis (the birthplace of the World Saxophone Quartet), and the Underground Musicians’ Association (UGMA) in Los Angeles (formed by Horace Tapscott).  Notable European collectives have included the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME), the Music Improvisation Company (MIC), the Association of Meta-Musicians (AMM), the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO), the South African-influenced Brotherhood of Breath, The Jazz Center Society, The Musician’s Co-operative, the Musician’s Action Group, and the London Musicians Collective, all in England, as well as the Instant Composers Pool in Holland, the Globe Unity Orchestra and the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra in Germany, and the Instabile Orchestra in Italy.

[7] See Ferrand (1961) for work on improvisation in the European classical tradition and Nettl (1998) for a survey of ethnomusicological work on the subject.  See also Ake (2002) for a discussion of the debate surrounding the role of avant-garde jazz in the music conservatory.

[8] See the European Free Improvisation website-

[9] See Boulez (1976, 115) for a similarly critical stance towards improvisation.

[10] One might also investigate the emerging Asian-American consciousness centered primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area improvising music community.  See for example Houn (1995 and 1985-1988).

[11] See Monson (1996, 200-206) for a related discussion of “colorblind” interpretations of jazz.  See also Harris (2000) for  discussion of issues surrounding the globalization of jazz.  And Atton (1988-89) offers the results of a survey raising important issues of national and cultural identity in improvised music.

[12] Important festivals that feature improvisation and new music include Le Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Québec, The Vision Festival in New York City, The Guelph Jazz Festival near Toronto, and several in Europe including Saalfelden (Austria), Willisau (Switzerland), La Batie (Geneva, Switzerland) and Vilshofen (Germany).

[13] The annual Company Week, organized by Derek Bailey since the 1970s, provides an excellent example of an event that encourages first-time meetings and unusual groupings of well-known improvisers.

[14] Improvisation seminar held at the “(Re)soundings” festival in Atlanta, Georgia, July, 1998.

[15] Lewis (2002) highlights many additional issues regarding the various “downtown” improvising scenes and the discriminatory arts funding policy regarding “New music.”

[16] See Sarath (1996) and Borgo (in press and 2002).

[17] See also Barry 1977-78, Attali (1977, 136-140), and Durant (1989) for similar discussion.

[18] An ongoing legal battle over the use of an improvised flute passage by James Newton in a Beastie Boys song has brought additional attention to this issue.

[19] Journals and magazines that regularly provide coverage of this music include Avant, Bananafish, Cadence, Coda, Contact, Downbeat, Gramophone Explorations, Hurly Burly, Improjazz, The Improvisor, Musicworks, Opprobrium, Resonance, Rubberneck, Signal to Noise, and The Wire.

[20] In Borgo (2002) I document a similar disrupting experience in which the musical devices and personal dynamics that a new member brought to the improvising group Surrealestate provoked discontent among the existing members.

20 Porter (2002, 204-206) discusses Archie Shepp’s 1965 Impulse release Fire Music and the saxophonist’s desire to create a music that could reach a larger audience without being too "commercial.”  On the album, Shepp moved between political eulogy ("Malcolm, Malcolm–Semper Malcom") and songs inspired by a children's television show ("Hambone"), to covers of Ellington ("Prelude to a Kiss") and a recent pop hit ("The Girl From Ipanema," which had reached the charts a year earlier in a version by Stan Getz and Astrud and Jočo Gilberto).  Fire Music, although containing some inspired playing and arrangements, demonstrates that the fusion of avant-garde aesthetic goals with a socially responsible and popular music that would be relevant to a wide range of people was a difficult proposition.  Three years after the album’s release, Shepp expressed displeasure that he sold more records on college campuses than in black communities.




Much of this article is drawn from my unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Borgo 1999).  I would like to thank my committee members at UCLA, Tim Rice, Robert Walser, Cheryl Keyes, Roger Savage, N. Katherine Hayles, and Joseph DiStefano for their invaluable assistance and David Ake and Robert Reigle for their frequent suggestions.  I am also indebted to the three anonymous readers for their insightful comments.



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David Borgo recently joined the faculty of the University of California in San Diego as an Assistant Professor in the Critical Studies and Experimental Practices Program.  He received a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from UCLA in 1999 and previously taught at James Madison University in Virginia.  David has been a professional saxophonist for over 15 years and is currently at work on a book exploring the relationship between the emerging sciences of complexity and contemporary improvised music.