Free Jazz and Free Improvisation

An Encyclopedia by Todd S. Jenkins
Greenwood Press Volume One A-J; Volume Two K-Z

By Ken Waxman

January 31, 2005

Reviewing a stand-alone project like Free Jazz and Free Improvisation presents a unique set of challenges, since you must deal with what isn’t covered in the 500-odd oversized pages of these two volumes as much as what is.

From the downbeat author Todd Jenkins has to be commended for his Herculean task, collecting from various sources essential information about Free Music and putting it into approachable form for the student, the researcher as well as the improvisational newbie.

Further props in his favor include the introductory essay, “The Path to Freedom”. In around 40, well-measured, pages, he manages to touch nearly every major current in so-called outside music from the late 1940s all the way up to the present. Subtantially, in the body of the book, his list of individual entries ranges from the irrefutable pioneers — such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor — all the way up to many newcomers including Bay area saxophonist Rent Romus and Boston-based trumpeter Greg Kelley.

Jenkins is knowledgeable enough about the scene in general to include listings of such little celebrated entities as Muhal Richard Abrams’ influential Experimental Band and the pan-European Quintet Moderne, to cite two entries. Cognizant of Free Music’s universality, he also has a good percentage of entries on non-American performers — European and Japanese in the main — as well as separate slots for important nightclubs and record labels. As stand-alone entries, his extensive dissections of the careers and recorded work of important stylists such as Taylor, Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker are exemplary.

That said, Free Jazz and Free Improvisation also encompasses several egregious flaws that compromise the volumes’ status as a reference source. Emphasis is put on certain trends, musicians and record labels to the expense of others that in the future could prove to be as momentous. Furthermore, for a hard-cover publication destined for library shelves and as a long-term reference, an appalling number of omissions, typos, proof reading, editing and even factual mistakes appear.

In many instances also, Jenkins writing is gauche and graceless, relying on such cliched expressions as “avoid like the plague”, “like it or lump it”, “welcome with open arms” and “packed to the rafters”. This may be OK for a rush job destined for next day newspaper publication, but a book, especially an encyclopedia, is a monumental undertaking that should avoid cringe-worthy prose since it will be consulted for years to come.

Briefly, Jenkins is on the most solid ground with his shorter entries, since they pithily state the basic facts and locate the data in the improv continuum. In some of these however, and many of the longer entries, a form of omnipotence weakens the strength of he information. Endless detailing of individual LP and CD tracks and sessions is something best left to record reviewing. Plus, following the lead of Leonard Feather’s pioneering, yet not wholly successful, efforts in his Encyclopedia of Jazz, opinions of others conversant with the works discussed should have been added to Jenkins’ own. To use an obvious cliché, disagreements and preferences are what make horse races.

Although the selection of entries is catholic, too often additional information is missing. Jenkins includes the full birth date, place and year of birth for many musicians, for instance, while other listings lack one, the other or all three. Communications via the Internet has made such lapses dubious. A Web page search or e-mail to the person involved could have yielded the missing date. In 1956 and thereafter, Feather sent out a questionnaire to those musicians he wanted to include in his encyclopedia; 21st Century transmission makes this task that much simpler.

Certainly every reader will have a list of who or what should or shouldn’t have been in the volumes, but a couple of omissions seem more than inexplicable.

The most glaring oversight is lack of a separate listing or even an index references for CODA, the Canadian jazz magazine with a worldwide circulation. Cadence — founded in 1975 — and its affiliated record labels rate an entry, while that publication and Signal to Noise, which began in the very late 1990s, are cited as “periodicals specifically oriented towards new music” in the end notes.

CODA has had its ups and down over the years, but as a journal “published continuously since May 1958” as its masthead states, it has been a constant champion for Free Music almost from its beginning. During the late 1970s in fact, the magazine’s affiliated Sackville and Onari label released some now-classic Free Jazz/Free Improv sessions, a role which Cadence’s labels admirably fills today.

Another puzzling omission is that of New York trombonist Steve Swell, especially since many of the players with whom he associates rate their own listing. A few others musicians who could be included are, from Europe: pianist Michiel Braam and reedist Ab Baars of the Netherlands, Spanish pianist Augustí Fernández and British drummer Paul Hession. Then from the United States: Mississippi drummer Alvin Fielder, Texas trumpeter Dennis González, New Yorkers, saxist Michael Marcus and pianist Uri Caine, plus drummer Gino Robair and saxist Francis Wong from the Bay area. And that’s only thinking of 10 at random.

Where would the publishers have found room for these entries? Removal of quasi-improvisers who come from the rock music world such as Thurston Moore, Jim O’Rourke and Fennez [!] could provide some space. Plus a 17-page, year-by-year Chronology of Events from 1949 through 2003 at the beginning of the volume that lists births, deaths and record releases already included in the text, could have been excised.

Adding or removing entries may be merely an exercise in different priorities between this reviewer and the author. But mistakes and misstatements aren’t open to discussion.

To list a few, again at random:

 Barre Phillips is described as a British bassist in the entry on Peter Brötzman, but correctly as an American in his own

 Big Nick Nicholas was a tenor saxophonist, not a blues singer

 Violinist Billy Bang didn’t “found” the String Trio of New York, it was a cooperative effort between him, guitarist James Emery and bassist John Lindberg

 No effort is made to explain that the “Rev” in tenor saxophonist’s Frank Wright’s name was a nickname for his soulful playing, not a legitimate ecclesiastical title

 Sun Ra didn’t play in the big band of Erskine Caldwell, the author of Tobacco Road, but in the band of Erskine Hawkins, the popular trumpeter

 Ajay Heble isn’t the former Guelph Jazz Festival director, he still holds that post

 John Coltrane recorded Olé for Atlantic not Impulse and Ascension for Impulse not Atlantic; the reverse is stated in the introduction

 Poet/activist Amiri Baraka’s name change reflected his Pan-African revolutionary Marxism not a conversion to Islam as is misstated twice

 Novelist Jean Toomer, who is mentioned in the entry on altoist Marion Brown, is a “he” not a “she”

While this list may seem excessively nitpicky, precisely because Free Jazz and Free Improvisation is an encyclopedia, these missteps are particularly egregious. Even in the 21st Century anything printed between hard covers is given extraordinary respect, so these errors will be perpetuated for some time.

While Free Jazz and Free Improv followers can pick up these volumes, they should be very conscious of these faults before doing so. Perhaps one way around the conundrum, would be for the author to annually publish a yearbook that would bring things up to date. Another welcome gesture would be if buyers could be provided with an set of corrections should they purchase the volumes. The information could even be e-mailed after the publisher is contacted.

Despite Jenkins’ hard work, it appears that Free Jazz and Free Improvisation is still only another small step on the road to completeness for individuals and institutions that seek a permanent collection of facts about these genres.