Spring Garden Music

Shaky Ground

The Free Musics

Shaky Ground by Jack Wright, Spring Garden Music Editions, Nov. 2022, 308 pages

My original intent, in early 2020, was to publish a revised version of a personal journal I wrote in the early 90s dealing with my inner dilemmas.Then the George Floyd demos hit and the political world exploded, and since I was an activist in the sixties and still “somewhere on the left,” I was taken aback--I had to rethink my political allegiance and habitual thinking.

As a musician, touring and performing, I was unaware that “the left” had been gaining power and now was on the same side as all the major institutions it was once fighting, including the government—how could that be?

The book is the meeting point of my own shaky ground and that of the contemporary world. Besides occasional references to my past and to my music (below, The Free Musics), I attempt to understand, with empathy and objectivity, where this left has come from historically and socially from the postwar period until today. I ask, what is the motivation of the current left followers, and where does the us vs. them divide come from?

The study follows the dateline of my own conscious life, which I trace to the mid-fifies. The analysis is informed by my experience of the transformation of America, which coincides with my own changing. The critique is not a thorough history, nor a polemic, but an opportunity to step back from the present situation and get my bearings on politics, my middle class background, my earlier career orientation.

A brief bio: I am an 81-year-old saxophonist of strange music (free improvisation), who prior to that was a graduate student in European History at Hopkins, and for five years an instructor at CCNY and Temple University. I left academia in the early seventies to pursue political organizing in my neighborhood. After a period of wandering and rethinking my life direction I returned to my childhood dream of playing music, while earning a living as a house painter and handyman. More info at Spring Garden Music

Click on this link Shaky Ground at Amazon and you'll be able to get a "look inside" at the first few pages, though they are unrepresentative of the whole. The Amazon cost is $18 plus postage. Outside the US the best option is Amazon in your country, since it is also printed in most European countries, China, Japan, and others.

I would prefer that you get it directly from me for $15--that price includes the postage, plus a CD. Send me an email to jackwri555 at gmail dot com if you're interested. (Of course I won't give out your address.) The low price is simply the wish to share this book with those who might find it useful for their own thinking.

Beyond those I contact, my idea for distribution is word of mouth, so please let others know about it. The end result is something like a community of readers rather than consumers. Something like that occurred with the readers of The Free Musics; of the 900 or so sold to date, a large number of requests were referred to me by other readers.


Shaky Ground is not adequately footnoted, but I assume that readers will do their own research on the internet. Any specific point you want me to clarify, just write me at the above address. Given the situation of a polarized, politicized press and writers, it is extremely difficult to ferret out the truth, for we must assume that no writer sees the full picture. Here are some suggestions for further reading; some would be classified as liberal, some traditional left, and some conservative, avoiding the extremes, which tend to be purely polemical:

On the issue of race and politics I would recommend the writings of these black scholars: Adolph Reed, Barbara J. Fields (Racecraft), and Cedric Johnson.

Michael Lind’s The New Class War--Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (2020) is an excellent analysis of the current divide and is full of references, though it doesn't live up to its title. Like almost anything you want in published books, that one is available digitally for free, at https://libgen.is/

For journalists I would recommend Matt Taibbi; a search for that name will produce his writing at substack.com. He took apart the long-evolving Russiagate conspiracy theory, and was one of the journalists given the Twitter files to analyze. An example of his writing is his critique of white fragility, Robin DiAngelo’s book, https://taibbi.substack.com/p/on-white-fragility

This article illustrates the quagmire of academic struggles when accusations of racism enter the project of scientific research: https://quillette.com/2022/12/12/a-rush-to-judgement-in-psychological-science/?ref=quillette-newsletter

On the undermining of professional standards, the previous norm, many articles show the trend for the top law and medical schools. This development will have great impact on the media: https://www.city-journal.org/like-professional-like-student


The Free Musics by Jack Wright, Spring Garden Music Editions, Jan. 2017, 316 pages

The two free musics are free jazz and free improvisation, genres begun in the sixties that continue today under different circumstances. The musicians’ approach was originally exploratory free playing, which encouraged the maximum range of sound and feeling. In Europe they were and still are accepted genres for career professionals. In North America this is only true for free jazz, which maintains the original style as a tradition and a strong jazz-oriented audience. Free improvisation on the other hand is not based on jazz idiom or feeling and is more open to a wider range of sound. It's history is erratic and discontinuous, and although it often attracts free jazz listeners, it is not widely known.

Musicians play freely as often in private sessions as in performance, and what they do is first of all aimed at their own satisfaction. Otherwise they would not be said to have a specific aesthetic they adhere to. It follows their moment-to-moment intuitions while interacting with one another, based on trust and imagination. Sometimes partners are very selectively chosen; other times it is quite random and accidental. Its strength is to enter play with the lightness of “Let’s see what happens," without expectations about the results or that it will please others.

This book has been provocative, since it views the situation players find themselves in and ignores the perspective of consumers, the media, and academics. It explores their assumptions and practices--their musical approach, relations to the music world, to each other, and to the social order. It traces the changes in these conditions since the origins of these musics. The response to it from musicians has been very strong, many saying it puts their own thoughts into words.

Chapters follow a rough chronology: 1. Jazz as the Prehistory of Free Musics; 2. Sixties Free Jazz; 3. Collapse of the Free Jazz Movement; 4. Free Jazz in Revival; 5. The Situation for Jazz-based Music; 6. British Free Improvisation; 7. Free Improv in North America in the 1980s; 8. What Good is Free?; 9. Derek Bailey’s Concept of Improvisation; 10. Free Playing; 11. Free Playing and the Real World; 12. Resurgence of Free Improv to the Present

Jack Wright is a saxophonist who turned to free playing in 1979 and has played it exclusively ever since. At 80 he still tours widely in North America and Europe, for which the late guitarist Davey Williams called him "the Johnny Appleseed of free improvisation” back in the eighties. He is open to playing with others, experienced or not, and approaches his own playing with a questioning spirit. See springgardenmusic.com for more information.

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The book is available directly from me for $15, including postage within the US, and will include a CD. Send me an email and paypal to jackwri555 at gmail dot com (a check also possible), and be sure to click on "friends and family." It is also available from the Downtown Music Gallery (including the CD) and Amazon (without the CD)

Outside the US the best option is Amazon in your country, since it is also printed in most European countries, China, Japan, and others.

For libraries, the book is catalogued in the LC as ML430.7 .W75 2017 and for the Dewey system: 781.36

Comments and Reviews

Ben Watson, the author of Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation: "The Free Musics will probably be considered the most important book on free playing since Derek Bailey's Improvisation. He's actually doing what Derek said musicians never do, talking about what it's like to improvise, and with a really nuanced understanding of Free Jazz and the 60s revolution, Free Improvisation, the Free Jazz Revival...His playing with guitarist Zach Darrup is extraordinary, packed with unexpected detail." And in an email, "Your book is going to stir so many thoughts in so many heads you are not going to live long enough to catch up with all the repercussions!"

Michael Hefferly, author of Northern Sun/Southern Moon--Europe's Reinvention of Jazz : "Recommend it highly for its seasoned and savvy insider's view, richly laden with erudite weave of voices from disciplines and discourses in larger culture beyond the special one of its focus. His style in that work is the best of what academic writing purports to be--interdisciplinary discourse, a conversation between people who know a lot about what they're writing about and who know how to write clearly and creatively (ie., readably.)

Evan Lipson, bassist and touring partner: "What a ride! I'm so accustomed to your voice as a bold, insightful, and often profound essayist and informal (i.e. driver or passenger seat) lecturer, but this is a different voice entirely. Your convctions and insights dealing with this history (avoiding the hagiography you mention) in a longform context are nothing short of revelatory."

Andrew Drury, percussionist and partner of many tours: "This is exciting. Sure to be a classic. To say Jack Wright is an excellent musician, an amazing one, or a philosopher, or trickster, or one capable of blowing minds and inspiring people to think in new ways and do strangely courageous things, is all very true but still doesn't adequately make the case of why I think just about everyone I know should buy his book (and his cds, and see him live!). A recommendation built on hype is not a smidgeon as fun as actually hearing or seeing him play, hanging out, and or hearing and engaging with what he thinks. So just try it! Go for it! Now that he has bound some of his writings within one spine and cover we have another point of entry into his unique oeuvre and the world of music in general which in this period of history has been given a Procrustean bed kind of treatment to fit the socio-economic context. Jack, for decades, has travelled uncharted territory and engaged with music as aesthetic practice, as profession, and as way of life with as much integrity, adventure, fun, thoughtfulness, etc. as anyone I've met. Seriously."

All About Jazz, Review by Dan Barbiero

Michael Kaler, in Critical Studies in Improvisation

The Wire, May 2017: "'Despite my briar-patch underground preference, I sincerely want my playing to be available to anyone who will listen...For outsider musicians the problem is not that our music is judged negatively but that it doesn’t get judged at all'. Thus veteran saxophone improviser Jack Wright, whose book, he writes, "aims to provide insight into the subjectivity behind a kind of playing that alienates all but a few".
He stresses that this volume is not the history of free jazz and free improv that still needs to be written. Part I deals with the New York origins of free jazz. Part II is on free improvisation, beginning with the UK, including links to free jazz and experimental music. Part III is on the resurgence of North American free improv in the decade from 1996, and the story up to the present.
Wright gave up an academic career as an historian in 1972, and a few years later turned to playing free jazz, based mainly in Philadelphia – discovering free improvisation, which was then a tiny scene in the States, and today is not much bigger. Terminology is tricky here, of course. But according to Wright, in the US unlike the UK, there is really no "scene", which implies audience, for improvisation that doesn't reference the high, continuous sound, emotion, and volume of free jazz. His long experience includes involvement with European reductionism in the early years of this century, and at 74 he's still a tireless organiser of sessions and gigs.
Wright has an historian's keen concern with the applicability of labels. "Free improvisation", he writes, "is a title used so loosely and infrequently in North America as to be useless except for its practitioners' self-identification". For this reason, Wright uses "free playing": "Free playing is rooted in the session...because the only external stimulation is from others similarly engaged". He interrogates Derek Bailey's aim of "non-idiomatic" free improvisation, but applauds the way that artistic imperatives thrive when commercial success is a remote possibility.
Wright is a highly perceptive commentator, in particular on how the market often drives stylistic change. Sunny Murray is quoted as saying "[free jazz] is the music of our era, no matter how much they hate it" – yet, as Wright comments, "it was defeated as the next step for jazz". Commenting on how Ornette Coleman's music arose from blues, gospel, modern and even cool jazz, he writes that "Unable to hear this at the time, many were shocked and violated...We cannot reconstruct those ears or the music's divisiveness".
Wright is sceptical of the inclusion of free improvisation under the umbrella of “experimental music”: "When free improv is grouped together with formal art, the approach of playing freely is obscured". "[It] has never functioned as even a marginalized option on American culture", he adds.
A key theme is the opposition between African-American and European avant-gardism – which I wonder if Wright overstates. He describes the sound of white free players like Jimmy Giuffre as closer to a classical sound – when surely it's a jazz sound. He denies that post-1965, Coltrane moved towards the "modernist avant-garde", on the grounds that Trane didn't narrow the gap with Western concert modernism – but can't jazz have its own "modernism"? Braxton drew on the work of Konitz and Warne Marsh, however alien the results seemed to these white players; Derek Bailey brought the traditions together in Company Week. But it's true that Wright focuses on the New York scene, in a narrow period – and even here, he sees interesting affinities between the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble, in a 1966 recording, and British free improvisation.
Disagreements are a sign of a writer with a lot to say, of course. Wright closes with penetrating thoughts on the contemporary scene, in what is a very valuable book – not an easy read, but full of insight.

------Andy Hamilton

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From Ch. 2, p. 23-24. "[Ornette] Coleman had a profound and irreversible impact even on those who resisted his music. It was behind the scene, in rehearsals and discussion, that musical self-determination and the orientation of musicians to each other developed. Coleman wanted them to listen in the moment rather than follow what the score literally told them to do. For instance, the professional norm was for the leader to shape the music as he wanted it played in performance, and to instruct the bassist accordingly. Contrary to that, he told his bassist Charlie Haden to make up the harmony himself; this made the player a shareholder in the composer role and somewhat displaced the leader.

As this kind of listening/playing extended to all Coleman’s players, it released them as music creators with almost equal responsibility. He rehearsed a group in L.A. for his 1958 album “Something Else!!!” (exclamation points in the original) and changed the composition at each rehearsal, and even on the recording date itself. This ignored the usual progression from rehearsal to perfected piece, which, outside the latitude of the jazz soloist, had been standard for all musical production. He may have done this without conscious intent, but he apparently didn’t feel inhibited by the conventional practice. His players would have to listen, roughly follow the score, and depend on their own initiative, a kind of forced confusion. He insisted on this over his partners’ objections; they had to believe in Coleman’s vision beyond what they felt was right. This brought the rehearsal more in line with the leaderless private session, which continues in free playing today. The two modes of off-stage playing--rehearsal and session--had usually been carefully distinguished, maintaining the separate roles and integrity of skilled professional and self-motivated creative artist. Coleman transformed the rehearsal into a means for making musicians flexible and open to a variety of possibilities, to think creatively in the widest possible way in the moment. This brought musicians in direct contact with each other rather than mediated through the leader.

Since the twenties there had been a firm distinction between musical director/score-provider/paymaster and hired player who executed his will on pain of dismissal. This is a master-servant pattern of leaders hiring soloists and sidemen to do the leader’s selected and often self-composed music. For those under Coleman’s tutelage the players led themselves, progressively dispensing with chord progressions and later even with time-keeping. The musical director had brought the players to the point where he could withdraw—and they’d still get paid. This led to the possibility of a group choosing its own members, without a leader financially in charge. Here began the radical shift to players as mutual partners of each other, even friends, as Steve Lacy said. This arrangement would be in tension with the industry standard of sidemen and leader, who negotiated the contract for the gig or record, got the most credit in the press, and got paid extra, often double.

Ch. 10, p. 186 "Free playing lacks the continuity of progressive development, as one can expect from a genre like jazz in its heyday, when players seeking to outdistance rivals ended up altering the code for others. It is on the cusp between visionary possibility--it can move in any direction--and singular actualities, which would include Coltrane’s long solos, free sessions today. The urge to play freely has brought different players together at different historical junctures with no causal links between them, such as learning from the masters provides. It is then fortunate that in North America free playing has no recognized masters to be followed. Only a music world [institutions such as media, music schools, and funding sources] can churn them out; and its radar does not notice anything of such small commercial value as free playing.

This creative freedom is cognitive, musical ideas potentially multiplying by intermixing and creating mutants no one recognizes, including the players. The instrument does not dictate inherent rules for making music, as presumed in music schools, but is a mere vehicle for sound. A cheap, even broken instrument might hold an advantage over one acclaimed as exemplary for the correct sound. The traditional love of the instrument is transformed from veneration for its access to tradition, like a sacred relic, to appreciation for whatever about that specific instrument enables endless mutation."


The Improv Campout in Quest NM, June 1990. Wright is the shirtless one.




4. Jack Wright "You Know the Story" and The Free Musics

13. Jeff Schwartz, Albert Ayler

17. Varese sessions of jazz musicians.

24. Charlie Haden interviews

25. Ted Gioia presently unavailable

29. Archie Shepp interview 2001

30. Robert Levin

37.William Parker/Jack Wright duo

57. Godard film of Jefferson Airplane

60. Burton Greene interview

64. Archie Shepp interview 1990

79. Archie Shepp interview 2014

84. William Parker

85. Los Angeles free jazz and Archie Shepp interview 2

86. William and Patricia Parker Arts for Arts and Belgian Free Jazz organization

91. Wynton Marsalis

94. Mackenzie Wark

102. Free Music Production

113. Charlie Parker interview

117. Tim Hodgkinson reviewed

123. Occupy Musicians

134. Seymour Wright

140. Tom Nunn, Wisdom of the Impulse part 1 Wisdom of the Impulse part 2 and Williams' review

141. Davey Williams

142. Milo Fine has told me that he began free playing in 1969.

144. John Grundfest

165. "Free Improvisation as a Social Act"

171. The Improvisor - website currently down, try googling

174. Theatre of the Moment

175. "Circulate"

210. Paul Helliwell

241. Alain Badiou

242. Infinite Games

243. Joe McPhee

252. Amplified Gestures video

253. Henry Flynt

261. Critical Studies in Improvisation

268. Review of Tangle

270. Touching Extremes

274. Winning the audience

277. Scott Thomson

282. Jean Baudrillard

284. Bay Area Improvisers and Seattle Improvisation

289. Erstwhile

291. Baltimore Volunteers Collective

292. Red Room

295. Geno's Empty Foxhole

296. Bowerbird and Eugene Lew shows

297. Pew grant

299. A Space Philadelphia

301. Blazanovic article

305. No Nets

306. Fire Museum

307. Impermanent Society and NowHear Festival

308. Day of Noise

311. Tim Hodgkinson

312. No Idea Festival

315. This very webpage!

Post-publication thoughts

Jan. 19, 2017

The Free Musics is first of all addressed to my fellow sound-makers, mostly calling themselves musicians. Others might be interested in what a musician would say to those who are or could be partners, but they are not my first concern. Much of the book looks at how we got to where we are today, but here is the essential message:

There is a vast gulf between us and the sounds we play with. This is the result of cultural factors we face today: the unwritten musician contract to produce music; the media and institutions that determine who gets attention; the public demand for what is familiar; and the aura surrounding performance. As musicians we at least get to own what we do, but this is an alienated, objectified, abstract relationship. Our situation falls in line with that of other artists, attempting to adapt to a culture that makes a priority of the (neo)liberal viewpoint. It has forgotten a central point of Kant, that knowledge can only circle around concrete reality, cannot itself be the truth of it, the thing in itself, and never gets to experience it. Art is not a thing but an act of concrete experience. It is more ancient than the mediating act of thought and concept, which have established for us what we should do if we are to consider ourselves valid musicians. Imagine instead that beside us when we sit to play are those earliest humans, who experienced sounds they made as their mystic participation in nature, indistinguishable from themselves. They played not to please others and gain their response but to please the gods, and there was no applause meter or system to confirm they’d gotten it right.

We’re not back there, of course. But to call ourselves contemporary or avant-garde musicians only gets us further from concrete experience and more stuck in the mire of our culture. Our contemporary situation is rather that distance, fences, and detours are built into us each time we approach sound-making. Like the early humans, who were enlisted in repeating ritual formulas, we start out caked in the mud of our culture; there is no blank slate. When we play and think, “now that’s good, I’m onto something here,” then we’ve been detoured, deceived by value and significance, and barred from the pure factuality of what we do, all part of the musician contract. We do the same when we’re proud of our difference, and would be ashamed and defensive if someone said, “you always sound the same, you haven’t evolved.”

To play free of caring about all this is a gigantic struggle of internal resistance to our culture that goes beyond “non-idiomatic.” It puts us outside the idealized effort to “make it new,” and by the same token relieves us of the embarrassment of living in the shadow of the irretrievable golden age and icons of the sixties. Some may feel joy from playing in their shadow, but there is a very different excitement possible for us.