In the Stacks: New York is Now! The New Wave of Free Jazz by Phil Freeman

Fiercely passionate and unapologetically polemical, Phil Freeman’s debut book New York is Now! The New Wave of Free Jazz is by turns infuriating, maddening…and completely enthralling.

Early on, Freeman states that he wrote the book to introduce free jazz to music lovers “who may be only passingly familiar with it”, and it certainly can function that way. I am a practitioner of improvised music and not at all in that demographic, but I personally found the book very entertaining, educational, and in a certain way, inspiring.

Written in 2001 and focusing primarily on the 90s New York (NY) free jazz scene, the book is laid out intuitively, surveying the careers of key NY-based improvisers like Matthew Shipp, the late David S. Ware, William Parker, Joe Morris, and others. It also touches briefly on the origins and some of the pioneers of the form (Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman) and includes information on related performance venues (Tonic, Knitting Factory) and record labels (Aum Fidelity, Eremite). In the later chapters, Freeman often takes specific entities to task for neglecting to support what he considers “real” free jazz musicians. There’s also a fine-enough but subjectively narrow recommended listening list at the end. Obviously, there are no mentions of the many important free jazz-ish musicians who have emerged in NY since 2001, but we can not fault Mr. Freeman for not possessing the gift of prophecy.

While reading I laughed out loud more than once, usually more with appreciation than offense, at the outright audacity of Freeman’s freely deployed blanket declarations and highly opinionated asides. At times, he seems to want to position himself as the one-man authenticity gatekeeper of free jazz, and possibly all other forms of music as well. Sometimes he’s right (Rakim IS a brilliant rapper), sometimes he’s wrong (John Zorn is not a “dilettante”), and sometimes one would have to be a true NY jazz insider to truly understand the grudges and gripes Freeman is telegraphing. Mostly, though, he’s a fierce and sincere advocate for the musicians and music he obviously loves.

The object of Freeman’s most fervent textual takedowns are actually not even musicians; he devotes a good chunk of one chapter to savagely skewering the glaring hypocrisies, intellectual shortcomings, and perceived disdainful motivations of a couple of fellow east coast music writers. These are such jarringly personal excoriations that they ultimately read as if Freeman accidentally included a few paragraphs from his personal “slam book” while assembling the manuscript. A brief quote:

“Howard Mandel, author of Future Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1999), may be the the worst writer covering jazz today. If he isn’t, I have no interest in finding out who is; having read the book, the idea that there could be a writer with less understanding of his subject matter than Mandel is too painful to contemplate.”

Despite (or maybe because of?) this sort of vitriol, I mentioned above that I ultimately found this book inspiring. I wasn’t kidding. Freeman’s passion for the form is deep and infectious. As Matthew Shipp himself says in a back cover quote, “One can vehemently disagree with Mr. Freeman’s points and still be very stimulated by this book.” I disagreed with many of Freeman’s opinions, but was inspired by the stories he was able to capture and his wholehearted respect for the music,.


The final chapter is possibly my favorite part of the book. It is set in a recording session for the David S. Ware Quartet which Mr. Freeman was allowed to attend. The writer wisely stays silent and observes during some particularly strained parts of the session, quietly noting his thoughts for the book in real time and giving the readers a clear-eyed glimpse of what it takes for improvisational masters to create something out of nothing, with new tools and no rehearsals. His empathy for the musicians shines in his observations, even when his assessments present as negative:

“From the late start, to the conflicting musical directions, the whole endeavor seemed chaotic to me. And it didn’t feel like the kind of roiling, spirit-shaking chaos that can bring out the best in free jazz musicians. It felt like nobody knew where the whole thing was supposed to go…”

When Freeman arrives the next morning for a second day of recording, things have changed considerably, along with Freeman’s concluding thoughts:

“Ware and his quartet have transformed their music into something wholly new. At points, it’s as harsh as anything they’ve ever recorded, but in many ways it’s like a science fiction version of free jazz.”

The only thing that irritated me about this book was the occasionally redundant expository information from chapter to chapter, as if the author assumed or feared an acute outbreak of short-term memory loss amongst his potential readership. From time to time this repeated material makes the book feel like a patchy collection of essays thrown together instead of a book intended to cohere.

That’s the small stuff, though. Overall, this book is a highly recommended must-read, no matter your level of knowledge of free jazz or the NY 90s scene. It’s in the stacks here at C4NM. Members come check it out, or pick it up on Amazon.

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