Free Jazz: Can It Be Saved?

A Chicago Subculture; an international phenomenon


JUNE 6, 2014

By Sara Gilgore

This is a highly evolved kind of musical thinking that takes one's emotional, spiritual and psychological experience, and shapes it as sound. It can be a very powerful experience, and a beautiful one. 
– Linda Berna, associate dean and director at The Music Conservatory, Roosevelt University

On a sunny Sunday in Chicago, people pack into Logan Square’s Township. The restaurant, which sits at the corner of North California Avenue and West Palmer Street, attracts regulars and newcomers for brunch. Barstools line the counter and chairs cluster around marble-top tables. Waiters bustle between parties, balancing trays brimming with coffees and eggs Benedict. Cool air floats through the open door into the crowded first room, while more brunch-goers gather in an intimate area toward the back. The tinted windows here block the sun from turning the space into a greenhouse, important given that only a single ceiling fan stirs the heavy, warm air. Overhead lights cast a golden glow on the white walls, painting them yellow. Dents and scuffmarks scar the wood floor.

In the front of the restaurant, Anton Hatwich and Jeff Kimmel sip coffee and chat with a female employee at the bar.

“Do you think you guys could get started early?” she says, pointing her finger in the air. “I would love to turn off this background music.”

“Sure,” they both agree.

They walk to the second room, where they plant themselves against a wall beside an alcove. The diners barely notice.

Unfazed, Hatwich tunes his acoustic bass and Kimmel assembles his clarinet. After sliding sheet music on the metal music stand and exchanging glances, they launch into a smooth, silky tune. With the exception of a few feet tapping under the tables, audience members show no reaction.

The duo has performed at Township nearly every Sunday since it opened, interpreting music by Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols, sticking mostly to the classics. It might not be a sold-out show, but it’s a gig. In the state of flux the jazz world battles, it’s a chance to play.

* * *

Different terms describe the less mainstream music Hatwich and his peers play. The genre does not easily fit into a box. Some call it creative music. Others deem it experimental music, improvised music or free jazz. Many use the labels interchangeably, while others think titles don’t accurately capture its essence. The different names refer to the same music – an art form grounded in the creation process, rooted in jazz.

Over decades, this music has evolved from straight-ahead jazz, influenced by legends like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, and later, free-jazz composers like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. The sound varies, ranging from bluesy to avant-garde, for example, depending on the vibe and performers. Other genres have also affected its development, and its identity has taken various forms over time, on national and international scales. Improvisation and experimentation characterize the aesthetic experience and tone. Musicians contribute to numerous groups, projects or collectives. They may spend their time rehearsing and composing, performing and touring, and sometimes holding other jobs – everything from teaching to working as movers to playing commercial music. The lifestyle does not guarantee financial stability, but the music pushes the artists.

In recent history, the free jazz world has experienced visible change, forcing musicians, fans and critics to grapple with questions about its uncertain future. Shifts in consumer listening habits, the recording industry, generational and cultural attitudes, performance opportunities and economic struggles are among the factors driving these changes. Chicago musicians maintain and add to its presence through their work, hoping to leave individual marks on the music and, the scene in a city instrumental in its growth. Others have left the scene, while younger artists break into it for the first time. They all face these developments, and respond to them differently.

If free jazz were to disappear, a valuable history would be lost. The city’s foundation holds the music’s origins. The process of creation distinguishes the genre. It has defined a subculture important on a global scale and locally distinctive. It finds resurgence in city staples like the annual Chicago Jazz Festival. It might be under the radar for some, but it means a lot to others.

Societal changes occur continually, but how this subculture will evolve remains uncertain, and poses the question: Can it be saved?

* * *

Since jazz came to the South Side following the Great Migration in the early 20th century, Chicago has been arguably one of the cities most significant to the history of mainstream jazz. Free jazz followed in the 1950s and ‘60s. Not only did great musicians contribute through their careers, but younger musicians have also built on what those before them left behind.

Performance is particularly important to creating improvised music, because opportunities to play facilitate the development of artistic ideas and aesthetics, says saxophonist and composer Ken Vandermark.

Since moving to Chicago in 1989, Vandermark, a vital player in the movement to preserve and proliferate jazz, has worked within the changing landscape. When he entered the scene, other than a few venues like the Velvet Lounge on the South Side and HotHouse in Wicker Park, there were not as many places or opportunities to play as there are now.

“To get a concert once a month was a big deal,” Vandermark says. “Every chance you had to play, you didn’t really know if you were going to get another one any time soon. That environment was altered by a bunch of things that were outside of individuals’ control, but sort of coalesced at the same time.”

Several substantial changes transformed this world in Chicago in the early 1990s, Vandermark says. A group of people – performers, composers, writers, broadcasters and those running record labels – entered the scene at the same time, working in different capacities but similarly invested in experimental music. “It was all a specific generation, basically, that transformed the situation,” Vandermark says.

At the same time, clubs detached from this genre, like Lounge Ax and Empty Bottle, began booking these musicians and programming shows linked to the improvised scene. This led to collaborations between improvisers and underground rock musicians, and uniting audiences from the formerly separate genres.

Music scenes blending and the rebirth of indie rock played a large role in molding experimental music in Chicago, says cornetist Josh Berman. Though the artists were invested in different areas of the music world, they had similar interests, and Vandermark, he says, was among those who helped create a structure for subsequent cohorts that was “kind of something to aspire to.”

“I think what ended up happening was through a lot of exploration, or at least the way I see it, there were a lot of rock guys who wanted to be jazz musicians, and wanted to be free jazz musicians in some ways, too,” Berman says. “A lot of the people I came up with came into the scene through that door.”

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an Illinois-chartered non-profit organization, has been a dominant force in supporting these artists in composing and preserving creative music, since its inception in 1965. With its 50th anniversary approaching, the AACM continues to shape free jazz in Chicago.

Berman attributes a large part of this music’s foundation to the AACM’s artistically driven underground movement.

“It’s not that they actually told us what to do,” Berman says. “It’s not even that they say what it is. It’s that by implication, that they lived, that it happened, that’s what made it possible, and that’s how we still act.”

* * *

After these changes solidified in the ‘90s, musicians continued to move to Chicago in the hopes of fulfilling their artistic goals within experimental music, armed with diverse experience, ranging from classical and orchestral training to jazz and rock band backgrounds. 

“It was an interesting moment to move here,” says reedist Keefe Jackson, who entered the scene in 2001. “There were a lot of people around my age that were just starting to do things here. I feel like for us, it was really easy just to immediately meet a bunch of people and start playing, whereas some of the younger people – really great musicians, and really ambitious people – maybe didn’t quite get that same sort of boost in the beginning.”

This trend of musicians breaking into the scene at the same time was unique. Jackson says he and his counterparts were fortunate when they were not met with great difficulty in becoming involved and accepted.

“The interesting thing is, I didn’t really know anybody here,” Jackson says. “I guess I had a plan, but I didn’t have a really clear picture of the current scene.”

Jackson, originally from Fayetteville, Ark., says he made the move with an open mind, and soon integrated himself into the subculture. Within a year, Anton Hatwich visited Chicago and got a taste of the same scene, but hadn’t previously considered he might fit in. He would look up where other musicians were performing, attended their gigs and began forming connections.

“I started meeting all kinds of great people,” Hatwich says. “I just kinda fell in with this crowd and started playing with them, and started playing gigs in town, and we just jelled really well.”

As these musicians and others expanded their networks, they also established themselves by conceiving novel projects. Chances to perform made this possible. In today’s scene, the performance venues are different. Between the ‘90s surge and now, some major spots closed, and others booked improvised music less frequently. The music needed new homes. Musicians recognized this gap and promoted the resurgence of performance space, Vandermark says.

Chicago’s free jazz scene has found life at venues created to cultivate the form, such as Elastic, Hungry Brain and the Hideout, as well as through collectives like Umbrella Music. The Elastic Arts Foundation was initially conceived so musicians could have a place to express themselves artistically, says Sam Lewis, cofounder and director.

“We operate as one of the hubs for the improvised scene, and have been for several years,” Lewis says. “It’s now a better landscape than it’s ever been. Just the whole landscape of jazz, in Chicago, has drastically changed over the years.”

When people like Lewis realized the need for these venues, free jazz gained momentum and performance opportunities grew, supporting consistent series. These places now feature programming nearly every night of the week.

“That kind of explosion, that was the leverage to push things into a tipping point where the activity could move to a weekly basis,” Vandermark says. “That energy has been sustained by the musicians devoted to the music for their own personal reasons.”

Constellation, a recent addition to the scene, was also instituted by a Chicago-based musician, drummer Mike Reed. It is “the biggest development, and perhaps the most significant” in recent history, Vandermark says. As the first site in years specifically dedicated to this non-commercially based music, it could affect the cooperative other venues have historically upheld in supporting each other.

“The impact it’s going to have on the way people think about music in this city, both as the musicians and the audience, will be interesting,” Vandermark says. “Now you’ve got an institutional place that’s competing with all of those other series. If so much is centered in one location, and the significance of one location supersedes the cooperative that’s existed for almost two decades, does that change the dynamic in a way that could be destructive, even though the intention is very positive? Since I’ve been here, that hasn’t existed in the way that it does now, and I don’t know how it’s going to change things.”

* * * 

Like other parts of the music industry, the improvised jazz world faces changes that affect the artists’ approaches to their daily work. They must form collaborations, book gigs, produce records and tour. They must find new ways to connect with their audiences. They must retain their presences in the scene, through self-promotion, marketing, social media and online accessibility. 

In addition to affecting the musicians’ approaches to music, the Internet has also altered the way people consume music. It has replaced records and albums with the immediacy and availability of downloads and streaming.

“The music business was built on records, physical record sales,” Hatwich says, “Those revenue streams have really disappeared or changed or shifted. Industry wide, people can understand that the world wants music, loves music, is consuming music at a rate like never before, is connected with music and music-making at a rate like never before. [But] nobody’s figured out how to monetize what’s happened to the way that people consume music.”

The web, however, has also enabled audiences to interact with music across the world, to a degree previously unfathomable.

“I think there’s more of an audience now, because it’s easier to access,” Jackson says. “I think it’s cool that we can have fans in these isolated places. They’re more involved than they used to be, even if they can’t actually come.”

Modern programs, at conservatories and universities, must prepare students for careers as musicians with these factors in mind, to help them maximize the potential of these technological and societal advances.

“Music, like all art, is a profoundly meaningful element of human existence, but meaning is a matter of communication,” says Linda Berna, associate dean and director at The Music Conservatory in Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. “The need for musicians of all genres to reach out and connect with their communities as part of any musician experience is now paramount in our consciousness. Keeping students’ minds open as to how they will present and market their music is important, as is broadening their understanding of what kind of work students have to do to create their own professional lives.”

Berna says current and future generations of musicians will learn to use new media, and that music genres will “refresh and expand themselves by cross-pollination with other styles,” a perpetual cycle in music. 

Because of the changing music atmosphere, artists must adapt and “take ownership” of their work, says Mwata Bowden, a musician associated with the AACM and director of jazz ensembles at the University of Chicago.

“Creative music has been alive and well,” Bowden says. “Of course it’s always a struggle when you’re deciding to take some alternative directions in your art form.”

More commonly are musicians in Chicago’s jazz scene creating their own labels, as one effort to take initiative on the business side of the music, according to Lewis.

“A lot more of the benefit can come to the artists directly, if they are able to take on more of the work of marketing, distributing, getting the word out about their music,” Lewis says. “That seems to be a model that is kind of gaining some traction. It seems like a lot of artists are going the route of creating their own labels.”

* * *

Musicians have different responsibilities from those who preceded them decades ago, but they also pursue music in other ways. Some people who might have exclusively worked on the business side of the music industry 30 or 40 years ago are now working musicians, Jackson says.

“People of our generation, just in general, are doing more what they want to be doing,” Jackson says.” There [are] a lot more fulfilled childhood dreams now than there used to be.”

Other people have moved away from free jazz for similar reasons. For Marc Riordan, 31, despite being a gifted, rising jazz drummer, the reality was he felt disconnected. Chicago’s DIY – “Do It Yourself” – rock scene inspired him more.

“I think I started to feel that I didn’t necessarily identify super strongly as a jazz musician,” Riordan says. “It didn’t feel like who I was. At the same time, I had this need for my art practice to be connected socially to a larger community, where I felt like it was being heard, and it had more of a place that was defined by large numbers of people who are hearing it, rather than this sort of weird area of self definition that I feel like jazz can fall into.”

Riordan had come to Chicago in 2005 after graduating from the New England Conservatory in Boston. He arrived “right at the time when everything was collapsing,” he says. “I think that there’s no way that the economy and the industry changing has not affected everything that music touches.”

Still, new artists attempt to ease into this world every year. These younger musicians can take gigs for granted, not understanding the work required to keep the scene afloat because they never experienced a scarcity of performance opportunities, Vandermark says.

“I think there’s a complacency among certain musicians in town who have just come to expect that all these things are going to exist for them,” Vandermark says. “I don’t see the same kind of drive and motivation and intensity going on with what they’re trying to do, and that attitude totally translates to the audience. The audiences aren’t going to want to be there for that – they’re going to want to be in a room where something special is happening.”

These performances are critical to the future of improvised music. The music itself, Vandermark says, constitutes the essential key to building and cultivating these audiences. 

“The more opportunities to play, the more opportunities there are to develop the process, which is why the musicians are so devoted to sustaining these opportunities,” Vandermark says. “Even though there’s not lots of money involved, there’s lots of creative potential involved. As long as people are focused on that, I think it’s sustainable.”

* * *

In the late May morning at Township, Anton Hatwich and Jeff Kimmel are cool and comfortable. Hatwich bends his knees, leans down, and wraps his arms around the center of the bass, swaying to the rhythmic riffs. He plucks the strings with force, sliding his hands up and down the fingerboard. Kimmel taps his left foot, shifting weight between legs, with his back against the wall. His eyebrows dance to the velvety notes humming from his horn.

Kimmel manipulates the clarinet, hopping between high and low notes, fast and slow moments, sending scales into a faded resonance. Hatwich plays a syncopated staccato that highlights the clarinet’s contrasting elegance. The duet journeys through the piece in unison. 

They finish the tune. People keep talking to each other, but nobody claps. One woman nods and smiles, to which Hatwich mouths “thank you.” The musicians take sips of coffee. Kimmel wets his lips. Hatwich stretches his fingers around the neck of his bass. They each take deep breaths, smiling. Together, they resume.

Around them, the staff hustle from the kitchen, delivering coffee refills and checks to the customers. What had been treated like background music now draws people from the front of the restaurant into the back, filling the stuffy air with an elegant fusion of strings and reed. 

The music absorbs their attention, and they want to listen. The duo remains unfazed.

Customers finish their French toast and breakfast burritos before leaving. Hatwich and Kimmel keep playing. Today, they won over the crowd.

Is free jazz the last best hope for survival? Changes will inevitably continue, but many musicians believe the music can be saved. They're adapting to the production and consumption realities of today's industry, making undeniable attempts to revive the Chicago free jazz community. But without a passionate audience, this music will fade into the background.