In Conversation with Phil Freeman

An interview with the author of New York Is Now!: The New Wave of Free Jazz

Molly Sheridan: This was the first full-length book that you worked on. Why don’t we start by talking a little bit about how that went for you…

Phil Freeman: It went surprisingly easily because of the way the book was broken down into sections. My background is in magazine journalism, so I was comfortable working in a five to ten page format and I was able to expand that into each chapter. It was actually more helpful to do that. When I was writing features on these guys, I was always kind of bummed out that there was material that I wanted to include that I didn’t have space for. So this way I had the space. I could include as much or as little as I felt was important. The actual writing of the book for me was a welcome thing. The actual logistics of writing it were kind of a pain in the butt though.

Molly Sheridan: How do you mean?

Phil Freeman: I was on a very, very tight deadline and so for the majority of it I wrote a chapter a week. I would interview someone–and I was of course familiar with the music already–and I would just pound out the copy and then my editor and I would go over it. And it went very quickly which is probably why some parts of it read like a tirade. They are, sort of.

Molly Sheridan: Yeah, you got pretty blunt about things. Have you taken any flack for that since the book has been out?

Phil Freeman: Yeah, of course. The jazz world has its protectorates, you know, and there are certain people you’re never supposed to say bad things about, and there are certain things that are just sacred truisms. Some of them I think needed not necessarily debunking, because they’re certainly at least partly accurate, but maybe people aren’t quite as untouchable or infallible as their press agents would have you believe. And so it’s important to occasionally take a step back and look at the actual records and say, well, what is this really?

Molly Sheridan: Do you regret it at all, any of the things that you wrote?

Phil Freeman: I don’t regret anything that I said. I do think that I probably should have expanded on a few things just because I said some things and didn’t say other things. I probably came across harder on, for example, Cecil Taylor than I would have liked to, because I really think he’s an incredible musician. In the chapter on Matthew Shipp, I was attempting to emphasize the differences between the two of them and I think I probably did that a little too much at Cecil’s expense which doesn’t make any of what I said inaccurate but I probably should have expanded on it further. But you know, what can you do? Cecil doesn’t need me to salvage his reputation.

Molly Sheridan: When you were writing this book, who were you thinking of as the reader?

Phil Freeman: The ideal reader is somebody very similar to myself–an intelligent person who gets off on involving music, someone who doesn’t listen to music passively. For me that has involved listening to not only avant-garde jazz but also extreme heavy metal and also– I know your magazine is very classically oriented–I listen to a fair amount of 20th century classical. Elliott Carter and Morton Feldman are probably my favorite composers. So someone who listens to music that doesn’t involve passive reception. That’s the ideal audience–someone who doesn’t necessarily know much about this music but wants to. It is really an introductory guide.

Molly Sheridan: Is there anyone who should not read this book?

Phil Freeman: Yeah, people who are not really looking to expand themselves shouldn’t waste their time. People who come to music criticism to have their prejudices reinforced shouldn’t waste their time because obviously a book that talks about jazz from a heavy metal perspective is not for them.

Molly Sheridan: You are taking on a lot of things in the jazz establishment. How would you answer someone who maybe is irritated by something you wrote, asks who are you to speak so harshly about this?

Phil Freeman: I think it’s the fact that I’m a new guy. I’m an outsider. That permits me to speak. The expression I guess is can’t see the forest for the trees–you know the jazz establishment is too close to what they’re covering and they’re too careerist. And it’s an understandable posture. I mean you can’t be a magazine publisher and be a discerning critic because you’ve got a magazine to put out every month and it’s got to have a hundred pages of material every month. I recognize that. So the trick is to employ a whole bunch of discerning critics, each of whom will come to you with one thing, but instead they sort of lay back and just cover the usual suspects every month because it’s easy. My argument is that I’m in a better position to speak because I’m staying on the outside. I mean there are a couple of jazz magazine editors who won’t return my phone calls anymore, but there are other jazz magazines that I wouldn’t want to write for. And I don’t listen to enough mainstream jazz to really comment that much. It’s not my territory, and it’s not my territory as a freelancer. I cover the avant-garde and I cover metal. Those are my two things. I write for a couple rock magazines and I write for one jazz magazine. I write for Jazziz fairly regularly. I did one piece for Down Beat and then the book came out and [the editor] sent me this raging email that basically said, “You’ve burned this bridge, buddy.”

I’m pretty comfortable with my position in the jazz world. What happened was the book came out, there was a whole bunch of “Who is this punk kid to tell us anything,” and then a few months later the book engendered enough debate that now I’m viewed as someone that the other jazz critics have to take seriously, whether they agree with me or not, because my opinions are public. So now I see some of the people that I have violently disagreed with at public events and they’re polite to me because in the jazz world I’m a celebrity writer, or on a super, super minor level I’m a writer of some prominence. Just by virtue of the amount of attention that was paid to the book I have to be recognized. They can’t just shrug me off. So there’s a certain amount of automatic reflective politeness that comes into play.

Molly Sheridan: Any plans to write another one?

Phil Freeman: Yeah, my next book is going to be about metal, but it’s a wide-ranging book. It’s not going to be an analysis of specific musicians the way this one was. The second book is going to be sort of an analysis of some of the larger philosophical, social, and political issues surrounding metal. Because it’s a very class-based music, basically lower class whites in America and Latinos. There’s also a substantial Latino audience for heavy metal.

Molly Sheridan: Do you think that it will be harder to write this one, then, since you are a lot closer to the people involved in the industry?

Phil Freeman: No, I’ve kept my distance as a rock critic, too. That’s one of the good things. I deal with a lot of publicists for metal bands and things like that, but none of them actually know what I look like because I deal with them all on the phone and by email. Even when I show up where their bands are playing they don’t know if I’m really there or not. No one is going to get up in my face at a club or anything.

Molly Sheridan: Right. You have to love print journalism. To finish things up then, there’s an extensive recommended listening list at the back of the book. So, playing the desert island game, if you had to pick five for someone who comes across the book with very little knowledge and says, wow, I want to hear some of this…

Phil Freeman: If I had to pick, say, a half dozen records that people should take away from the book:

Those are the records that are really sort of life changing.

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Phil Freeman has been a freelance music critic since 1995, writing for newspapers and magazines such as the Aquarian Weekly, Alternative Press, Magnet, Jazziz, Don Beat, Juggernaut, and Metal Hammer. He is passionate about avant-garde jazz, but loves hardcore and death-metal as well, and writes about all of them with equal understanding and affection. His profiles of David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp in Juggernaut magazine were among the first articles to bridge the gap between free jazz and extreme metal communities. This is his first book.