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I’m a semi-regular listener to NYC radio station WKCR’s evening jazz show, but normally tune out soon as soon as it’s over. Fortunately, several weeks ago I stayed on just long enough to catch the announcement of the interview the following arts program was doing and luckily caught Gabe Ibagon’s interview with Tom Surgal, director of Fire Music!, an in-progress documentary on the free jazz movement that successfully finished a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough funds to finish production.

Fire Music! would definitely fill a much needed gap in the documentary history of jazz. I’ve realized the gap while searching for a documentary to show students in a course on the Black Arts Movement that I teach. There are several good documentaries on individual people — Coltrane and Sun Ra especially — but no nice overview of Free Jazz itself that I’ve found. The fantastic Imagine the Sound is finally available again thanks to video on demand. While it focuses on Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Archie Shepp, and Bill Dixon, it doesn’t cover the entire sweep of the style or give much in the way of historical overview. To be clear, these aren’t shortcomings of the film itself: I’m just looking for something that it doesn’t set out to do.

Instead, I’ve somewhat reluctantly used Episode 10 of Ken Burns’ Jazz “A Masterpiece by Midnight” — which takes viewers on whirlwind tour through the 1960s and 70s. I won’t rehash the well-discussed criticisms here, but KBJ‘s hardest hit to Free Jazz arguably isn’t attacking it: it’s the scant coverage and bare acknowledgement of the form’s existence. That would be understandable in a shorter series, but given KBJ‘s expansive run time, the decision to shoehorn nearly three decades into the last two hour segment is unconscionable. Ironically, this major shortcoming works well for the classroom, since it results in a compact — if cursory — overview of the main trends and hits some of the key names.

Surgal’s effort looks to right many of those wrongs and boasts that it will be “the definitive history of the Free Jazz Revolution”. That’s actually a tall order, given the form’s lifespan, continued growth, the complexity of the background surrounding its rise, and the variety of key players involved. Surgal, not surprisingly, is keenly aware of the gap, pointing out the obvious on Fire Music‘s Kickstarter page: “Ken Burns’ otherwise exhaustive documentary Jazz, surprisingly, breezes over the subject as if it were an afterthought. FIRE MUSIC is intended to be that missing link that will set the story straight.”

The film may match its bravado and Surgal looks to be the right person to do it, as he has feet in both the film and music worlds. Fire Music already has the backing of Submarine Entertainment, which has a good track record of shepherding music documentaries through production and has Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Wilco’s Nils Cline as Executive Producers. Things look good.

Scrolling through Fire Music‘s online historical archives alone is an education in the history of the form, with album covers, artist photos, and flyers from key parts in the history of Free Jazz and even more info on their Kickstarter page.

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of Free Jazz on Suga’ in My Bowl and — throwing journalistic objectivity out the window — we’re rooting for this film to make a big statement and fill a big gap in the visual documentation of jazz. The stated goal is completion by June 2016 and submission to some of the major North American film festivals. We’ll be keeping a close eye on it and hope to talk to Surgal later on in the process, but for now, we’ll point you toward the 10 minute rough cut trailer on Vimeo.

Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.

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