A lovely scene: on the fringes of a jazz festival at Woodstock sometime in the early Eighties, Anthony Braxton tests whether his colleagues can recognise a melody. Just for fun he bets them a small sum of money.  They are an illustrious group; Lee Konitz, Chick Corea, Karl Berger and Ed Blackwell are gathered around him – each of them already stars of the jazz world. Braxton is casually holding his young son in his arm when he starts singing. Of course he doesn’t sing the theme, but starts with the entire improvisation. His colleagues listen, both amused and impressed: “This cat sings my solo better than my playing”, says Konitz, perhaps a little sceptically and already mildly annoyed, eventually shouting: “You just made this up!” But he hadn’t: Braxton had just sung a scat version of the solo to ‘The Song Is You’, the standard from a Thirties musical that over the decades has become the trademark of Konitz’s coolly distanced and subtly alert style.

Braxton won the bet, collected the pennies with a big grin and then with perfect dramaturgy we cut to see Braxton on stage playing and – no, not succeeding or even eclipsing Konitz, but continuing to carry his torch. When Braxton plays standards, ‘The Song Is You’ is part of his repertoire.

Within this documentary film about the festival the scene emphasises just how special the spirit in Woodstock was at that time.  This was the real Woodstock: a little place in upstate New York that had nothing to do with the famous and infamous “three days of love and peace” but a great deal to do with the German-born vibraphone player Karl Berger, who has worked here on a global language of improvisation since 1973. This language no longer necessarily has to be “free” now but also features the dextrous use of non-European, non-Western musical traditions. The jazz festivals in Woodstock were in keeping with this spirit: there was no pressure to improvise, no flood of images, and none of the barren acts of avant-garde self-assertion that even Berger had taken part in in the 60s.  Back then – in 1964 – the first big meeting of free improvisers was bravely heralded as the “October revolution of jazz” and when their European colleagues organised an October revolution of their own they  documented their uprising in an album called ‘European Echoes’ (1969 – the first EP on the soon legendary label Free Music Production): one vast swelling, shouting, all-crushing roar.

Each of these moments – New York in 1964, the Creative Music Studio, Free Music Production – can be interpreted as utopian constellations: coming together in a free collective, demolishing conventional forms and creating new ones from a stream of energy that is as untamed as it is amorphous, establishing independent structures for production and distribution, and ultimately resolving their anger and storm of images into a new global language of improvisation. This history of jazz utopias is well known and its parallels with the global revolts of the 60s, with the social movements, communes and autonomous projects of the 70s leading up to the counter culture and squatters are evident. The naivety that characterised this music or rather these artistic attitudes for all their radicality – one retrospective volume of conversations with Peter Brötzmann by the journalist Gérard Rouy from 2014 is called ‘We thought we could change the world’ – is now passé. Creativity – once the ultimate key word for the free, liberated jazz of the 60s (the Chicago school from which Braxton also originates was called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) – came under greater critical scrutiny some time ago. Disruptive, erratic actions, autonomous structures, thinking in networks, operating in ad hoc collectives, a globally accessible code for co-ordinating highly complex working and communication processes: these are now buzz words from contemporary management speak – and as such they are already the object of satire and mockery.  It is tempting to broaden out criticism of these current post-liberal strategies to include the movements of the 60s, 70s and 80s and to see in them (unwilling) agents of this accelerated process of global exploitation: the utopias of jazz that manifested themselves in scenes and collectives spanning 30 or 40 years and that continue to articulate themselves now through the work of Braxton or Brötzmann, for example, would not then have sufficient power to differentiate themselves from the erroneous “anything goes” philosophy of so-called platform or network capitalism.

However, this impulse to project the present triumph of exploitative machinery onto the past and to declare it the prelude to our current misery is a cynical one. The incident in Woodstock when Braxton sang his colleagues a Konitz solo tells a different story – and not the prelude to anything. The art that was newly discovered in the 60s of improvising a solo, of developing a melody and then breaking it, transposing it into a new harmonic state is one that Braxton has absorbed in his blood. Of course it’s a trick he’s playing and the others know that – but it’s not just that. Improvisation is a physical experience. It sets free a different kind of oscillation: a different kind of hearing and a different way of entering into contact with each other. To put it in sober terms: it is not work, but play, and it finds its limits not in the idea that there has to be more money in the till at the end of the day than at the beginning – the profit motive – but solely in expanding and limiting the memory of the body.

Demolishing forms, coming together in a collective and publishing one’s own recordings still does not provide a guaranteed formula for resistance. Anything can be exploited – this is as banal as it is shocking. Bodily experience goes deeper. The utopian aspect of jazz consists of finding a different thinking through this different hearing – made possible by improvisation in its constrained lack of constraints – and achieving experiences of non-conformism.  The utopian aspect of jazz is neither confined to the purely social, to collectivity and autonomy, nor to the acoustic (dissonance as escape from the traditional system), it is an expression of its fusion.  Not an aloof, soulful act only accessible to the initiated but rather its opposite: the material nature of sound that can assert itself in the face of all (commercial) corruption is nothing other than delight in playing, trying things out and free-flowing exchange.  It sounds very simple but it is evidently difficult to master.

The challenge that free improvisation, free jazz, fire music, creative music, post-serialism, new wave of jazz – or whatever you want to call it – represented 50 or 60 years ago for all established forms (not only) of jazz and avant-garde music, retains its fascination to this day. In part because it is unrepeatable. It is a challenge that released a great deal of wilfulness in its slipstream, countless free music projects that still today cannot be entirely overlooked. These tell a story that can be continued into the present and which definitely contains accounts of failure, of musical biographies that have been discontinued. Primarily, however, it is not cynical. A cynic knows that it soon becomes ridiculous if you build yourself up in front of others and then scat a melody from a classic musical. The cynic is someone who knows the score, who knows better than others, who surveys his musical material as swiftly as a thief his booty. Braxton loves his music and so do his colleagues – and when the people in the audience listen they can hear that.

Jazzfest Berlin 2019 is taking place from 31 October to 3 November at Haus der Berliner Festspiele and other venues.