It has been my experience that people who identify themselves as free improvisers don’t necessarily feel the need to identify and categorize the music specifically as jazz. In fact, many distance themselves from the label entirely. My question is, what does it do to categorize this music as jazz? Perhaps it changes people’s opinions about it (positively and negatively), or maybe to label it “not jazz” serves to shore up the boundaries of what jazz is by some people’s measures. I think both are true, but believe that by categorizing free improvisation as jazz it runs the risk of being misunderstood. For example, free improvisation cannot necessarily be evaluated by many of the same criteria that might be appropriate for bebop or swing styles, e.g., swing feel, playing the changes, and motivic development to name a few. Instead, assessment for free improvisation may rely more on factors such as how well performers inter-relate, how do performers move from section to section, and how effectively do performers of free improvisation create textures. Development of a player’s technical language, that is, his or her personal vocabulary of contemporary sounds, is also a possible area for evaluation. Also, if free improvisation is labeled as jazz the label itself may become a subtle barrier for musicians who might improvise but who do not play jazz or have jazz backgrounds. Why should free improvisation be so exclusive? This, I feel, is one of the basic problems of teaching improvised music in most colleges and universities (and certainly in students in high school and even younger): the tacet assumption that improvisation equals jazz, and if you don’t play a “jazz” instrument, i.e., a standard big band instrument, you are excluded from participating not only in jazz traditions, but improvisation entirely! I've seen this happen with many of my high school aged flute students.
In light of all of these things, I think it would be helpful for all of us, performers, educators, and listeners alike, to broaden our listening and involvement in improvised music. To help in this, there are organizations that promote improvised music such as ISIM and the Creative Music Guild. I am most familiar with them, but I'm certain there are many others across the globe. It's important to remember that there exists a vast network of performers from all backgrounds who participate in improvised music making. These artists may not be well-known celebrities, but many of them have been slogging it out for years, perfecting their craft, and bringing amazing sounds to the world. Seek them out, they are well worth listening to!