Improvising Complexity: The Philosophy of Jazz The Nature of Improvisation in Jazz Music
The Nature & Methods of Improvisation • The Etymology of “Improvisation” • Improvisation versus Composition • IIIa. Is All Music Making Improvisational? • IIIb. Differences Between Improvisation • & Composition • IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluation Standards • Differ for Improvisation and • Composition? Outline of “The Nature of Improvisation in Jazz Music”
The Myths of Improvisation • IVa. The Myths of Improvisation • IVb. Refutation of the Myths • Is Improvisation Essential to Jazz? • The Possibility of Mistakes in Improvisations • VIa. Mistakes are Impossible in a Jazz Improvisation • VIb. Etymology of the word “mistake” • VIc.The Definition of Mistake • VId. Mistakes Are Possible in a Jazz • Improvisation Outline of “The Nature of Improvisation in Jazz Music”
Outline of “The Nature of Improvisation in Jazz Music” • Factors in Good Jazz Improvisations • VIIa. Positive Evaluations of Good Improvisations • VIIb. Best Practices for Improvising: • the Flow State You have been listening to bassist Charnett Moffitt’s “The Art of Improvisation”
I. The Nature and Methods of Improvisation IA. The Definition of Improvisation • Jazzimprovisationtypically is the process of spontaneously creating fresh melodies over the continuously repeating cycle of chord changes in a song. • An effective and standard improvisation typically bases itself off of the established musical systems of a pre-composed tune, but introduces new elements thereby producing thematically appropriate musical variety.
I. The Nature and Methods of Improvisation IA. The Definition of Improvisation • While often related to the melody, improvisations can also deviate from it and musicians may improvise on modes, chord or rhythm changes, or may even play totally freely. • King Palmer in his book, The Piano (London: NTC Publishing Group, 1975) defines improvisation “as music which is created as it is performed, without previous preparation or detailed notation.” (p. 109)
I. The Nature and Methods of Improvisation IA. The Definition of Improvisation • One must be careful here not to place too much weight upon the notion of “without previous preparation.” An improvisingjazz musician has obviously done a lot of studying and practicing of playing music and this certainly can count as preparations for improvising. • Hence, what Palmer means is that the improvised solo has been produced spontaneously, but it need not have been produced without any preparation concerning the performance of the solo at all.
I. The Nature and Methods of Improvisation IA.The Definition of Improvisation • The dictionary gives as a synonym for “spontaneous” that of “unpremeditated.” To produce music spontaneously means not to repeat precisely during one’s improvised solo a previously decided section of music. The decisions as to what to play must be made concurrently to the playing for it to count as a legitimate improvisation.
I. The Nature and Methods of Improvisation • Playing spontaneously does not require that what one plays has never been played by the performer before or that it has not been practiced. • All that is required for the improvisation to count as legitimate is that the decisions as to what to play now are made and committed to at the moment of the musical performance and have not been previously decided upon.
I. The Nature and Methods of Improvisation • Mark C. Gridley(and his co-authors, Robert Maxham and Robert Hoff) agree with the assessment that improvisers are permitted to repeat previously used patterns during an improvisation because “it would be unfair to expect that jazz musicians create not only fresh “paragraphs” and “sentences,” but even the “phrases” and “words” they use.” They conclude that “the frequent recurrence of standard patterns should not by itself DISQUALIFY a passage as [an] improvisation” . . . and “an improvisation CAN be constructed from pre-existing elements, only IF these elements are REORGANIZED, and they are reorganized at the very moment they are performed.”(“Three Approaches to Defining Jazz,” Oxford University Press, 1989)
I. The Nature and Methods of Improvisation • Paul F. Berliner notes that not only are improviserspermitted to repeat previously used musical elements, but that they are expected to use them. • “There is no objection to musicians borrowing discrete patterns or phrase fragments from other improvisers, however; indeed, it is expected. Many students begin acquiring an expansive collection of improvisational building blocks by extracting those shapes they perceive as discrete components from the larger solos they have already mastered and practicing them as independent figures. They acquire others selectively by studying numerous performances of their idols. For some musicians, this is the entire focus of their early learning programs.”(Thinking in Jazz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 101)
I. The Nature and Methods of Improvisation IB. Three methods of jazzimprovisation are melodic, harmonic, and motivic. • A melodic improvisationcan be produced by using alternate notes and new syncopations (different emphases on the off beat) from the original melody so a new melody gets created. • A harmonic improvisationworks by substituting a new melody over the established chord changes and alternate tonal centers. • Changing aspects of the original arrangement of a tune through embellishments of the original melody or through introducing and then developing a new theme produces a motivic improvisation, as Sonny Rollins, the saxophone player, often performs.
I. The Nature & Methods of Improvisation: Melodic • Marc Sabatella, in his A Jazz Improvisation Primer, stresses the importance during melodic improvisations and musical development of maintaining a sense of continuity of the musical lines used during the improvisation. • The contour or shape of the solo often will be modeled on that of a story. • The structure of a story can start simply (introduction), then “build through a series of smaller peaks to a climax” and often finishes with a coda, which is an independent passage at the end of a composition used to provide a satisfactory close. • The coda can serve as an extension and/or a re-elaboration of preceding themes or motifs heard during the main melody.
I. The Nature & Methods of Improvisation: Common Forms • There are two common forms found in much jazz music: the blues form and the AABA song form. • The blues form typically has twelve bars of music based on three four bar phrases. In its original form, the second phrase repeats the first phrase while the third phrases supplies an answer or response to the first two. It is AAB in form.
I. The Nature & Methods of Improvisation: Common Forms • Because of the simplicity of the basic blues form it is rarely strictly followed in modern jazz playing. • The basic blues form uses only three chords: The I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord. • Simple blues consisted of three vocal phrases (AAB) and eight musical measures (each four pulses or beats long). Musical measures varied between eight, twelve, and sixteen, but twelve measures became the standard.
I. The Nature & Methods of Improvisation: Common Forms • A standardized blues form consists of twelve measures with the harmonic progression of I, I, I, I7, IV, IV, I, I, V7, V7, I. I. Each roman numeral indicates a chord built on a specific tone in the scale to be played for one measure. • One characteristic found in the blues are blue tonalities, notes not found on any one key of the piano. To produce a bluetonality on a piano requires hitting two notes simultaneously. For example, E-flat (black key to the left of E) and E-natural or B-flat and B-natural. • Marc Sabatellaprovides a general description with specific examples relating to the playing of an F-blues in A Jazz Improvisation Primer.
II. Etymology of “improvisation” • The etymology of the word “improvisation” is revealing as to the nature and purpose of a jazzimprovisation. • The word “improvisation” is compounded of two Latin roots: “in” meaning “not” and “provisus” meaning “foreseen” so an improvisation is something that is unforeseen.
II. Etymology of “improvisation” • The word “improvisation” also relates to cognates in both French (“improviser” meaning “compose or say extemporaneously” from 1786) and from Italian (“improvvisare” meaning “unprepared”). • The Latin word “provisus” besides meaning “foreseen” can also mean “provided” so an improvisation is something that is not provided beforehand. • This reading is consistent with the contemporary meaning of a jazzimprovisation being a spontaneous (not previously thought out) musical composition.
III. Improvisation versus Composition IIIa. Is All Music Making Improvisational? • If a musical passage has been previously prepared, then it is not truly an improvisation. By its very nature a jazzimprovisation is a spontaneous creative act of music making. • These points help to answer and address the question of whether all music making is improvisational. This claim has been made by Bruce Ellis Benson in his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music, (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
IIIa. Is All Music Making Improvisational? • In his book, Benson challenges the binary schema of “composing” versus “performing” music and argues that “this distinction does not describe very well what musicians actually do.” (p. 4) • Benson requires that “all music making is fundamentallyimprovisational” (his italics). This thesis is partially correct, but more wrong than right. • While it is true that no musical score CAN precisely dictate in every possible respect what a performer of that music must do to produce the music from that score, it does not follow that all music making is improvisational in the sense used by jazz musicians.
IIIa. Is All Music Making Improvisational? • In his article “On Musical Improvisation, Philip Alpersonexplains that “jazz musicians use the term ‘improvisation’ to refer specifically to the improvised choruses rather than to the whole musical work from first note(s) to last,” contrary to Benson’s view that all music is improvised. ” (in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 43, No. 1, Autumn, 1984, fn. 28, p. 29) • What Benson seems not fully to appreciate is the need to make a distinction between an interpretation of a pre-composed score that contains improvisational aspects, such as how much vibrato to use when playing a note, versus the spontaneous composing of new music not previously composed, an improvisation
IIIa. Is All Music Making Improvisational? • Many musical performers are incapable of improvising in the jazz sense as has been frequently discovered amongst classical musicians. • A classical musician’s skill sets do not normally include improvisational skills since they are not expected to be able to make spontaneous compositions. • The classical musician must be technically proficient at satisfactorily reproducing a musical composition to the conductor’s liking. If anything, a conductor would disallow any classical musician from improvising since then he or she would not be playing the music as intended by the composer.
IIIa. Is All Music Making Improvisational? • Steve Lacy points out one of the flaws in equating composition with improvisation when he remarks: • “In fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.” • A non-improvised composition can be created piecemeal, over extended periods of time, revised with parts rejected and never performed. This is impossible for an impromptu jazz improvisation because, unlike compositions, they cannot be altered after their initial establishment. Editing is impossible—an improvised musical phrase cannot be altered, deleted, or taken back. It is what it is and eternally remains as such.
IIIa. Is All Music Making Improvisational? • Even this last point is not entirely true. An improvising musician who notices a mistake or a flaw while performing can use various techniques to either cover the flaw or mistake or make it seem like it is not one. • For example, when Charlie “Bird” Parker and Miles Davis were having a discussion as to whether one can play ANY note during an improvisation, Miles claimed that one could not play a D sharp if one was playing a blues. Later, during a solo by Lester Young that Parker and Davis were observing, Young played this inappropriate note. After Bird suggested to Miles that Miles’s position had been refuted because Young had played the impossible note, Miles replied that he still had had to bend or smear it to remain in the context of a blues performance.
IIIa. Is All Music Making Improvisational? • Another time when saxophonist David Sanford said to Miles that he was embarrassed by what he perceived as a gaffe during one of his own improvisations and wished that he had played something differently, Miles, somewhat surprisingly, responded with the advice that “You should have played it twice.” • Presumably this advice suggests that what one considers a flaw may not be perceived as a “mistake” if one repeats an inadvertent passage a second time thereby making it look like it was done intentionally the first time as well. • In these ways it is paradoxically even possible to approximate editing oneself during a spontaneous improvisational musical performance.
IIIb. Differences Between Improvisation and Composition Distinctive Features of Compositions and Composers: • A composition can be developed over extended periods of time and at different times. • A composition can have parts changed or even deleted. • A composition can be edited prior to performance. • The intentions of the composer are typically not identical to those of a performer. A composer may write a piece of music with the intention that it never be performed. A composer need not concern himself or herself with whether an audience approves or disapproves or has any reaction whatsoever to a composition.
IIIb. Differences Between Improvisation and Composition Distinctive Features ofCompositionsandComposers: • A composer can write music as an exercise or for purely theoretical reasons. A possible example would be Ravel’s “Bolero” if it were not intended to be performed. • A composer by definition is someone who “writes and arranges music.” A composer need not in any sense be a performer of music. Hence compositions are musical products that do not require any actual sound production to exist.
IIIb. Differences Between Improvisation and Composition Distinctive Features of ImprovisationsandImprovisers: Virtually nothing that has been said of compositions and composers is true for improvisations and improvisers. • An improvisation is typically performed for the listening enjoyment of an audience and not for any theoretical reasons; rather for practical reasons. • An improviser by definition is someone who “produces and makes music through sound production.” A composition is inert; an improvisation is active and dynamic. • An improviser must be a performer of music and hence requires the existence of actual sound events to exist during the performance.
IIIb. Differences Between Improvisation and Composition Distinctive Features of Improvisationsand Improvisers: • Improvisations can only exist in real time and must be developed during a musical performance. • At no time after the sound production event has occurred can any change or deletion or editing take place relative to the production of this part of the musical event. • An improviser’s intentions will usually include an interest in producing a quality musical experience that can be enjoyed by a listening audience. This, of course, will often also be a composer’s intention as well, although as pointed out it need not be.
IIIb. Differences Between Improvisation and Composition Distinctive Features of Improvisations and Improvisers: • No currently improvising musician could reasonably have the intention that the performance not occur. • Even more telling, perhaps, is the differences in risk taking between a composer and an improviser. Because a composer can take his or her time and consider many possibilities for the production of a successful musical work a composer has a relatively lesser risk in the production of a musical score than an improviser.
IIIb. Differences Between Improvisation and Composition Distinctive Features of ImprovisationsandImprovisers: • Composers can test out sound combinations and reject or incorporate a myriad number of possible musical events during the production of the composition. • An improviser must necessarily take enormous risks with a much greater chance of musical failure precisely because of the spontaneity involved during improvisations. Snap judgments are required. One cannot consider fifty different possibilities and then choose the best one.
IIIb. Differences Between Improvisation and Composition Distinctive Features of ImprovisationsandImprovisers: • Improvisers cannot test out different combinations and then reject them while actually performing at the moment. Anything played has not been ‘rejected’ and cannot be rejected because it already exists in the musical performance. • It is true that an improviser can make choices that have been previously tested out in a past improvisation or prior performance.
IIIb. Differences Between Improvisation and Composition Distinctive Features of Improvisations&Improvisers: • These distinctive differences between improvisations and compositions entail a difference in aesthetic judgments regarding the evaluation of these two musical components. • Because of the increased difficulty of needing to spontaneously compose during an improvisation, an improviser must be given extra credit for what results over that of the unhurried composer. • The improviser can also be more easily forgiven any musical mistakes over that of the composer for similar reasons.
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • Ted Gioia, in The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, (Stanford Alumni Association, 1988), argues that improvisation requires a different set of aesthetic principles to evaluate the musical performance precisely because jazz music has the disadvantage of having to produce spontaneous improvisation rather than contemplative compositions developed over extended periods of time. • In Gioia’s Chapter 3 “The Imperfect Art” he holds that “If improvisation is the essential element in jazz, it may also be the most problematic.” (p. 54)
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • From a different perspective, U.S. music critic, Henry Pleasants (b. 1910), complains in his "A Performer's Art," Serious Music And All That Jazz, (Simon & Schuster, 1969) that “The jazz musician is denied the dignity accorded the composer because not everything he composesis first written down, or, necessarily, written down afterward, or, once written down, considered immutable. And he is denied the dignity accorded the Serious-music performer because the latter is an "interpreter" of presumably great music. The musician, in other words, who makes up his music as he goes along, or makes up a good deal of it, or who rarely plays the same music twice in the same way, is, we are given to understand, inferior to the musician who makes no music of his own. For all his undisputed virtuosity and inventive fancy, the jazz musician cannot, we are led to believe, be granted equality with the Serious musician who can read and play the notes written down for him by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner a century or so ago.”
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • Gioia continues on the next page by asking several probing questions: • “Yet does not jazz, by its reliance on spur-of-the-moment improvisation, relegate itself to being a second-rate, imperfect art form?” • “Does not its almost total lack of structure make even the best jazz inferior to mediocre composed music?” • “Why, we ask, should the spontaneous prattle of an improvising musician interest us as much as the meticulously crafted masterpieces of the great composers?” (The Imperfect Art, p. 55)
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • Gioia concludes this paragraph with what he takes to be an extremely telling point: • “The dilemma jazz faces was stated with clarity by composerElliott Carter, when he suggested that the musical score serves the essential role of preventing ‘the performer from playing what he already knows and leads him to explore other new ideas and techniques.’” (The Imperfect Art, p. 55)
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • My argument with Gioia and Carter is that I take quality improvisers to be achieving precisely the goals which composerCarter claims is served by the pre-composed musical score when he states that a musical score prevents “the performer from playing what he already knows and leads him to explore other new ideas and techniques.” • “Exploring new ideas and techniques and not playing what one already knows” is precisely what quality improvisers achieve regularly. They explore musical avenues that they have not anticipated and test things out often with surprising outcomes.
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • Paul Rinzler comments on Gioia’s presumption of the alleged inferiority of an improvisedcomposition. • “Improvised music has been evaluated sometimes as being the aesthetic inferior of composed music. The processes of improvisation and composition differ, and these differences create what have traditionally been considered disadvantages for improvisation.” (The Contradictions of Jazz, p. 141)
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • A primary motivation for regarding composition a superior musical form than spontaneous composition concerns formalist’s claims of the superior structural complexity of a pre-composed as compared to a spontaneously composed piece of music. • Rinzler claims that “structural complexity is a primary value in Western aesthetics. It is perhaps the single most important aspect of a Western composed music on which claims of a composer’s genius or a composition’s worth are founded, and it is the basis for much musical analysis.
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • Rinzler explains the nature of structural complexity quoting Leonard Meyer and Judith Becker (p. 142): • Music must be evaluated syntactically . . . Western art music is structurally more complex than other music; its architectonic hierarchies, involved tonal relationships, and elaborated harmonic syntax not only defy complete analysis but have no parallel in the world.
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ • for Improvisation and Composition? • Among Western musicologists, . . . musical complexity correlates with levels of hierarchical structures, to the number of musical ‘lines’ occurring simultaneously, to the relationships between similar musical elements found in different sections of the composition, and in some sense to the length of the composition. (Contradictions of Jazz, pp. 142-43)
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ • for Improvisation and Composition? • Paul Rinzler’sresponse to the alleged advantages of composition over improvisation is sophisticated. He first argues that “it appears unlikely that improvisation can compare favorably with composition in terms of structural complexity, given the different situations in which the improviser and the composer are found. The primary difference is that the composer does not work in real time; that is, the compositional process does not occur when the performance of the composition does.”(Contradictions of Jazz, p. 143)
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • Rinzler next analyzes four specific advantages that composition enjoys following the work of Philip Alperson. These four advantages are: • Creating an Overall Plan. “The broad sweep of a composition can be carefully constructed. Each unit and subunit can be fit into place and coordinated within the entire hierarchy, allowing the composer to create a high degree of structural complexity.” (Contradictions of Jazz, p. 143) • Whereas a composer can review the entire blueprint of a composition, Rinzler notes, the improviser can only use the retrospective method of looking backward at what has just been improvised and shape the next phase of music relating to what has gone before.
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • Revision and Editing. “Because composition occurs before a performance, changes in any aspect of the composition may be made prior to its performance. Revision and editing confer a great advantage to composition.” (Contradictions of Jazz, p. 144) • Whereas a composer can consider and then reject vast numbers of possible solutions until she finds one she settles upon, the improvising musician can only use the one actually performed.
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • Notation. “Notation is a powerful tool for conceiving, organizing, and documenting elements of a composition. For an improviser, notation might function as a mnemonic device that refers to some predetermined musical elements, but it does not function as a compositional tool as it does for the composer.” (Contradictions of Jazz, p. 144)
Ilic. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • Responsibility of Composition. Rinzler argues that because of the advantages of composition, the composer is “expected to produce a complete, final, and perfect . . . product (in principle). Complexity and (near-)perfection are reasonable standards because the conditions of composition enable the achievement of those standards.” (Contradictions of Jazz, p. 144) • Whereas any perceived mistake can be expunged by a composer, an actual mistake made by an improviser during a performance is irreconcilable.
Ilic. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • Rinzler defends an aesthetics for jazz that focuses not exclusively on the musical work produced, the product, which is the actual sounds made during the musical performance, or the music represented by the musical score, but rather he wishes to switch the emphasis on to the artist and the performance product in a dialectic. • “The key to an aesthetics of jazz does concern the artist as a person as well as the musical object itself, in a dialectic.” (The Contradictions of Jazz, p. 149)
Ilic. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • By switching from only considering the formalist considerations of structural complexity as the primary thing of aesthetic value found in a musical performance, Rinzler opens up a new area for aesthetic appreciation and investigation of the value of a spontaneously created musical work by a performing improviser.
IIIc. Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for • Improvisation and Composition? • In an interview with Miles Kington, jazz critic of the London Times, Fall 1967, André Previn(b. 1929), German–born U.S. classical musician explained a basic difference between classical music and jazz: • “The basic difference between classical music and jazz is that in the former the music is always greater than its performance—Beethoven's Violin Concerto, for instance, is always greater than its performance—whereas the way jazz is performed is always more important than what is being performed.” (Quoted in "A Performer's Art," Serious Music And All That Jazz, Simon & Schuster, 1969)