Musical improvisation takes theatrical/comedic improvisation and, well, sets
it to music. But it's so much more than that. This piece won't attempt to
determine which type of improvisation is more enjoyable for the
performers nor the audience. That's a matter of taste. The reward for the
performer in either case is, of course, acknowledgement. It can be as big as the
crowd in front of the main stage at the Newport Jazz
Festival, applauding, whistling, hooting and begging for more. It can be as
brief as a
knowing nod from one's teacher during a rehearsal after a particularly difficult
A great comedic improviser is possessed of a tremendous wit, and a
mindfulness of what is going on around him or her. Of course, also necessary is sense of humor which can
find the humorous side of just about anything (dead baby jokes, anyone?).
A great musical improviser is
possessed of a tremendous wit, and, to an extent, the kind of mindfulness that
an improviser needs. Musical improvisation
means that of a given moment, a musician (almost always the soloist) is
actually composing music. Where a jazz performer's peers in the genres of, say,
classical or popular music carefully follow a "chart;" music written on paper
note-by-note; the improvising musician has merely the skeleton of a melody and
the chord changes to go by; everything else the listener hears comes out "on the
fly;" spontaneously and without much prior thought. Jazz maestro Oscar Peterson described improvisation as "instant composing."
Now don't you rock fans get upset with me.
There are great moments of improvisation in all genres of music. The topic of
this writeup will not, however, stray from improvisation as it's used in a
pretty conventional definition of the jazz genre.
What's it like?
Everybody, every single person has in them a bit of creativity. Sadly, some
never get up the nerve, or worse, are hampered in their efforts to express that
For the jazz improviser, the opportunity to solo with other
performers is their moment to shine. The opportunity to give it everything you've got
at that particular point in time.
It seemed like an eternity before I felt that I really "belonged" performing
with a jazz combo. For a long time, my favorite accompanists were there for me;
I'd make a mistake, even a serious one; and they'd make it seem to the audience
as if the slip was intentional. This developed into a phase of mutual respect.
The errors became fewer and fewer to the point where perhaps a word or a half a
word was thrown away merely because the tempo was too fast. For years, I asked
the band how they'd like to do a song; what tempo, what "feel." We'd even
sometimes get into plotting out where the piece was going to go by humming riffs
to one another by way of planning what was ahead.
Finally, and I can't even point out a particular place or time when it first
happened, I'd say "well, what do you want to do with this (piece)?" The
musicians would just sit there and say, "you're on your own; tell us what you
want and we'll go that way." So beside giving them a key that I knew we'd all be
comfortable in, I'd have to discuss with them who'd solo and which parts they'd
take, so I'd know when to come back in. Occasionally a favorite arranger or
artist's name would be bantered about so we'd all be on the same stylistic
The drummer counts off a beat and then you wait for a certain number of
bars played by the band, so there's a pretty intro which is a harbinger of what's to come.
What follows is the thrill of performance. I guess the feeling I get is butterflies in my
stomach and the inkling of a doubt that I'm walking off a cliff and the other
cats in the band won't have a net for me. I'd hazard a guess that people who
play team sports get the same feelings prior to, let's say, a kick-off or a
pitch with bases loaded and two outs.
My fellow musicians are occasionally astounded with the extremely slow,
dirge-like tempos I'll choose for a song. As I count out, six or eight eyes look
at me and a few eyebrows raise, saying "are you certain you wanna do this song
that slow?" This all happens in the time it takes to count "one, two,
three, unh." And away we go. The first one or two verses are
stylized, protracted, notes falling nearly on the second beat of the bar,
nowhere near the upbeat — and held until my hand motions to finish what turns
into two whole notes in progression. Then a clenched left fist means "stop and
look." My right hand counts out a speedy half-time (twice the tempo) take-off for the instrumental
soloists and all of the tension is released. They do their thing and then look
up to see what I'm going to do whether it's verse or chorus they bring me back
in on. Often I'll keep up, perhaps even follow a lead set by one of the
soloists, invariably a musician far more talented than I. That's when the going
gets rough; when I now have to put twice the words in a given amount of time
than I started with.
Where do the musical ideas come from?
Really great jazz soloists make their improvisation their own, wholly and
completely. That's why they're really great.
I, like many of my peers, will perform a solo while either consciously or
unconsciously referring to something pleasing I've heard before. It's okay so
long as I don't sound like Rich Little doing an imitation of the artist I'm
stealing from. I shouldn't say "stealing." True stealing is when, during a solo,
the soloist insinuates a bit of the melody of an altogether different tune than
the one that's being played. It's effective and can be quite humorous if the
choice is right.
Perhaps one of the coolest bits of stealing ever pulled off was by Ella
Fitzgerald singing with the Count Basie orchestra at the Montreux Jazz
Festival in the 1960s. She and the band were performing "It Don't Mean A Thing
(If It Ain't Got That Swing)" a 1940s standard to which Ms. Fitzgerald scats
most of the melody, because there are so few words anyway and also because the
tune lends itself to long, complicated solos. During her second solo in that
performance, the band is, well, all but frenetic and she's in her element. She
sneaks in the words "it's been a hard day's night, and I been workin' like a
doooya-dog..." when the time was right. The audience went wild; the Great
Lady of jazz was nodding to the "British Invasion" of Rock and Roll by quoting
from the chart-topping Beatles hit.
Lordy, Ella was one of a kind. Such beautiful singing and improvisation as if
she'd sold her sold her soul to the devil. Perhaps, I hope and pray, we will
some day see the likes of Diana Krall rise to such heights.