The act of creating ideas off the top of your head; impromptu. Specifically it refers to a form of theatre in which the actors make up the dialogue as a scene progresses, with few props or costumes. This, by its nature, is typically humorous and is often called improv comedy.

Jazz Improvisation

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 riff.

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 creativity.

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 plane.

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.

Im*prov`i*sa"tion (?), n. [Cf. F. improvisation.]


The act or art of composing and rendering music, poetry, and the like, extemporaneously; as, improvisation on the organ.


That which is improvised; an impromptu.


© Webster 1913.

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