De-constructing Negative Jazz Fables

Below is another section from the paper that I am writing for the conference at Baylor. I am particularly happy with the working definition of improvisation as applied to jazz that ends this section. Comments and criticisms are of course welcome.


Unfortunately, in some circles the term “improvisation” has a number of negative attachments associated with it—e.g., lacking in intellectual rigor, purely affective, and non-calculated. Contra this pessimistic and mistaken construal of improvisation, I would argue that jazz improvisation requires just as much skill, creative genius, and intellectual stamina as written compositions, and that the latter in fact is not without improvisatory elements. In addition to the well-known fact that improvisation broadly construed pervades all types of music—from Gregorian chant, to Baroque music, as well the majority of non-Western expressions of music which are by and large not notated, Begbie observes a second possibility fueling this negative view of improvisation as somehow intellectually substandard is perhaps due to an overly rigid distinction that we in the Western musical tradition tend to make between improvisation and composition. As mentioned already, improvisation is often understood as non-calculated, free-flowing and as lacking in intellectual rigor. Composition, in contrast, is thought to be more or less inflexible, rule-governed and by nature, given its high degree of musical notation, purposely without spontaneity. However, both views are misleading and set up sharp distinctions that do not correspond to what takes place in actual music making and performance. First, improvisation as expressed in jazz involves a high degree of prepared and calculated musical ideas. Jazz musicians are known to spend numerous hours every day practicing ii-V-I and other patterns in all twelve keys so as to be “ready” for any harmonic sequence that might present itself. Second, there is significantly more flexibility in the performances of various musical scores in the traditionally classical sphere than one may think. E.g., conductors may decide to arrange a certain piece differently for various occasions and depending upon the musicians available to him/her. Likewise, musicians play the same written scores differently—otherwise, why would one prefer one musician or orchestra over another when each is performing the same musical work? (There are numerous other examples that one could cite to counter the mis-characterization above).

With these overlaps in mind, one might suggest that notation is the crucial difference between composition and improvisation. However, as Begbie points out, “it seems odd to claim that composition only happens when musicians write music down.”[1] Not to mention the fact that jazz musicians commonly use written arrangements for both large and small ensembles. In light of this apparent “dead end,” Begbie offers the following as a possible way to differentiate composition and improvisation,

“A more promising way forward is to take composition to refer to all the activity which precedes the sounding of the entire piece of music, everything which is involved in conceiving and organizing the parts or elements which make up the pattern or design or the musical whole: and improvisation to mean the concurrent conception and performance of a piece of music, which is complete when the sound finishes.”[2]

With the above conception, composition entails all the musical activity (both mental and physical) that takes places prior to the performance of the piece as a whole, whereas improvisation consists in simultaneous composing and performance. Christopher Small captures aspects of this idea and adds additional dimensions in his analogy of Western classical music being similar to a journey taken by a composer who then returns to tell us of his experience. No matter how fascinating the journey was, “we cannot enter fully into the experience with him because the experience was over and he was safely home before we came to hear of it.”[3] In contrast, improvisation is more like our being invited to accompany the composer and experience his journey with him. Though we would not want to push this analogy too far given what we have alluded to as the prepared or calculated elements involved in jazz improvisation, it does rightly emphasize the sense of experiencing the “present” in improvisation, i.e., rather than highlighting product or result, the accent is on process and activity, as “conception and performance are interwoven to a very high degree.”[4] In a footnote, Begbie makes the following astute comment on Small’s journey analogy,

“If this is so, then a clear difference between composition and improvisation concerns the application of ‘problem-solving’ techniques. In the compositional approach, in general, problem solving is complete before the performance. Success is judged, in large part at least, by how well the performance represents a perfect execution of ideas and interpretation. In improvisation, problem-solving is undertaken within the performance itself: ‘the emphasis is upon the creative, investigative approach to an unformulated musical situation’”
(Prévost, Edwin“Improvisation: Music for an Occasion,” p. 181).[5]

Harmonizing all that we have said thus far, I offer the following as a working definition of jazz improvisation: that present, spontaneous, and even mystical creative activity that purposely and re-creatively utilizes prepared and hence thoroughly familiar musical ideas of the past in order to produce a delicately balanced experience of the dialectical interplay of freedom and form, particularity and universality, oneness and alterity. (One can of course anticipate the Trinitarian allusions that I hope to develop…).

[1] Theology, Music and Time, p. 183.
[2] Ibid., p. 183.
[3] Small, Music-Society-Education, p. 176, as cited in Begbie, Theology, Music and Time, p. 183.
[4] Begbie, Theology, Music and Time, p. 184.
[5] Ibid., fn. 14, p. 183.

6 thoughts on “De-constructing Negative Jazz Fables”

  1. I was talking to my jazz-trumpetist friend, asking him about if he felt improvisation included a mystical aspect. He said no, he is completely aware of what he is doing at all times. He knoe what scales he is using, what kind of harmonies he is playing and so on. I’m not sure how widespread this notion is, but I was surprised. As a listener, I would have expected a very different language from him. On the other hand, pop musicians often describes the process of writing songs in mystical language.

  2. Patrik, i have heard this too. I have a friend church who lead sings in a Jazz band and he tells me something similar. The musicians are always concious of and focused on things like timing, scales, and anticipating new movements, breaks, etc. At least this is what he tells me. But of course this does not strictly rule out there being a mystical aspect to their playing as well. One could be focused on the task at hand and still be enraptured and spontaneous in executing that task.

  3. Patrick, Xavier, and Garrett,

    Thanks to all for your comments.

    My undergraduate was in jazz studies and performance, so I speak from both practice and theory. Part of what I am trying to do in this section is to show that contrary to popular mischaracterizations, to be a good jazz improviser requires that one know countless melodic lines and patterns beforehand–more or less practiced by route. However, this in no way excludes a “mystical” element in improvisation, as one player, e.g., the saxophonist might hear the trumpet player, e.g., play a line (on the spot) that reminds her of a line that she has memorized and so she, the saxophone player, might then play the line she knows by heart and mix it with the trumpet players line and then improvise 8 bars of theme and variation on those two bars. This kind of thing goes on ad infinitum. Thus, there is always a dynamic and spontaneous and even mysterious element in jazz improv.

    As to the gregorian chant question, the “chanters” will never chant the same melodic patterns exactly the same way and may add melody notes and fillers at various points.


  4. The observations you cite about non-improvised performance are quite right; I remember feeling a great liberty in my own musical training when I actually had some inkling of how to choose the delivery of some melody, rather than simply aiming to repeat what I’d heard someone else play. And then came the ability to really improvise.

    There is indeed a mystical joy to these crafts–called such because they require much training (of the ear at least, but usually of musical fundamentals as well) to do well. One does not play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” one day and improvise her own piece the next; the path is instead usually through Bach and Mozart.

    I wonder about applications to other crafts, especially that of writing. Poetry (perhaps like jazz) has long suffered under the stereotype that its production is largely or even solely mystical, when in fact the best poetry (indeed, I might say “real” poetry) only comes about after much practice and training.

    The crafting of a poem is both planned and mystical; though “the perfect line” may appear to only come to the poet at the moment of written improvisation, she has suffered many poetic etudes before this masterpiece appeared. By the trial-and-error as well as read-and-read-more processes that yield discernment, she has landed at this moment where this line appears on the page. It is an amazing performative experience after years of diligence.

  5. I was always told that preparation is the container for inspiration. If one is inspired, and has not prepared, it all just spills out in a mess.

    A friend of mine is a gifted professional guitar player and instructor. Since I have known him, I have been aware of the intense, methodological, and religiously regular times of practice he engages in- practice most athletes would probably find exhausting! Yet, I think he does this not only for the obvious reasons, but to prepare for those moments of inspiration. He does speak of those moments, so Patrik perhaps your friend is not representative of all improvisational artists?

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