Jazz and Improvisation: A Historical and Ontological Perspective

     Jazz, in the most basic of terms, is a music genre that originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the southern United States. It has since disseminated to all reaches of the world and has become arguably one of the more popular forms of art music around the globe. In its early New Orleans days, jazz incorporated in it African-American culture, drawing from elements of West African cultural and musical expression. Jazz, like any other style of music, has now evolved in to many different genres, from big band jazz and bebop, to fusion and Latin jazz. The genre is largely characterized by swing eighth notes, “blue” notes, polyrhythms, and most importantly, improvisation. While there are multiple brands and genres of jazz today, many of them have this one singular factor in common: most tunes feature a section specifically for improvised solos. These solos, and more specifically the improvisation of said solos, will be the primary focus of this paper.

     In most jazz, the form of any typical chart/tune/song follows a standard formula. The chart opens with an introduction, followed by the “head” or main melody, which is then typically followed by “choruses,” or specific chord progressions for solos. This means that various members of the band take solos, while the rhythm section accompanies them. This is a common feature of most jazz but it was made popular during the “bebop” era by players such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and many more. While improvisation is most certainly commonplace in jazz of the 20th and 21st centuries, it has actually been around much longer than that.

     Improvisation is technically defined as a “spontaneous performance of music without any previous preparation or any written notes.” (Connect For Education, Inc., 2015) A forgotten fact about improvisation that is often overlooked is that it has been an element of music for nearly 800 years. The definition of improvisation from the OnMusic digital dictionary gives a brief historical summary of the musical enigma, saying:

      Improvisation can be seen in music of the Medieval era, [during which] singers were trained to improvise additional lines to liturgical chant while it was being performed; in the Renaissance era [during which] a musician would improvise over the written chords usually on a keyboard instrument or on a viol; in the Baroque, [during which] ornamentation and realization of figured bass was common; in the Classical and Romantic eras, [during which] cadenzas of concertos were expected to be improvised, and in 20th century jazz. (Connect For Education, Inc., 2015)

     Bearing this in mind, it gives us a more accurate historical perspective on how long improvisation has been in practice. How does this relate to how modern-day jazz performers perfect their craft? What do John Coltrane’s improvisation on the track “My Favorite Things” and the improvisation of a melody on any given section of Gregorian chant for the Mass Proper have in common? To answer these questions, it is important to trace the origins of improvisation for instrumental music.

     The emergence of instrumental music as a widely popular genre took place during the Renaissance, as improvisatory dance music began to spread across much of Europe. As this trend began to dominate musical culture, amateur musicianship became more and more popular. Since very little of the music of the age was written down, most of the music of the day was either made up on-the-spot or passed down and taught by rote. However, as the instrumental music genre became more prevalent, it developed into a sign of high society and class to be able to freely and spontaneously create music. “To know music at least well enough to sing…at sight seems to have become a social necessity in the higher circles of society.” (Poultney, 1996) In the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, having exceptional improvisational skills was a sign of being a well-trained musician and often meant you were highly sought after in the professional musical community. The evolution of improvisation within a work comes from an aspect of music deeply rooted in sociological interaction. Improvisation is an incredibly profound and trans-stylistic approach to music making, according to Ed Sarath, who says, “improvisation has been central to most of the world’s music traditions and has begun to assume even greater prominence in today’s cross-cultural musical melding.” (Sarath, 2010). This approach appears to be a fairly broad one, encompassing multiple genres and styles of music, even though the focus of this paper is specifically on jazz improvisation. It is vital, however, that a full perspective on improvisation  be explored before focusing on the more specific aspect of improvisation in jazz.

     As stated earlier, improvisation is “making decisions about the music one plays as one is playing.” (Brown, 2011) When a jazz musician is improvising, he or she is usually playing over a given chord progression and tailors their improvisation to fit that chord progression. If a musician is truly coming up with their music “on-the-spot,” there are some extremely rapid decisions that must be made. In this very short amount of time, the margin for “error” seemingly would be very small. But in the context of improvisation, is there such a thing as a “wrong” note or phrase? This is a challenging question that is very open to interpretation. For instance, if one were to listen to the famous jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” by Cannonball Adderley, there are plenty of notes outside of each given chord scale (i.e. a scale built around a specific chord in a progression), but these notes can easily be considered “color” tones. But does that, then, make Adderley a poor improviser because of his disregard for certain chord scales? According to the article by Lee B. Brown in the Routledge text, “good improvisers will exhibit technical facility and display resourceful and imaginative reach.” (Brown, 2011) It is almost undeniable that Adderley has good technical facility and has imaginative reach, as he made his living as a working and active jazz artist. It would only make sense to call his improvisation “good,” based on the criteria, even though he may occasionally play outside of the given chord scale or key of the moment.

     There is a jazz big band arrangement of “Down by the Riverside” by Oliver Nelson in which the trumpet soloist of the big band expounds upon the same lick based around a high (concert) E-flat for approximately forty-five seconds. Does this mean that there is no “imaginative reach” to the solo? Some might argue as such, but I think that this is an ingenious technique that has been around for centuries. J.S. Bach used the famous fortspinnung technique when composing his fugues or keyboard inventions, as did many other Baroque composers. Many jazz improvisers will find a rhythmic or melodic figure they can “riff” on and will then base their solo around that. It is a simple, yet effective technique that is relatable to this Baroque compositional technique. When speaking of Bach’s use of this technique, it opens up a captivating perspective on his compositions and poses a question that begs to be answered is: is improvisation a form of composition, or is it the opposite of composition?

     This is a difficult question to answer. On one hand, improvising is a form of composition in that the improviser is thought to be composing on the spot, inasmuch that the Brown states an improviser, “practices simultaneously the independent functions of composition and performance in both the broad and narrow senses of the term.” (Brown, 2011) While this ideology is a valid approach, in a general sense, when composers do the improvising (so to speak) for the performers, it becomes more of a compositional issue than an improvisational performance issue. There are composers who specifically write parts in their music for improvisers to solo over. For instance, in the short film “Improvisation” by the Films Media Group, an assortment of jazz musicians speak on the topic in question. “As a composer, when I write a piece, it’s important to me to write something that musicians have room to express themselves through improvisations. It’s nice to have someone soloing, because it means that every time I play the piece, I’m going to be surprised, even though I wrote it. It makes it more of a living experience.” (Films Media Group, 2002) This lends to the idea that there are indeed compositional merits to improvisation. In speaking of Charlie Parker, Lee B. Brown points out that Parker uses his best performances of any particular chart to present to the public (as would any respectable recording artist).

    If the similarity of Charlie Parker’s recorded solos to compositions seems less than obvious, consider that when he recorded his music, the final product         issued to the public would typically be picked as the best of several recording “takes.” (And Parker’s case is not unique.) So, there may be some correspondence between this practice and the kind of trial-and-error methods of composers. (Brown, 2011)

    On the other (and very opposite) hand, improvisation is very nearly the antithesis of composition, in that, it, “differs from many other artistic practices, including musical composition, by its dependence upon a ‘retrospective’ rather than a ‘blueprint’ or ‘prospective’ model.” (Brown, 2011) This literally means that jazz musicians are constantly pulling from prior performances and experiences when they improvise. They are frequently pulling from learned “licks” and “vocabulary” and incorporating them into their solos. An appeal for musicians and audiences alike is the desire to see musicians display their technical prowess on their instruments. A method in which musicians do this is to copy the style of an established and well-respected artist and learn some of the playing “tricks of the greats.” “For only in vain does imagination provide the best ideas if the fingers are incapable of executing them with all artistic facility.” (Czerny, 1983) This is where the learned riffs come into play, as a player will frequently recycle ideas and transpose various phrases into the appropriate key they are playing in. “Audiences want to see people improvise and know whether or not they ‘land on their feet.’” (Films Media Group, 2002) This is why improvising is used in the jazz world to determine if you are “up to snuff” as a player. While there are compelling arguments for both perspectives, I think that improvisation is a form of composition. A soloist may take a solo from a chart and play it similarly from one night to the next or play it completely differently. Either way, they are actively creating something artistic each time they take the solo. It can be thought of as a “work in progress.” (Brown, 2011)

     Another difficult question to be answered is: what techniques do musicians think about or visualize when they improvise? There are several improvisational techniques that have been developed over the years. In Music Theory Through Improvisation, Ed Sarath talks about some of these techniques extensively, and how each holds their merit. Pitch-based, pulse-based, and form-based improvisation are only a few. Pitch-based improvisation involves improvising over a specific pitch center, utilizing various modes and pentatonic scales. “When you hear a saxophone player going nuts over a simple chord progression, it can be quite shocking. Often the starting point is usually quite simple. By using the notes of the scale and adding some color tones, you can suggest chords that aren’t really there.” (Films Media Group, 2002) This concept shows that improvisers can essentially manipulate how the listener perceives the music he or she is hearing. If a musician is focused largely on “ramming” as many notes into a phrase as they can, it can give the false impression of virtuosity. A musician who creates their own harmonic “landscape” through the use of carefully selected color tones and specific chordal guide tones can completely alter the perception of the music.

     Pulse-based improvisation uses the basic pulse or beat as “the correlate in rhythmic improvising to the drone in pitch-based improvising.” (Sarath, 2010) And finally, form-based improvising is based around the premise of the improviser to invoke different kinds of improvisational ideas based on the development of materials at hand through the form of the piece of music. And these are only three approaches from one author. There are virtually infinite ways to come up with fresh and exciting musical ideas as one is playing. “…Some Jazz improvisers construct mental patterns when they solo.” (Alexander, 2016) This appears to be a common approach in the conversations I have had with musicians who use improvisation as a large portion of their musical expression. “Improvisation is an in-the-moment act, and the only way to prepare for it is to get out and play.” (Alexander, 2016) This would support the concept that improvisation in the context of jazz music is very conversational. Conversation in and of itself can be viewed as a form of improvisation, meaning that a form of music is prevalent in almost all we do when we interact with one another. “I think every time we have conversations, we’re improvising there, as well. No one wants to have the same conversation over and over again. Just think how boring it would be if you used the same words in the same order all the time.” (Films Media Group, 2002)

     In A Systematic Approach to Improvisation, Carl Czerny aptly sums up the ideas explored within this paper. Czerny writes:

     When the practicing musician possesses the capability not only of executing at his instrument the ideas that his inventive power, inspiration, or mood have evoked in him at the instant of their conception but of so combining them that the coherence can have the effect on the listener of an actual composition- this is what is called improvising. Accordingly, the talent and the art of improvising consist in the spinning out, during the very performance, on the spur of the moment and without special immediate preparation, of each original or even borrowed idea into a sort of musical composition which, albeit in much freer form than a written work, nevertheless must be fashioned into an organized totality as far as is necessary to remain comprehensible and interesting. (Czerny, 1983)

     In essence, Czerny here explores the idea that improvisation can the same effect on listeners as any other preconceived composition. It supports the very thought that while improvisation is spontaneous, it still carries an inherent musical value that rivals that of its compositional counterparts.

Works Cited

Alexander, S. (2016). The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe. New York, NY: Basic Books.


Brown, L. B. (2011). Improvisation. In T. Gracyk, & A. Kania (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Music and Philosophy (pp. 66-78). New York, NY, USA: Routlidge.


Connect For Education, Inc. (2015, October). Improvisation. Retrieved March 6, 2017, from OnMusic Dictionary: https://dictionary.onmusic.org/terms/1762-improvisation


Czerny, C. (1983). A Systematic Introduction to Improvisation on the Pianoforte. New York, NY, USA: Longman .


Films Media Group. (2002). Improvisation: Jazz. Play It Again! The Art of Musical Composition. New York, NY.


Gracyk, T., & Kania, A. (Eds.). (2011). The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music. New York, NY: Routledge.


Heble, A., & Laver, M. (2016). Improvisation and Music Education: Beyond the Classroom. New York, NY: Routledge.


Poultney, D. (1996). Studying Music History. Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Prentice Hall.


Sarath, E. (2010). Music Theory Through Improvisation: A New Approach to Musicianship Training. New York, NY: Routledge.


Whitmer, C. (1953). The Art of Improvisation. New York, NY, USA: M. Witmark and Sons.



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