Explaining Improvisation to Non-Musicians by Categorizing the Jazz Musician’s Creative Alternatives

Teaching jazz history and appreciation to non-musicians is often a challenge when the students are baffled by the realization that jazz musicians make up their music as it is performed. This amount of creative freedom astounds students, often to the extent of disbelief. Lessening the bafflement can be achieved by categorizing and illustrating the creative alternatives that are enjoyed by the musicians who make jazz. At least seven different categories can be identified to describe the extent of freedom exerted as jazz musicians improvise.

Embellishment. The most basic category of improvisation is mere embellishment of the tones in an existing melody. It could involve changing the durations of selected tones. It might entail changing the arrival times of selected notes, even as much as displacing the position of entire phrases in relation to the beat. Or it may involve adding grace notes or portamento decorations to existing tones in a melody. This is sometimes designated as “a straight reading.” Such improvisation is often done during the first chorus in renditions of a piece which will undergo more extensive creativity as the performance unfolds in subsequent choruses. On the famous “Star Dust” recording of 1940 by Artie Shaw’s band [Victor 27230], the opening theme statement by trumpeter Billy Butterfield is mildly embellished.

Paraphrase. Further modifications beyond a straight reading can ease into another category known as paraphrase, which could involve adding and subtracting pitches and delaying or eliminating germs of the original melody. This entails recasting the original melody, but not so far that its identity is no longer detectable. Creative paraphrase is exemplified in renditions of “Star Dust” by Louis Armstrong from 1931 [Okeh 41530; CD as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Columbia Legacy C4K 57176] and Ben Webster from 1965 on his album There Is No Greater Love (Black Lion, 1965). Exquisitely crafted paraphrases can be found on the Stan Getz saxophone rendition of “It Never Entered My Mind” in the album Stan Getz and J. J. Johnson at the Opera House (Verve 8265, 1957) and in the Miles Davis trumpet solo on “My Funny Valentine” in the album My Funny ValentineMiles Davis in Concert (Columbia 9106, 1964).

Inventing a New Melody. The rarest category of improvisation consists of inventing an entirely new melody that is at the same time compatible with the progression of harmonies that accompany the song. The most inspired of all jazz improvisers managed to do this frequently. The fresh melody is constructed spontaneously after stating the theme of the piece that is being performed. It is continuous within the tempo and the progression of chords that accompany the theme of the piece. It bears such integrity and tunefulness that it could suffice as an original theme of its own, and some have been so tuneful they have inspired lyrics. Among the best examples are solo choruses on “Now’s the Time” from 1945 by Miles Davis with Charlie Parker [Savoy 12079] ;  Davis’s solo on “Freddie the Freeloader” on the album Kind of Blue  (Columbia 64935; 1959); Wayne Shorter’s solo on “Invitation” from the album Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Impulse A7; 1961); and Paul Desmond’s solo preceding Brubeck’s final chorus on “Georgia on My Mind” in Brubeck’s Gone with the Wind album (Columbia 40627; 1959).

Several musicians created such well-constructed improvisations on familiar tunes that their recorded solos were transcribed and arranged for other combinations of instruments. Saxophonist Lester Young’s solo improvisation from Count Basie’s 1939 recording of “Pound Cake” was so melodic that it was scored for the Woody Herman band in 1956 to use as the main theme for their "Blues Groove" track (Capitol T784). Young’s improvisation on “Lady Be Good” from 1936 was so imaginative and well-crafted that it has been memorized by numerous saxophonists. In fact, saxophonist Lee Konitz performed it in unison with his pianist on his Tenor-Lee album (Candid 71019; 1977).

Playing Patterns. An approach that is popular with many jazz musicians is to learn patterns that gracefully flow through favorite chord progressions. Though young players often get the patterns out of books, more often they acquire these patterns by listening to jazz giants who have invented them. For instance, saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Michael Brecker crafted entire vocabularies of patterns that proved quite useful to hundreds of other saxophonists, as did trumpeter Clifford Brown, who is so widely imitated that listeners might mistake hearing any of his disciples for hearing the originator. Recordings by the bands of Horace Silver and Art Blakey feature Brown-like solos by Donald Byrd [Art Blakey: The Jazz Messengers (Columbia 65265; 1956); Horace Silver: Six Pieces of Silver (Blue Note 25648; 1955)]. Recordings by the bands of Art Blakey illustrate Brown-like solos by Bill Hardman [Art Blakey: Hard Bop (Columbia CL 1040; 1956)]. Lee Morgan’s solos on the John Coltrane album Blue Train (Blue Note 1577; 1957) are remarkably like Brown’s style.

Quoting Classic Solos. Many improvisers use phrases derived intact from solos by such great improvisers as saxophonists Charlie Parker and Lester Young. Jazz players who are just developing their own styles often start with the solos of Parker and Young. Then they devise their own approaches. Many improvisers never get much beyond playing solos in the style of their idol, often using intact phrases from the improvisations that the idol recorded. During the 1950s an entire school of saxophonists developed from the inspiration of Young. The highly melodic, relaxed execution, and the lightweight, pale tone quality of Young’s style was imitated by other tenor saxophonists. It became termed “the cool school.” Young’s nickname was “Pres,” which is short for “President of the Saxophonists.” Paul Quinichette sounded so much like Young that he was given the nickname of “Vice Pres.” Other exemplars include tenor saxophonists Richie Kamuca, Bill Perkins (Tenors Head-On; Liberty 3051; 1956), and Dave Pell (The Dave Pell Octet Plays Rodgers & Hart; Trend 1501; The Dave Pell Octet Plays Irving Berlin; Kapp 1036).

Devising Entirely Original Solos. To devise entirely original improvisations during every performance is a goal that only a tiny number of jazz musicians have achieved. But there are a handful of players who do not tend to rely on patterns and have recorded solo after solo after solo that contains no phrases from any previous solo. In that elite club are saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Paul Desmond.

Free Jazz. There is a seventh category that is not as common as the previous six. This is where the improvisation is free from the harmonies of the accompaniment and its song structure. The improvisation follows its own internal logic no matter where it might take the line. For example, the most famous practitioner of this approach, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, spontaneously changed keys nine times during one such improvisation [“Dee-Dee” from the album Ornette Coleman at the Golden Circle, Volume One (Blue Note 84224, 1965)]. The saxophonist was designated as an adherent of “free jazz” for allowing this extent of freedom from pre-existing structures. Numerous examples for this extent of freedom can be heard in concerts of unaccompanied piano improvisations by Keith Jarrett because they are filled with constructions that have no advance planning. His most famous free improvisations are on an immensely popular album known as The Koln Concert [ECM 1064, 1975].

Use these examples the next time you seek to explain improvisation. Student bafflement will be reduced accordingly.

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Last modified on Friday, 19/11/2021

Mark C. Gridley

Mark C. Gridley, Ph.D., is a jazz musician who wrote the critically acclaimed Jazz Styles book, which has undergone eleven editions and six translations, becoming America's most widely used introduction to jazz. Additionally, Gridley is internationally recognized for his scientific research on creativity, perception, and taste in music and art.

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