Jazz Improvisation … and he is only completely a man when he plays!

Seminar Paper 2007 27 Pages

Musicology - Miscellaneous


Table of content



3.1 Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians
3.2 Grove Dictionary of Jazz
3.3 Oxford Dictionary of Musical Terms

4.1 Derek Bailey: Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music
4.2 Paul Berliner: Thinking in Jazz – The Infinite Art of Improvisation

5.1 Spontaneity and taking chances
5.2 Ensemble and communication
5.3 Rehearsal or no rehearsal:
5.4 Identity and personality





1 Introduction

This paper serves as my reflection over the 4 semesters where I attended the seminar “Improvisation Jazz” at University Witten/Herdecke, which was offered with the intention to allow students to collect practical experience in improvisation through a combination of private lessons and ensemble work. Fascinated by the experience of my rather primitive attempts to improvise with the trumpet in the seminar jazz ensemble, I felt the urge to reflect on a theoretical level what exactly makes a good improvisation and how to gain the skills that are necessary for it. From its general connotation, the word improvisation conveys the implication that it is something without preparation and without consideration, a completely ad hoc activity, frivolous and inconsequential, lacking in design and method. But from my own experience I know that this is not the truth. Behind the act of improvisation lies depth and complexity that requires great skill and devotion, preparation, training, commitment, and personality. Because of its depth and complexity, the question arises if improvisation is something that can be learned, or if it requires simply a specific talent or attitude.

Soon, I realized that this was not an easy question to answer, simply because I realized that I missed a satisfying description of the process of improvisation to start with. My initial question was then quickly put aside while I became busy finding a description of what improvisation is. But the more I researched the more confused I became. Finally after a review of various sources, I had to accept that I could not find a satisfying answer. I was confronted with many incomplete or circular definitions. Academic literature appears in monstrous documentary format, and the choice of ethnological or music theory driven definitions require very complex understandings. Musicians themselves give a rather fragmented, sometimes contradictory, description of the phenomenon. Jazz critics often present their analyses or opinions of an improviser’s solo in a mystifying or sometimes esoteric way. None of these sources satisfied my interest, as I was looking for a simple definition or concept of the process that happens during a musical improvisation– ideally in a form that allows anybody without a deep academic musical background to understand what is behind it.

As intended, the curriculum of Studium Fundamentale at the University Witten/Herdecke equipped me with the insight into other areas of study and the ability to think in interdisciplinary terms. During my reflection and research on improvisation, I recognized that the conclusions and insights of a previous philosophy seminar on Friedrich Schiller’s “LETTERS ABOUT THE HUMAN AESTHETIC EDUCATION” seem to be very a helpful alternative approach on describing the process of improvisation. Therefore, this paper aims to:

- Review general definitions of improvisation and review them critically,
- Review two major works in music literature on improvisation,
- Present a collection of essential elements that seem to characterize and influence the process of improvisation,
- Present Friedrich Schilller’s concept of play as an valuable approach to understand the act of improvisation, and
- Elaborate the similarities and contrariness of improvisation and composition.

2 Searching for a Definition of Improvisation

“Among improvising musicians there is endless speculation about its nature.”

-Derek Bailey Cologne’s “MusikTriennale” in 2007 featured improvisational music and

described with the words: “Almost no other technique has developed so consistently throughout the centuries, whilst remaining true to its original concept, or traversed and influenced the most diverse musical genres as that of improvisation. From the singing of the troubadours in the Middle Ages, to the exquisite organ music of the Baroque era, and to the virtuosic jazz culture of the present, improvisation is the essence of creativity.” (see http://www.musiktriennalekoeln.de/de/fs_nav_content.php)

With such bold statements, one should assume that it is very clear what lays behind the phenomenon of improvisation. But taking a closer look into that topic, without getting into a deeper discussion of improvisation styles, it seems not all too clear what improvisation really is.

3 Definition in Dictionaries

3.1 Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

“Improvisation is the art of thinking and performing music simultaneously”

This definition leaves it unclear as to what is meant by the word “thinking.” Is it composing or maybe interpretation? Is not any artist thinking during his or her performance? The use of the word thinking is not including other elements that seem to matter in the process, such as creativity, spontaneity, and the given musical material. Another point in this definition is that improvisation has to happen during performance. This is a significant point in how wide the definition of improvisation can go.

3.2 Grove Dictionary of Jazz:

"Improvisation is the spontaneous creation of music as it is performed. It may involve the immediate composition of an entire work by its performers, or the elaboration or other variation of an existing framework, or anything in between. All the performers in the group, or a soloist, or any intermediate combination of players may improvise.”

In contrary to the first definition, this definition incorporates the element of spontaneity, but it becomes confusing, if not circular with the use of the word “immediate composition”. What is the characteristic of composition, if improvisation can be described as composition?

3.3 Oxford Dictionary of Musical Terms

“A performance that is spontaneous, on inventive whim, rather than one given from a written or printed score or from memory. Improvisation, however, usually involves the imaginative reworking of a given theme or other musical material.”

As in the previous definition, spontaneity is described as the key element. Nevertheless, it seems too a bit arbitrary to use the words: “on inventive whim”. However, the phrase of “imaginative reworking of a given theme or other musical material” seems to be a better approach what is defined in other definitions as ‘composition’.

4 Music Literature

Simply unsatisfied and rather confused about what improvisation is and what differentiates it from composition and interpretation, it seemed that it is necessary to research music literature for books that elaborate on the subject. My research on literature led me to the extensive bibliography of “European Free Improvisation Pages” (see www.efi.group.shef.ac.uk), recommendations and references for further reading of the various dictionaries, such as Grove. There are not a large number of writings available that have attempted to build a general definition of jazz improvisation without focusing on one particular style, school, or ethnological perspective (or for the use of musical

education). The two books that I selected are Derek Bailey’s Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music (1991, 2ndEdition), and Paul Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz – The Infinite Art of Improvisation (1994).

4.1 Derek Bailey: Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music

Derek Bailey is a well known English, free improvising, avant-garde guitarist and part of the European free jazz scene. His book is written as an essay and is an attempt to collect improvisation’s elements and roots, and to attempt to define the phenomenon of jazz improvisation. Bailey describes all this on the foil of his own experience and the statements of other musicians he interviewed. The relatively short chapters and interviews seem to miss a clear and precise structure. His general points are blurred by the structure that builds according to the introduction on the understandin]g of improvisation as either idiomatic or non-idiomatic. Unfortunately, he does not apply these terms anymore throughout the book until the very end. Even the use of musician statements is sometimes very insightful and powerful, but in many cases they seem to be a collection of opinions; these opinions are interesting in the context of a particular musician, but not helpful in the attempt to find a general definition for improvisation. In many parts he is collecting very interesting points in each chapter, but somehow seems to fail to connect them. At the end of each chapter the reader has a rather blurred than clear understanding of the final points. This is specifically the case, since the title of the chapters are not guiding through an obvious logic or concept. The most irritating point is that Bailey chooses to focus in part four, the center of the book, on the composer: the composer as a non-improviser, the composer in practice, and the composers in question. Obviously, composing seems to deliver for Bailey a value in explaining improvisation, but it remains unclear why he chooses it. He does not specify and the reader has to guess. After going through various aspects in depth, it is disappointing that Bailey in the end does not lead to a final definition and confident conclusion. Rather, he posits:

“In all its roles and appearances, improvisation can be considered as the celebration of the moment. And in this the nature improvisation exactly resembles the nature of music. Essentially, music is fleeting; its reality is its moment of performance.” (Bailey, p. 142).

This definition unfortunately does not provide any closer insight and understanding of what improvisation is. He introduces new concepts that he did not discuss in pervious chapters, such as celebration, the nature of music, and music is fleeting. In a way, Bailey himself becomes guilty of his statement in the introduction that musicians are not able to analyze or define improvisation on a theoretical or general level. Nevertheless, the thoughts and ideas about improvisation that Bailey collects in this rather lose framework are very interesting- though they need a better framework and filter to be looked at.


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Jazz Improvisation



Title: Jazz Improvisation … and he is only completely a man when he plays!