Many have called it “mysterious.” Some will say there’s magic in it. Others might criticize it for being “too far out” or “odd.” No matter what is said about it, it is undeniably the center point around which jazz congregates.
I had been listening to jazz for a number of years before I realized that so much of what I was listening to only existed once in the studio or venue where it was performed. In that moment jazz went from being a great form of music that I loved to something far more profound. It was alive in a way that no other music could claim in my awareness. Sure there have been many great improvised solos in other genres; even the classical greats like Bach were known to be excellent improvisers. But no other music called forth improvising; no other music seemed to breathe the life of the music in the moment.
I was in awe.
About 20 years ago, I had my first jazz camp experience. I knew very little music theory and couldn’t have played in many of the keys if my life depended on it. But the time came to improvise. As I sat down that evening I wrote in my journal:
My first solo. Just the basics of course, but an improv solo on the simple concert B-flat scale.
"Play a melody. Write a song with it, Barry."
And I did.
It fit, too. It made some sense. You have to try to listen to what is going on around you. Hear the rhythm, devise the melody, watch the harmony. It wasn't polished. It was kind of stiff and boring, but no one started out as a virtuoso.
The instructors this morning emphasized that. The scales are to the instrumentalist what the gym is to Michael Jordan.The same could have been said about my solo at last summer’s Big Band Camp. It wasn’t polished; it was kind of stiff and boring. One of my problems is that I get stuck on “bad” notes. A “bad note” is one that could be a great “blue note,” a note moving from one place to another. But it turns into dissonance and discord because I stop for too long. No movement, more like a crash into a brick wall. My mind blanks, I forget what I’m thinking and nothing of interest comes from the instrument. It made some sense for a little bit, a few measures, but that’s about it.
What a challenge then in this past year when, following the Big Band Camp and then Trumpet Camp in 2015, I decided I was going to do an improv solo this year. And not get stuck! It was one of several goals I set for myself, and the one that looked most challenging. Wikipedia’s entry on improvisation in jazz points out some of the problems.
Basically, improvisation is composing on the spot, in which a singer or instrumentalist invents solo melodies and lines over top of a chord progression played by rhythm section instruments (piano, electric guitar double bass, etc.) and also accompanied by drum kit. While blues, rock and other genres also use improvisation, the improvisation in these non-jazz genres typically is done over relatively simple chord progressions which often stay in one key (or closely related keys.) …Jazz improvisation is distinguished from other genres use of this approach by the high level of chordal complexity…Problem #1: Composing on the fly.
Saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy once said,
In composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds, in improvisation you have 15 seconds.It takes time to learn how to do that. A lot more than a year. It takes a certain amount of courage to do it in public. It takes a certain amount of insanity to even want to do it in the first place.
Problem #2: Chordal complexity
Most of us want to sound professional when we do our improvising. That means the complexity of chords and chord changes. We don’t want to sound like some newbie just playing the blues scale over the changes. It may fit, but that’s baby stuff. To think that one can get to that point in one year would be the height of grandiosity- or blindness.
Problem #3: Learning the language
This is all about a language and developing an understanding of its meanings. It is no different than having a conversation with a friend- except we have all learned how to use words in conversations one little bit at a time. We didn’t do that in any great way until we developed a vocabulary, the experience of talking with others, and the experiences of our lives to have something to talk about. If you have 15 seconds to say something, you better have the language ready to be accessed at the right time and place.
A daunting task, to be sure. But I did have a few things in my favor.
- I have a rudimentary understanding of the language. I have a decent ear for jazz, jazz forms, and jazz licks. I have been an intense jazz listener for 50+ years. It’s kind of like being somewhat able to understand, say Spanish, when it is spoken, even though my brain trips over itself when I try to speak it.
- I am also a decent musician. I understand a lot more about music from simply playing it than I realized before this year. That means I have a basic understanding of chord progressions and the blues scale.
- And, I now have the time, in my semi-retirement, to spend time learning.
The result was I got to Big Band Camp and I was ready. No getting stuck this year. Let it happen!
It did! No it wasn’t a great solo, but it didn’t get stuck, it didn’t suck, and it wasn’t stiff. I even think there might have been some swing it it. At least I was swinging. Since then I have done some more improvising with the one big band I play in. Nothing fancy. But I now have the courage to at least try. I have done it and I know I can do it again.
What then does all this mean?
#1. It takes time and effort. Just a year of work doesn’t do it. But it’s a start.
#2. Appreciate jazz when other people do it. Listen. Then listen some more. Finally, listen again.
#3. Have courage. Take the opportunity to improvise. In the privacy of your practice room and in public.
#4. Be good to yourself and appreciate what you have done and what you can do.
#5. Push yourself. Don’t stop where you’ve been. Look at where you still want to go.
Now that I have more of the basics down, it is time to move into the advanced beginning stage. (Trying to keep that trumpet ego in check!) That means more of the 5 things above. It means enjoying the practice and challenge. And it means seeing how improvisation has already made and can make a difference in my life.
That will be next week.