Music, Jazz, and Improvisation

Music satisfies three cornerstones of a Neo Renaissance (Neo Ren) life: Emotional, Intellectual, and Spiritual. Performing music can often satisfy the fourth cornerstone, Physical. Ever see a fat rock-and-roll drummer? Ever check the lung capacity and endurance of a lead trumpeter for a big-band jazz ensemble? Ever gone to a nightclub, watched and listened to the trio for the entire four-hour gig, and seen how sweaty and exhausted the performers are when they’ve finished playing? Ever watch a concert pianist perform a virtuoso concerto? Without question, these people are athletes.

But to me, the perfect incorporation of all four cornerstones in music comes from improvisation. Jazz improvisation in particular, because it was the first music genre to develop improvisation into an integral part of the music. Classical artists like Mozart, Bach, Liszt and I’m sure many others were stellar improvisers, but their focus wasn’t on the spontaneity.

Jazz relies heavily on improvisation. That ability is displayed at the highest level by the musical greats both past and present. This is the indefinable ingredient in music that moves people to laugh, cry, dance, tap their toes, or feel any emotion based on what they hear and internalize. Examples of emotional, improvisational “perfection” are some of the great jazz artists of all time: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Ron Carter, JJ Johnson, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, Wynton Marsalis, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, et al.

Bottom line, when I listen to music, I use my left brain to evaluate the quality of the music, skill of the musicians, and talents of the composer. I use my right brain to process the emotions that performance brings out in me, and connect that with previous emotions I’ve felt when playing or listening to music, thus adding to my base layer of experiences to draw upon and compare the next time I listen to or play music. I appreciate both sides of my brain when it comes to music and believe I’m the richer for it because the music takes on a deeper meaning to me when I feel intellectually and emotionally stimulated.

My novel protagonist, Matt Lanier, is a jazz and classical musician who is an accomplished improviser. Because of the mental discipline required to improvise well, it’s a skill that transposes to thinking fast on one’s feet or being flexible enough to go with the flow when circumstances change. Matt relies on non-musical improvising to handle many tense, critical situations, even though he’s not always aware that his improvisation training is kicking in at that precise moment.

Here’s the performance that is widely credited with changing the course of jazz from pre-arranged ensemble playing to emphasis on improvisation by soloists backed by the group. The opening bars have blown away many novice trumpet players, myself included, when we realize how far ahead of his time Louis Armstrong was.(That’s where the Spiritual cornerstone¬†fits in. What gift from the unknown was Satchmo given to be able to create this on the spot?!?)¬†Enjoy.

*(Thanks to pandasthumb for posting the nifty listening guide along with the music)*

Do you improvise? Are you good at it? How do you improvise? Tell me about an improvisation that saved the day or positively changed an outcome that was in doubt.

1/30/14- Apologies if the music/video didn’t play. Somehow the link got screwed up but I think it works now. CN

0 thoughts on “Music, Jazz, and Improvisation”

  1. Great post, Chris! It’s paramount for waitstaff to be able to improvise, think on their feet, process a lot of details simultaneously, relate to different guests with ease, talk on a variety of subjects, know the menu (not least on the list), and adapt quickly to constant changes. Too bad we don’t produce music while we’re doing all of that! But now you’ve got me thinking about how writers improvise… The wheels are turning!

  2. Thanks, Jody. I hadn’t thought about servers improvising, but you are so right. They have to instantly adapt to each diner’s personality and make it seem effortless.

    I think writers improvise a huge amount when writing first drafts. At least I think I do. When I get rolling with a scene, all I know is where I want it to start and end, but how I get there is usually spontaneous. I feed off one character’s actions or dialogue and go with that thought for the next character, then play off that over and over, and the next thing I know I’ve written 1000 words and I have a viable framework of a scene that can be revised to do exactly what I want it to do.


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