(4 pages with musical examples)
(supporting the cause)
New composition composed and played by Catherine Hurley (flute)

(see also Catherine's page)

August 2000

Did anyone hear Humph's perceptive and entertaining Best of Jazz programmes on improvisation? He gave us a nicely judged survey of the dogmas held by fans, critics and musicians in the jazz world including the concept "improvisation = vandalism"!
Listen to the repeat if you get the chance and hear how Dippermouth Blues could never be changed; but also the opposite extreme, an example of totally free improvisation from the sixties. What emerges from this programme is that jazz improvisation does not have to be just about melody. We recognise the jazz spirit in every aspect of performance which may include harmony, rhythm, dynamics, inflexion, phrasing, tone; all the elements which make for an individual's performance.

streamliner soulsite

Talk about improvisation

There is a natural urge to improvise, buried deep in the subconscious. I believe the roots of this are to be found in the evolutionary past of our ancestors. Improvisation in the musical sense, extemporisation, or inventing or on the spot, is closely related to the other meaning of the word, coming up with something for an urgent practical need and requires imagination. The urge to improvise is to do with the exploration of thought and feeling and I am sure the species that survived the harsh realities of primitive development were those species with the imagination to explore ideas and invent concepts related to surrounding world.These were beings that had the capacity to explore the feelings of themselves and those around them. As the mind became more sophisticated, so did communication and the expression of ideas in what we call the culture and the arts, whether by speaking, writing, painting and sculptoring, dancing, and making music. Music cannot be defined or even described satisfactorily except in its own terms, but to me it is most analogous to speech and like speech is about communication. Speech has many forms but most relevant to this discussion is conversation, either intimate, or a noisy social interaction.

Great music, perhaps some of the greatest ever, has been written down and is performed by highly trained ensembles of musicians who, under a fine conductor can create memorable and deeply moving experiences, experiences that make life significant and worth living. Until quite recently in the present Century (but not previous centuries), improvised music was considered primitive. The situation is beginning to change, but elitism, and surely that is what is involved here, is rooted deep, in some places in the world more than others and changing entrenched ideas takes time; the promotion of improvisation as a genuine form of musical expression needs constant attention if it is to become a significant part of musical culture. There is another reason, and I reminded of a remark by Maynard Ferguson, trumpeter, band-leader and educationalist,   "....put an alto-saxophone or trumpet in our youngsters hands..... Rather than a hand-gun!" That remark speaks for itself, but the current age is tarred with mediocrity, which itself breeds violence. The prevalence of mediocrity, undoubtedly encouraged by a universal obsession with commercial greed (I,m talking about big business which denies humanity and reduces people to numbers to be manipulated, like the 0s and 1s in this computer), and ultimate lack of concern in our social systems for our fellow "humanoids," as Maynard Ferguson would say, is even more reason to develop artistic expression of all kinds in our youngsters. Improvisation as a natural activity should be one of those.

When talking to people we do not use a score, nor do we repeat the same memorised script to those around us, unless like a politician we want to be utterly boring. We can all think of someone who does actually converse like that!  If there is any merit in the analogy of improvisation to speech, then it would seem reasonable that musicians might communicate with each other by improvising within a musically structured environment which could take many forms; one might hopefully expect some bystanders to listen, as to a conversation. This imaginary format could cover many situations, from a room at home to a concert hall, where the number of bystanders would have increased somewhat! Improvisation in Western culture is most often associated with one of the many forms of jazz and if one were to ask a jazz musician what format he or she prefers, then answer would invariably be the jazz club. Here the musicians work within a flexible framework and the bystanders are free to listen, talk to each other, drink or whatever else; communication in the club is both spoken and musical. If the music is particularly good, there will be less talking and more listening; sometimes in these situations there are cries of "shut-up!" It would have to be said that enforced silence or enforced anything else is against the spirit of jazz. In the early sixties I heard both Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk playing in clubs in America, but there was always a good measure of conversation in the background and of course one can hear this on almost every live club recording. (Those who find it really painful can always buy the CD!).

The music of the concert hall and the recorded song has its spoken counterpart in the theatre and other media but to neglect musical improvisation as a natural and spontaneous means of communication would seem to be a loss both for musicians and listeners. To push the analogy to the extreme it would be strange if an Olivier was unable to hold a conversation with those around him! Think back to the Middle Ages and earlier; serious music belonged to the Church in the form of plain chant and was strictly controlled in style with certain intervals forbidden, (interestingly there is good reason to believe that plain chant itself with its small singable intervals arose naturally by people making up folk style tunes); secular music on the other hand was performed by people singing songs, by wandering troubadours with primitive but serviceable stringed instruments, and improvising musicians of all types. The really interesting thing in the European scene is the influence of the Middle East and beyond. 'World Music' is not just the prerogative of today, the improvised sounds from the bazaars of North Africa had made their way through Europe and were being taken up by skilled practitioners and used in music for work or pleasure, just as today's Western musicians, improvisers and composers, are being influenced by serious and popular music around the world. It must have been great to listen to some of that music. It was resurrected in our own day by enthusiasts like David Munrow, who died tragically young and was a pioneer in the realisation of Early Music, bringing life and rhythm to what was considered by many to be merely an academic curiosity. The key word is rhythm, the driving force behind all music and almost certainly predating song and melody as we know them today. I believe that this rhythm has evolutionary roots and is thus fundamentally at the heart of the emotional force of music. In Early Music, the Eastern influenced rhythm-sections layed down a pulsating carpet of sound upon which horns, (crumhorn, cornamuse, sacbut, schalmei and many others) played regular and also totally improvised lines. Was this the earliest jazz music? Even before the blues? I suspect that the spirit and feeling of jazz has been with us long before modern America. But perhaps all of these improvised forms including those in the farthest corners of the world originate in Africa, the home of rhythm, and the home of humankind.