A Question About Improvised Music
According to guitarist Derek Bailey, “Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practiced of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood. While it is today present in almost every area of music, there is an almost total absence of information about it.” (Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, New York: Da Capo Press, 1993, ix). I’m not sure if I agree that the technique “enjoys” the distinction Bailey describes as much as “suffers” it, and I also don’t agree that information about it is nearly non-existent. But I do agree that improvisation is among the least understood of the facets of music.
One doesn’t just wake up one day improvising great music; one commits a sizable part of one’s future to bettering the ability to improvise. A large part of the commitment is to mastering one’s instrument to the point where one can play nearly anything that he or she hears (I think of Jim Pepper, going off into the woods and playing the sounds of birds and moose on his tenor saxophone).
Another part is the getting together with like-minded musicians to practice improvising as a group. This activity consistently serves as a crucible for creating new directions in American music while simultaneously strengthening the musical traditions they’re rooted in. For many, it takes thousands of hours of preparation to get the point where they’re improvising music satisfactorily.
When considering music as ritual, improvised music borders on cultism. The amount of time and energy spent on researching, analyzing, and mastering a genre of improvised music is comparable to taking holy orders. But, Lincoln Center Jazz not withstanding, most of the temples erected to American music are for non-improvised music, where a performance might only get a few hours of rehearsal.
My contention is that the most vital music is improvised music and that the best of improvised music is presented in relatively small venues and that the larger venues will present only that music that needs the least amount of preparation and commitment by the performer. I wonder, though, if the paradigm is problematic or pragmatic. If it’s the former, is there a remedy?