More Than a Coin Toss: Improvisation vs. Composition in Jazz

Howard Mandel
Howard Mandel
Photo by Melissa Richard

Improvisation and composition are two sides of one coin alloyed in the medium of form. At least it’s how it is in jazz — though maybe a coin is too static an image for anything so dynamic as music or so fluid as the relationship of improvisation and composition. Not to mention there’s typically more music than coin to go around.

The correspondence of composition and improvisation though are arguably the same way in every performing art form. It’s hard to conceive any creative construction that doesn’t involve some degree of improvisation once substance has been chosen and intent begins to manifest. To start you scratch around, try one idea, tinker with it, put it off, dream up another, scrap the second, try a third, pick one thing out you’d tried before to mix or match with the first part, come up finally with something unexpected: a poem with a twist, a dance to challenge the body, a puzzle with a key, music that retains an ability to fascinate. That’s composition. Then in the performing arts the thing is to make it come alive in the moment. Which likely means adjusting, adapting, changing what you started with — expanding on it, cutting it short, recasting what you had, understanding and trying to put across even more than that, enlivening if not remaking in the process everything surrounding what you do — resulting in a composition transformed through individual and/or individuals’ efforts.

Composition was partner to improvisation at the beginning of jazz if we can believe Jazzmen published in 1939. Buddy Bolden’s band and other New Orleans ensembles are reported to have played ragtime compositions — pieces that were published and distributed broadly as sheet music — though in performance they “jazzed ‘em up” meaning the rhythms were loosened and the themes liberated from any necessity of strict adherence. Bolden’s posse was also reported to have expanded at length on slow blues. True the ability to read music wasn’t universal among jazz musicians at the turn of the last century though some leading players were indeed legitimately trained. Early jazz bands like many jazz, pop, rock and traditional bands today worked by ear rather by eye. But musical literacy seems beside the point; being unable to read a score doesn’t mean that a musician cannot craft, remember and perform his or her part of a composition communicated orally. Consequently non-readers can’t always be assumed to be “improvising.” They may be playing what’s been composed prior to performance committed to memory and repeated with such verve as to make it breathe like new.

Jazz from its New Orleans’ conception through its world-wide dissemination — by virtue of its distinct character co-mingling sources like ragtime minstrelsy, spirituals, marching bands, vaudeville, opera and concert music, Caribbean and Creole culture, all in the context of fast-changing social circumstances — surely has raised improvisation to a high art but not really at composition’s expense however the spotlight has fallen. Jazz has justly celebrated the great spontaneously inspired soloists: Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and many others. But it’s also hailed the writers of striking themes and dazzling passages, the arrangers of small and large instrumental forces into previously unimagined sounds, those orchestrators and producers whose art is in the creation of context. Jelly Roll Morton, George Gershwin, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, George Russell, Charles Mingus, and so on to Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and the later electric Miles demand attention as composers — again with stress that, in practice, jazz composition and improvisation are seldom mutually exclusive.

We need the word “composition” to refer to the ordering of things the placing of disparate parts together whether those “things” are specific notes to be sounded as they’re represented on a grid or opportunities that are carefully set up for the launch of such superb spontaneous creators as Lester Young. And we need “improvisation” to mean more than “Ready set blow!”

There’s no good or bad about one or the other and perhaps the two forms of musical generation are in their purest forms just opposite ends of a time-related continuum. Improvisation is more-or-less spontaneous creation while composition is assumed to be accomplished any time prior to performance: thought through, crafted, reflected upon and revised, the result brought to musicians and listeners at a decent remove from the circumstances of its birth.

In jazz there are many secret exceptions to this rule: Louis Armstrong had already worked out several of the motifs that jell in the brilliant opening cadenza of “West End Blues” for instance, and what are we to make of Charles Mingus grabbing scores from his copyists and thrusting them upon the musicians enlisted to play his Town Hall concert of October 1962? Does Pop’s classic represent the spur-of-the-moment flash of light that signals “genius at work!” or a pre-planned nailing of ideas sweated over and practiced? Does the recording of Mingus’s over-ambitious effort capture a big band in disarray or improvising?

If jazz is a players’ music and so has characteristically been more improvised than the music we sloppily call classical might that change as today’s conservatory-trained instrumentalists and highly schooled composers raised in a pop/rock/jazz/rap milieu are asked to grab the moment, expand on their instructions, stretch interpretation all the way into making something new?

The real question isn’t if music is improvised or composed, etched with a quill pen or Pentium processor, written for or recorded by someone playing viola da gamba or alto sax. Players and listeners judge if music’s inspired or complacent, innovative or conventional, iconoclastic or conservative. Turn it over: is what you hear committed or indifferent? Communicative or irrelevant? What we want is a coin that rings true, that we can use — a sound we want to hear again.

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