One think I’ll say about improvisation in music is that it’s never easy. One would think that since the music is just being made up at the moment, that it would be a simple matter of playing whatever comes to mind. But that’s only the case when the parameters are understood by everyone involved and these parameters are often learned only through experience and isolated practice.
Last week’s question about improvisation as a vehicle for breaking through these parameters didn’t inspire much debate, although a bit more than the question about how composers might incorporate improvisation into their works. I tend to compose spring-boards for improvisation, which is the norm for someone who works primarily in a jazz-based milieu. But jazz is based primarily on extended instrumental and vocal techniques and often those who compose for jazz players find themselves writing music that doesn’t adhere to the original language of its tradition.
When blues players get together, they play the blues and it pretty much sounds like the music that the earliest blues players performed or, at least, like something that is heavily influenced by it. Jazz today, however, sounds very little like what the Original Dixieland Jass Band or the Hot Five, Hot Seven, or Fletcher Henderson played. Despite attempts by some to orchestrate a modern school that reconnects and draws new lines to an historical canon exclusively inclusive of the New Orleans tradition, there still exists a vast amount of new music that continues to reflect the breakaway models proposed by Eric Dolphy, Bob Brookmeyer, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre, Lennie Tristano, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, or Cecil Taylor.
I bumped into one of the current elder statesmen of this tradition, Vinny Golia today. He is going to be performing throughout the next two weeks at John Zorn’s Stone performance space. He is part of the Southern California scene that produced Mark Dresser, Bobby Bradford, and David Murray who, whether they admit it or not, take their cue from Charles Mingus, who took his from Duke Ellington (although a healthy respect for Red Nichols and Raymond Scott is also evident).
As I get ready to play with Arturo O’Farrill at Puppets Jazz Bar on Saturday (information about my itinerary is available on my Facebook page), I wonder about traditions and parameters in improvised music and whether they can be delineated or broken. I think it was in 1996 that Bill Clinton signed a bill that declared jazz an “indigenous” American art and a “national treasure.” Jelly Roll Morton, who claimed to have invented jazz in 1902, said that in order for music to be called jazz it had to include a “Latin tinge.” Quis vilis is? Does O’Farrill jump farther out of “tradition” than, say, Cecil Taylor when playing the blues? Are the boundaries that fix the parameters of cultural America broader than those affixed to its socio-economical traps? Since Antonín Dvořák officially pointed the American music academy away from Europe as the fount that an original American music would spring, how vital has jazz become to the American musical culture machine? And more importantly, how vital has so-called Latin music become to it?