I was recently at a rehearsal hosted by someone who, although a very good musician, is probably not very confident about improvising music. What led me to that conclusion was a piece of paper tacked to the wall above the piano titled “10 Steps for Practicing Improvisation.” I’m not sure if it was because playing improvised music makes up the greatest part of my professional life or that I’m conditioned to read anything posted on a wall with the word “steps” in it, but it caught my eye and I gave the note a bit more of my attention than the family pictures and postcard-size concert announcements that surrounded it.
The first thing that ran through my mind was something like, “You can’t practice improvising; you’re either improvising or you’re not,” which is pretty much what my colleagues said when I told them about it (although, to be fair, I only spoke to three). We then began rehearsing the music, comprised largely of standards from the Great American Songbook. But one tune, “Little B’s Poem” by Bobby Hutcherson, is not in the GAS, but is well known among various cliques of jazz musicians. I’ve been familiar with the tune since 1974, the year I worked for Hutcherson, so I, naturally, thought I had a “leg up” when we began rehearsing it. We ran through the chart that the singer had written out, and when we were done I pointed out that I thought some of the chart’s chords were different. I was told not to worry; that another bassist had taken the liberty of rewriting the chart with what he thought was the correct chord progression. I know the bassist and believe that I would probably agree with his version, but the singer said that the changes on the chart sounded better and I should play them.
It’s a fact that one of the ways that jazz musicians grow their craft, personally and as a community, is to reharmonize chord progressions on well-known tunes. The chord progression to George Gershwin’s warhorse, “I Got Rhythm,” has not just been used as the underpinning for thousands of melodies, but has also been reharmonized in hundreds of ways. Sometimes these reharmonizations can sound like they belong to another song entirely—something that composer, pianist, and lyricist David Lahm is known for among the clique of cabaret singers and jazz musicians (including David Baker and Randy Brecker)—and sometimes they sound just as good (or better) than the original progressions. (I learned the Bill Evans composition “Time Remembered” from pianist Kenny Werner, who had not only performed a subtle reharmonization, but added measures to the piece. Now it’s hard for me to play it the way it was originally written!) So we rehearsed it again, only this time the pianist and I took turns soloing. Because the chords were so different from the ones I remembered, I found myself asking to try soloing over them again, to familiarize myself with the voice leading—in short, I wanted to practice improvising!
Since then I’ve taken my pick-and-axe and gone spelunking down the memory hole to reexamine my own practice habits and have realized that I spend a lot of time practicing improvising. I’m sure that most improvisers do, but don’t display the knee-jerk reaction to seeing how someone else might organize their approach to practicing the technique. Maybe it was the idea of using “steps” for practicing it that bothered me, since I don’t really look at improvisation as something I can practice by degree, or something to be worked up to. I still hold to the tenet that you’re either improvising or not, and that it’s the details that are practiced (negotiating formal considerations and working on technical issues) and not the concept of improvisation. I think that’s what it boils down to, that improvisation takes one outside of the rules. The stronger one’s need to codify what one does while improvising, the less able one is to improvise effectively.
For instance, the piece of paper on the singer’s wall first suggests one practice long notes. No indication of which notes or how long they should be, just long notes. This is what most musicians do to warm up, whether they improvise or not. The rest of the sheet has become a blur, but it pretty much went on in the same vein, practicing the basics of good musical technique. The first time I saw saxophonist Joe Henderson conduct a clinic, he expressed a similar philosophy by stressing that the things he practiced the most were scales and arpeggios. The next thing he stressed was getting together with other musicians and learning solos from recordings. It’s important to note that these practicing suggestions are about technical facility and musical vernacular. Improvisation, per se, wasn’t discussed much. I would compare this with another musician’s “10 steps to Improvisation,” which has the student first just play the melody of a song, and then continually embellish it until it is no longer heard. This “tier-based” approach might lead one to think that there are levels of achievement in “real” improvisation. While the philosophy of learning the melody of a song before improvising on it makes excellent sense for an aesthetic approach to improvisation, it doesn’t acknowledge the existence of free improvisation, which is becoming an essential part of the American musical paradigm.
Looking at Henderson’s clinical discourse, the idea of belonging to a musical clique is given pedagogical weight. The idea is that improvisation is practiced at sessions while individual practice is for mastering the elements that one brings to the session. The clique was where decisions regarding the canon of the genre were established and what was learned were the musical standards that sold records. However, cliques are factions and factionalism can be detrimental to musical learning. There is, for instance, a clique of improvising musicians who look to a certain individual who codified a pedagogical methodology for jazz instruction in the 1940s. This individual was an excellent musician but was not accepted by the greater jazz community, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, many of this clique’s elder statesmen have declared a war on various artists who achieved greater success, one example being saxophonist and composer John Coltrane. While one might argue that they don’t like certain aspects of Coltrane’s playing (too many notes, too edgy a sound, etc.), his influence on American music has been profound—music before John Coltrane is very different from music after him. He left his mark on our nation’s consciousness largely by setting a standard of technical mastery that is, arguably, yet to be matched. But, in large part because of the effectiveness of what I’ll call the “non-Coltrane” clique’s pedagogical methods, there are potentially great players who eschew learning the music of John Coltrane and, thus, doggedly employ a sub-standard technique.
To be continued…