Most of the music that I’ve played in performance is improvised. When I’m given a part to read, it usually contains a large amount of letter-name chord symbols that serve to suggest strategies for voice leading and the briefest of stylistic descriptions (e.g. “medium funk,” “up-tempo swing,” “ballad”). Because I play the bass (contrabass and bass guitar) I’m not expected to read or play the melody on lead sheets, just the chord symbols. Sometimes I’ll get a part that includes a specific part to play, but these are usually short phrases that are repeated and used as a jumping-off point for improvisation. So most of the music that I play is improvised; upward of 90% of it, maybe even upward of 95%. And this usually goes for the people I’m playing with.
Granted that this kind of playing keeps you “on your toes,” in a state of hyper-awareness of what and how your fellow performers are playing. It necessarily takes a strong unifying element, usually in the form of the leader, to sculpt the session of group improvisations into something palatable to those listening to it because the aesthetic that informs most American audiences renders improvised music inaccessible. It’s a fact that the more popular the music to an American audience, the less improvisation is a part of it (which doesn’t necessarily mean that music that has no improvisation in it gets a leg-up on the Billboard charts, though).
So why improvise?
I can only answer that question for myself. My mother, brother and I were living on public assistance (it might have been Aid to the Disabled with Dependent Children) in Ronald Reagan’s California and, when I was finished with high school, I could get work playing in restaurants and jazz clubs around San Francisco by improvising. I was teaching myself to compose, but didn’t pass the instrumental audition to the San Francisco Conservatory—in a very real sense, it was my “Plan B.” But in retrospect, Plan B has been a great thing. Improvising music has allowed me to view the world through a myriad of lenses without sacrificing my artistic vision. Instead of principally exploring and explaining my inner world vis-à-vis pen and paper, I have the immediacy of the moment to do so. There is a trade-off, of course: when I improvise, I lose several degrees of control over the finished product and, as a bassist, I spend most of my time accompanying other musicians. I do compose music, of course. Not as often to meet deadlines as I think I might wish, but often enough to keep me in practice.
I am very interested in reading comments about why others choose to improvise. I hope some of you will take the time to comment on this.