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Improvisation (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Improvisation (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz) There's no jazz without improvisation. There's no improvisation without knowledge and understanding
IMPROVISATION (Jazz Age Jazz) If it isn't improvised, it isn't jazz. That's about as much as it is certain about jazz #jazz #history Click To Tweet
I - Improvisation (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz)

Louis Armstrong said that if you need to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know. The nature of jazz is indeed elusive, even experts are often at a loss to define it as opposed to other forms of music. But there’s something everyone agrees with: jazz is about improvisation.

There’s a common misconception that improvisation happens randomly. Because many small jazz bands don’t read music when they perform, listeners may have the impression the performers are going along completely freely. In fact, the contrary is true. Spontaneous jazz improvisation requires a deep understanding of the music and its workings. Jazz players will choose phrases which structure is so familiar to them, they intuitively know where it’s going even though it’s been created in that instant. The musicians all know the tune and the role of their instrument inside the tune, and so they can spontaneously create different forms of the theme and variations.

The guitar, piano, bass and drums, while all able to solo, basically provide the rhythm and harmony over which the soloist will create improvised variations. The structure is flexible so that the soloist may venture in various directions depending on the inspiration of the moment. A Jazz musician is creating spontaneous art every time he or she plays music. In fact, spontaneity has always characterized Jazz music’s finest improvisers.

– A Passion for Jazz: Jazz Improvisation

Freedom in jazz improvisation comes from an understanding of structure. It may seem as the soloist may do whatever they like, but in fact, the soloist is following a complex set of rules. Being creative means knowing how to move inside that context and how to bend it to your personality and creativity.

Fletcher Henderson led the most commercially successful of the African-American Jazz bands of the 1920s. The smooth sound of his orchestra gave birth to the Swing style of the next decade.
Fletcher Henderson

The role of the soloist became essential from the beginning of the 1930s, but early jazz was characterised by a different kind of improvisation, what was called “collective improvisation”. This way of making music leans very strongly on call-and-response, both among musicians and between musicians and audience. In the 1920s, ballrooms, nightclubs, speakeasies were ideal places where improvisation and free audience/performers interaction happened. The unpredictable mix of music, guests, dancers and bathtub gin was explosive. It could mix every night in a different way, Anything could inspire the performers to a new path in the music.

But as the decade wore on, something happened. Jazz started to be recorded, and those records were extremely popular. Recordings needed to be standardised, and that dictated which performance and which actual improvisation would be preserved. Aspiring musicians increasingly learned jazz from those recordings rather than live, as their predecessors had done. Over time, this subtly changed the way jazz was played and improvised. By the end of the 1920s, jazz had surrendered its popularity to swing.


Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989

Jazz in America – What is Jazz?
JazzPath – The case for improvisational melodic tructures 


  • Mee Magnum
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 02:17


    You’re incredible. I can’t believe the depth of every article that you always post. And especially during the A2ZChallenge. Simply amazing. And impressive!!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 06:13

      Aww, Mee, thanks so much for your kind words.
      I just try to share what I like and find intersting, what I think can be interesting to other people too. This year’s challenge is giving me a lot of satisfation 🙂

  • Arlee Bird
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 05:11

    Improv is so much about feeling the music and playing the feelings and just letting go. Back when I used to play an instrument I found it very difficult to play without structure of leadership and written music. I never did well with improvisation, but I probably didn’t give it enough of a chance.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 06:39

      For people like me, who doesn’t play any sort of music, thinking about spontaneous improvisation is quite baffling. Sounds like a crazy thing to do.

      But then I thought: it isn’t much different from what we writers do, actually. Or at least what ‘I’ do. I normally have a plotline written down. That’s really the bare bones of the story. When I actually write the story, I follow that guide, but in the particular scenes and chapters, the story can go any direction. Happens quite frequently that I (think) I know how a scene will go, then when I come to the spot I’ve decided about… the story goes a completely unexpected direction. Sometimes because of what a character said two lines above, sometimes because I’ve just seen something on tv, sometimes because of a short story I read the night before. Could be anything.

      I suppose jazz improvisation works a bit like this 🙂

      • Arlee Bird
        Posted April 11, 2016 at 11:52

        Good example. I have no problem with improvisation in writing because I feel more comfortable with my writing and no one “hears” the bad notes unless they don’t get edited later. Practice and experience are the essence of being adept at improvising.


  • Tasha
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 09:15

    Ah, I think I start to get how the improvisation works, thank you :). It’s like when singing a hymn or classical piece of music – it obeys rules so even if you don’t know it you can feel where it is likely to go. Different forms of music have different rules and so a different feel as to how they move and where they go.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 19:31

      There’s a harmony to everything, isn’t it? If you learn the movements, you’ll know how to perform them, whether you’re thinking about it or not.

  • Kathleen Valentine
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 14:33

    What a fascinating and in depth analysis. I love the setting you’ve chosen for your writing, too.

    Meet My Imaginary Friends

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 19:35

      Thanks, Kathleen. It is a very inspiring setting 🙂

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 13:02

    I think that is true for a whole lot of things – you have to learn the structure first so you can improvise well 🙂

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 19:34

      I definitely agree. It’s the same with stories, after all. If you are very familiar to a structure (say for example, fantasy), you’ll follow that structure easily, nearly naturally, and that will leave a lot of energy an thoughts for other things, like the new ideas to implant in the strutcure.

      Yes, I think this is true for a lot of things 🙂

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 18:24

    There’s a real art to good improv and freestyling. You can improv and freestyle all you want, but it won’t make the music inherently better, or good period, unless you know how to do it properly. The horrid Li’l Wayne freestyles everything, and his lyrics are almost all terrible.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 19:37

      I think that, as with all things creative, a part is instinct and a part is learning.

  • John Holton
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 19:18

    The best book I’ve read on improvisation was Improvising Jazz by Jerry Coker, who used to teach at the University of Tennessee. It’s a small book written specifically for musicians, but there’s a lot of good insight into the subject. One of the things he tells jazz musicians is to collect motifs (what are generally called licks), short passages from solos you hear other players use that you like, and work out how to add them to solos. A lot of improvisation is working licks into longer musical patterns. Almost sounds like cheating, but the art comes in knowing which ones sound good together and being able to hear them in your head before playing them.

  • Post Author
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 19:41

    As I researched this subject, I read time and again that, especially int he 1920s, when many jazz musician had no music education, you leanred by listening and copying. You listen, you recognise what you like and you copy it, until you learn how it’s done. then you can start making your own music on that base.
    I suppose that’s what Jerry Coker taught? You copy, until you find your own voice.

  • Megan Morgan
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 21:08

    This is why music is so fascinating to me (even though I’m not musically inclined at all), how musicians can ‘speak’ to each other with music and follow one another and know what to add to the mix. It’s so darn interesting!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 14:02

      I suppose all forms of art have their own charm 😉

  • Jen
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 21:56

    Improv is the most fascinating and magical aspects of music. I play piano but I don’t consider myself a musician. I’ve always been the vocalist and whenever a bad goes off playing and they all just “know” where they’re headed…pure magic!! Great post as always!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 14:04

      I’m not a musician either. And yes, it feels like magic when you’re a listener, I can only try to imagine what it may feel to a musician.

  • Claire Noland
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 05:27

    I love this song! I remember the first time I heard jazz – I was selling Girl Scout Cookies and I had to keep knocking on the door because the neighbors had jazz playing so loud. I’ve loved it ever since. My brother is a jazz guitarist – we used to go to jazz clubs as teenagers. Looking back, I’m surprised they let us in.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 14:06

      Ah! What a story! But how was it that you got fascinated with a thing that was actually an annoyance at the time? Isn’t that weird? 🙂

  • Molly
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 12:29

    Music was a huge part of my high school. I participated in any band/orchestra activity. Except for Jazz Band.

    I am classically trained, and a “black-and-white” thinker. I read notes on a page, but I can’t create an original tune.

    Part of the audition for Jazz Band was to improvise with the pianist. I froze.

    I have tremendous respect for those who can do it – and do it well.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 14:08

      Well, I suppose you can learn to impvorise… to some extand. But as all things involved with creativity, you may be apt at something and not apt at something else.
      We are all different, and that’s the good of it 🙂

  • Stephanie Bird
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 18:13

    I’ve love the era in which Henderson was prominent. Great tune–“Sing, Sing, Sing.” It’s brightened my day. Thanks for sharing it!!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 14:09

      Ah! Nice to know, Stephanie 🙂
      Happy you liked the article and hte song.

  • BarbCT
    Posted April 30, 2016 at 21:40

    I’m trying to catch up with your posts. They are so fascinating and well written. They make me appreciate jazz more than ever and I’m not a music aficionado. I can tell I’m also going to need to visit your posts from last year’s challenge, too.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 1, 2016 at 06:34

      Hi Barb! 🙂
      Actually, I’m catching up on you posts too. I’m so enjoying your posts about classic Hollivood.
      You know? I think it was destiny that we met on the Challenge 😉

      • BarbCT
        Posted May 2, 2016 at 02:01

        My thoughts exactly!

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