In attempting to explore the evolution of improvised music, the first consideration is simply where to begin. After all, a true and full history would have to begin at the very start of human cognition, a moment when, perhaps, someone blew into a bull-horn accompanied by an aspirant drummer hitting one bone against another. As such it cannot be said to have a definitive starting point or a founder. Whatever the first music was, it was certainly freely improvised and was, most likely, an attempt to imitate the sounds of nature and express the experience of daily existence.
I won’t begin that far back, but it is worth noting the persistence of the improvised approach to music. As the guitarist Derek Bailey has said, it is ‘both the most widely practiced of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood’. It has a central importance in the music of all folk cultures, and had a (now largely uncredited) role in the area of musical activity in which it is presently most shunned, for what is now called classical music once allowed space for an unnotated input. Gregorian chant and polyphony developed through improvisation.
The seventeenth-century school of organ music flourished through the extemporisations of individual musicians. Baroque music provides numerous other examples and, as E.T. Ferand noted in Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music, The joy in improvising while singing and playing is evident in almost all phases of music history … there is scarcely a single field in music that has remained unaffected by improvisation, scarcely a single musical technique or form of composition that did not originate in improvisatory practice or was not essentially influenced by it. The whole history of the development of music is accompanied by manifestations of the drive to improvise.
But I wish to concentrate on that area of music for which improvisation has always been central, because in jazz we see a clear linear, sequential development towards the point where improvisation is not just an adjunct to a set structure but the primary event.
Definitions of jazz are difficult and contentious, but one constituent factor seems undeniable: if there is no improvisation there is no jazz. The much vaunted centrality of swing is by comparision a mere stylistic option. From its earliest days, and most especially in the figure of Louis Armstrong, jazz has liberated the individual in a collective context, allowing the musician to rise above the rest and make a statement in which performance and the creation of music become one. Throughout those early days and through the later be-bop period those improvisations were moments of freedom seized within an otherwise regulated framework of regular rhythms, chord sequences and a theme/solos structure, but the evolution of improvised music evinces wonderfully the questing human spirit and the need to always explore beyond the obvious and the already known.
In May 1949, Lennie Tristano and his sextet recorded ‘Intuition’ and ‘Digression’, two performances without theme, fixed harmonic structure or pre-arranged tempo. But having taken what were quite tentative steps towards the edge, neither these nor any other musicians approached the precipice for some time, although a loosening of the bounds was undoubtedly underway, especially in the barely controlled exuberance of Charles Mingus’ bands. Ten years after Tristano’s free recordings, Ornette Coleman’s quartet played a spectacular residency at the Five Spot in New York which generated an astonishing level of abuse and deep suspicion for his development of music unfettered by chord changes. His reconfiguration of the basic elements of jazz culminated in the epoch-making recording Free Jazz, which not only named a new trend in the music, but incubated much of the early language of the avant-garde. Simultaneous to this, Cecil Taylor was developing an idiom which would eventually have even more radical implications because of his use of dissonance and both tonal and total abstraction. The move to forefront improvisation was well under way, for while Taylor’s first record included ‘You’d be so nice to come home to’, admittedly in a barely recognisable version, he would soon play without any preconceived theme. In Europe musicians such as Peter Brotzmann, John Stevens, Evan Parker, Fred von Hove and others were independently developing a style of totally improvised music which was quite separate from the American innovations, while acknowledging the importance of late-period Coltrane, Albert Ayler as well as Coleman, Taylor and others. Their determination to construct an entirely new musical architecture was motivated by the creative urge for distinctiveness, but it was also a monumental rejection of what European classical music had come to mean; a music form which, as Derek Bailey has written, was ‘obsessed with its geniuses and their timeless masterpieces, shunning the accidental and the unexpected.’
The performers of this music approach the score with total reverence and a degree of trepidation. Performance is a form of genuflection, but it also opens the possibility of mistakes. Western academic music training has produced an endless supply of technically adept performers who lack the ability to think for themselves. Their overly reverential attitude unquestioningly accepts the physical and hierarchical separation of playing and creating. It also leads to an attitude that views improvisation as a frivolous or limited activity. Even John Cage, perceived as someone who rejected many of the conventions of composition accepted that hierarchical rejection of the performer/musician/creator when he said that ‘It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one’, and Eliot Carter, Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez have all suggested that improvisation consists merely of the recycling of an improvisers musical reflexes, exposing the limits of their imaginative resources whereas, apparently, the committing of notes to paper bestows upon the composer a direct link to some higher source of creative potential allowing unlimited access to the red-hot furnace of ideas. Strange then that so many compositions fail to ignite.
What many composers appear to seek is control, their works act as confining mechanisms. But at the point of listening the composers control breaks down because the audience’s response or attention cannot be regulated. But listening is a vital element in improvised music for both audience and performers, as the pianist and theorist Nick Couldry argues, ‘The central aesthetic of improvisation consists precisely in a transformation of the performer into an explorer of sound, simultaneously listening and performing.’ A viewpoint which closely resembles the 1954 Grove Dictionary definition of improvisation as ‘the art of thinking and performing music simultaneously’.
It is important to note that the improvising musician is not attempting to produce a performance that aspires to be mistaken for a composition. Improvised music is, above all, a celebration of the moment. The great soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy was once asked to explain, in 15 seconds, the difference between composition and improvisation. His answer was: ‘In 15 seconds, the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have 15 seconds’. His answer lasted exactly 15 seconds. Improvisation allows the moment to become an honest expression of the exact feeling of that moment. Karl Marx may seem a strange, not to mention unfashionable figure to invoke in support of improvised music, but he did once write that ‘the means is much a part of the truth as the result. The quest for truth must itself be true’, a statement which could act as a cogent defence of the improvisers method and their constant regard for authenticity.
But their explorations have failed to gain the recognition deserved. Its elusive nature has meant that improvised music is largely ignored by academics in music departments, mainly I feel because it has none of the attributes of regular academic practice: it has no recognised, agreed canon; it is almost impossible to construct an agreed theory around it because it only comes alive in its practice and there is no text except the meta-narrative, the flow of ideas which endlessly breeds new manifestations with the sense that all improvisations take up where the last one ended. Nick Couldry suggests that ‘Given the importance of academic credentials for licensing musical taste, this neglect is of practical, not merely theoretical, importance’. Whatever the arguments around that opinion, there is no doubting the uniqueness of improvised music. In Derek Bailey’s view it is ‘an essential force in sustaining life’ and at a time when so many are willing to accept the role of passive listener and active consumer, it is a singular source of opposition to the individuated world of instant gratification and easy solutions, a diffuse but coherent counter-blast against triviality.
It is music that demands much of the listener and of the musicians because it is always unfamiliar and its responses are never calculated – there is no right or perfect way to proceed. But its rewards are exceptional, nothing less than a new way to view the world. As Eddie Prevost has written, ‘It fixes on the unrelenting “now” and is a means of self-realisation’.
I will finish with two brief stories, one amusing, the other full of hope. The English trombonist Paul Rutherford, primarily an improviser, once performed Berio’s Sequenza for Trombone. His version was very well received, indeed one member of the audience told him he had never heard it played better. This was an interesting, not to mention surprising response given that, after a few moments of playing the score, he had improvised the rest.
On the liner notes of his CD Far From Equilibrium, clarinetist Paul Pignon tells of a concert he once gave with a percussionist: ‘A composer friend asked me “Do you mean to tell me that absolutely nothing of that was planned in advance?” To my affirmative answer he responded, “Then I’m going home to tear up my composition diploma”.’
Published on 1 July 2002