Improvisation and the Eternal Ephemeral

A great deal has been said about the reasons that jazz has lost its audience:

“It doesn’t swing anymore, and if it doesn’t have that swing quality or characteristic, it doesn’t mean as much as it otherwise would if it had that certain swing to it.”

”You can’t dance to it anymore. I can’t even tap my foot to the beat. Where’s the hi-hat on 2 and 4 and the ride cymbal?”

“I can’t sing along anymore. What happened to lyrics?”

“There’s no blues anymore, and that’s what jazz is all about–the blues.”

“Jazz is too conservative. Why should anyone in 2010 care about improvisation on a formulaic pop tune from 1942?”

“Jazz is too modern and intellectual. Stick to the classic tunes, and stay away from using pop music and classical music. Hindemith and Cindy Lauper instead of Rodgers and Hart? No wonder no one is listening.”

All of these have validity when viewed from a certain perspective, but that’s not very useful given that there is evidence to both support and contradict all of them. Does anyone think that jazz needs to focus more on music with lyrics? (Are there not thousands of vocalists doing just that?) Or that using modern pop tunes will bring the public back to jazz? (Yes, I know that Brad Mehldau and the Bad Plus have had laudable artistic success using popular music, but neither has won the general public over in any economically appreciable manner.)

If you’ve read this blog, you know my opinion on the issue, so I won’t repeat myself.  I have, however, wondered if there is a more fundamental issue that contributes to the general lack of interest in jazz. We all think of jazz as a musical genre, which it certainly is, but it is also part of a larger genre: the genre of improvisation.

As a genre, improvisation doesn’t fare very well over the long term compared with its ubiquitous brethren that are fully composed (or mostly composed). Where do we find improvisation in the arts? There are comedy clubs that feature improv, there are TV shows that dabble in it (some of which, Curb Your Enthusiasm for example, are very successful), some visual artists engage in improvisation (Pollock), as do some classical composers (Cage). There are also elements of improvisation to be found in classical music–cadenzas, ornaments, and the interpretational elements like rubato. All of these examples, however, represent a small percentage of what is found within the disciplines represented. Improvisation is an outlier, a spice that provides a dash of flavor, but is rarely the main course. The situation in jazz is reversed. With some exceptions, jazz is mostly improvised; as such, jazz stands alone in its reliance on improvisation as a central tenet of its practice.

Jazz improvisation is not easy, in fact, it’s very difficult. The advanced harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic materials in jazz require extreme dedication over many years to gain proficiency, and more to truly master. It is for that reason perhaps, that jazz has touted its improvisational element as something worthy of praise in and of itself, as if improvisation has an intrinsic value beyond the end product. This is a dubious claim that not many will readily accept. Few people care about how difficult something is to produce; what people care about is the functionality of the product after it’s been made.* In other words, the means don’t justify the ends. Function, not process, reigns supreme.

What I’m suggesting is that art that relies on improvisation rests on a fleeting foundation, one that has at its core the idea that the product may be incomplete or imperfect to some degree. This is not the case with non-improvisational genres.  When you hear an orchestra perform Beethoven, even if the orchestra is not the Vienna Philharmonic, you know what you are going to hear. Beethoven committed to a definitive version by penning it as he did, and the variations on that are severely limited.  The orchestra will not play the Marcia Funebre of Beethoven’s Third Symphony as a bossa, nor will the pianist playing the Schumann concerto reharmonize the main theme using slash chords. In other words, they play what you paid for.

Jazz musicians have all probably heard people say things like “I don’t like jazz, they’re just making it up as they go along.” Of course, knowledgable listeners know how much thought and work goes into the intricate and facile improvisations found in jazz, but there is, nonetheless, an element of truth to this statement. How many people would buy a product that is, essentially, not guaranteed to be complete? One whose next incarnation will, hopefully, be more complete? An experimental automobile? Or one that is guaranteed to be fully functional?

I’m not saying that anyone makes this type of conscious calculation when developing their musical tastes and attitudes. What I am saying is that the ephemeral nature of an improvisatory genre carries with it an underlying implication of impermanence that may be emotionally and subconsciously off-putting to a large number of people who innately seek stability, predictability, and safety in their otherwise tumultuous and unpredictable lives. If the composer can’t commit to a definitive version, why should I commit to buying it or listening to it? That viewpoint is not something I agree with–the world of musical improvisation has provided many remarkable and timeless works of art. I do, however, think it is worthwhile to at least consider that a method of production like improvisation may contain a message about its worth that is unintentionally transmitted, received, and acted upon.


*Using the term “product” in relation to art is problematic for many, but we should be honest about what we’re doing. Yes, it’s art, but we’re marketing it with a vengeance, and we’re all hoping to sell something (CDs, MP3s, tickets, scores) aren’t we? If it walks like a product and talks like a product, it’s probably a product, but that doesn’t mean it’s not art.

About FraKathustra

5 Responses to “Improvisation and the Eternal Ephemeral”

  1. I think one point that is left out here is that often improvisation creates something that cannot or would not be scored. And part of that excitement is its relationship to “the known” like the melody, form, players etc. Also the understanding of the language is a requirement for the appreciation of the genre.

  2. I couldn’t help thinking that people may not like jazz because:

    Casual listeners may feel that the musicians have abandoned the song, or worse, don’t know all of it.

    Knowledgeable listeners may KNOW that the musicians have abandoned the song to indulge themselves on the form/changes.

  3. Another thought:

    Does it disquiet people that they don’t know what a jazz song is about?

    For the most part, people know what pop songs are about. Does that make it more meaningful to the listener?

    • Has to be a big part of it–look at the success of Bad Plus with younger audiences. How do you listen to Miles in the 60s playing “Funny Valentine” if you don’t know the tune in the first place?

  4. Maybe the trouble is that to many listeners jazz seems like a competition with no apparent winners. Like a soccer match with no scoring.

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