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Jazz Element #1: Improvisation

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At the heart of jazz is the practice of spontaneous melodic creativity known as improvisation. It is the musical version of making up a story as you go along, or speaking conversationally with friends. In these two activities, there is freedom to say what comes to your mind, but the limitations of language, grammar, and propriety form the boundaries for each conversation. The most profound or passionate statements would be a waste of time if the speaker chose to scream it at the top of his or her lungs in a mangled, disjointed ancient or foreign language.

So too, the jazz improviser has both freedom and boundaries to his musical expressions. Although it may sound at times as if there is no structure or logic involved in the solo, the opposite is actually true. The limitations of chords and rhythms form boundaries for the improvised melody.

Generally speaking, an improvised solo, whether by instrumentalist or singer, draws from the musical notes that become “available” based on the harmony being played by the other instruments at the time. As the chords change, the collection of acceptable notes also changes. The choice of notes is then packaged together with certain rhythms into “musical phrases” of either consistent or erratic lengths.

One song, with 32 measures of chord changes, can have literally millions of possible improvisational melodies attached to it. The success or failure of an improvised solo lies in its ability to be artistically creative, emotionally inspiring, and still be musically “correct.”

After an initial presentation of the chords and melody in their intact “composed” manner, the soloist improvises a new musical idea based on the identical series of chords being repeated by the other instruments. Each additional verse consists of the predictable (chord changes) and the spontaneous (improvised solos).

In some jazz styles, one single soloist might have several verses to present improvised musical thoughts, each one different and unique, yet fitting the same harmonies played each time. Other jazz styles allow for several soloists, each taking their turn at a phrase or verse of the song.

The boundaries placed on the practice of improvisation have changed with each new wave of harmonic experimentation. And yet, the concept of a soloist combining artistic virtuosity with emotional expression in a spur-of-the-moment musical statement has always been at the heart of jazz.

In an almost Zen-like manner, the jazz soloist allows the yin and yang parts of himself – that is, the technical and artistic sides – to meld together as a source bank for his “on the fly” musical creation. As he is focused on the chord changes and the available notes and rhythms at his disposal, he pours out a musical line which may soar and swoop, stagger and stutter. It may pull painfully, or linger hesitantly on a single note. It may explode into a pyrotechnic display of consonance and dissonance that alternatively comforts and jars the listener.

Like an acrobat on the high wire, the improvising soloist constantly flirts with disaster. A missed chord change, a poorly chosen set of notes, a melodic idea that resolves awkwardly, or a moment’s hesitation that gets the soloist rhythmically out of sync with the other musicians, can reveal his lack of “jazz chops.”

In its most perfect presentation, an improvised solo is the jazz musician’s highest skill level and most intimate feelings merging into one never-to-be-repeated aural offering.  Like a rainbow, a sunset, or a bolt of lighting, this fleeting beautiful or powerful presence is here, then gone. Just as a photograph of a rainbow or a recording of thunderclaps can only capture the essence of the moment, a recording of an improvised solo can only capture the remembrance of an improvised performance.

The moments of true aural ecstasy for a listener are experienced only in a live performance. For it is there that the soloist does his or her work as musical technician and artistic performer.

Like the circus performer, seeming to defy gravity, the fearless jazz improviser knows his limits and yet never flinches from pushing them. In a split second, the melodic idea goes from brain wave to sound wave in an almost seamless flow of instinctive musicianship. While the muses dance their hardest below, the jazz soloist improvises his way across a musical line that separates common man from the musical demigods. And all without a net.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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