Co-Improvisation: Explaining the Magic

Victor L. Schermer By

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When we listen to great jazz performances, we pay most attention to the soloists, some of whom become our musical heroes. In that respect, jazz is an affirmation of the individual, the uniqueness and liberation of either the "free and joyful spirit," of whom there was none greater than Louis Armstrong, or the arduous struggle of the existential hero to become free, a musician whose inborn talent and valor met the awesome challenges of life and music. Perhaps the most powerful example of the latter was John Coltrane, who was naturally endowed but experienced obstacles and defeats, constantly practicing, learning, and growing musically and as a person, and who was eventually able to express the most profound elements of the soul and spirit at the level of the greatest novelists and poets.

Yet neither Armstrong nor Coltrane was a rugged individualist. Both were aware that "no man is an island" and benefitted greatly from the bands they played in as well as the many other "voices" they encountered in the course of their lives. While we treasure our heroes, we often forget that jazz is primarily a collective phenomenon. Jazz is nearly always expressed in a group, by a group, and for a group. Jazz is the most interactive, interpersonal art form. Not only are the best jazz musicians continually listening to each other, swapping notes, and co-creating styles and traditions; they are in concentrated contact with one another as they perform. Every note that comes out of a jazz musician's horn is a reflection of what is happening in the group.

At its height, such collective efforts may result in a co-improvised "composition" with as much beauty, complexity, and aesthetic vision as if it had been written in advance by a great composer. Miles Davis, in particular, exemplified this reality. He chose his co-musicians specifically to achieve an ensemble effect and to nurture each others' playing. Each phase of his work, from bebop to hard bop, cool jazz, post-bop, jazz fusion, and beyond, was fueled by and associated with the groups of musicians he chose for that purpose. And it was repeatedly noted by himself, his musicians, and record producers how Davis inspired and took stimulation from the creativity and interactions of his bands. Davis was known to be an iconoclast and egotist, but he was also a generous and giving creative force with his bands.

The Interplay between Members of the Jazz Ensemble

A jazz performance is one of the most complex, intensive, and rapid-fire coordinated group activities. Verbal communication is slow as molasses compared with musical interactions. For example, when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker collaborated in their early forays into bebop, not only did each have to master newly invented complex melodies, rhythms, and chord changes, they had to play the melody as if they were one instrument, and their solos had to bounce off one another perfectly to give the impression of a continuous line. Their rhythm sections had to know all the weird changes, maintain a coordinated steady beat, and complement the horn players without overshadowing them. All this had to happen at breakneck tempos. Moment-to-moment, on a gigabytes-per-minute basis, the actual information "download-upload" exchanges between the musicians in a high-functioning jazz group is possibly greater than it took NASA's flight and ground crew to put a man on the moon. (Admittedly, this theory awaits the definitive test by a high-tech jazz astronaut. LOL). It's impossible for most listeners to follow all the musical connections that develop moment-to-moment in a jazz ensemble, although we feel the excitement of it in our heart and gut, and some would say, our soul.

In large part, it is this group interaction, which takes place on and off stage, and further networks into the wider musical communities and traditions, which accounts for the "magic" of jazz. Indeed, no magician (or sound engineer!) could duplicate the prestidigitation that occurred when, say, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet worked in tandem, immediately incorporating what they just heard into their own variations. Or when Count Basie hit a couple of notes on the piano, pulling a perfect storm of swing from his band like a rabbit from a hat. That's the group magic that brings us to the edge of our seats, drawn totally into the rhythm and sensation of the music. And like the most impressive magic tricks, the cohesion and synchronicity of the jazz ensemble is the product of endless hours of experience, work, and interaction by dedicated musicians.

Even when one of the musicians takes an extended solo, careful listening will reveal that they are co-improvising with their rhythm section. The drummer spontaneously chooses cymbal or snare drum to conclude the soloist's phrase; the bassist shifts chord progressions, intensity of sound, and high or low registers in response to the soloist. Conversely, the soloist is driven by the drummer's rhythm and the bassist's lines. Gerry Mulligan said he always listened to the bassist rather than the drummer for the rhythm. That way, he could hear melody, rhythm, and chord progressions all at once. If you listen carefully to his recordings, for example "Lines for Lyons" (Butterfly with Hiccups, Limelight, 1964), his solos are often counterpoints with the bassist. It could be forcefully argued that everything in jazz is explicitly or implicitly co-improvised.

While there is considerable merit in simply enjoying the magic of jazz rather than analyzing it, it is revealing and enlightening to think about jazz ensembles in terms of, not only their musicology, but also how their brain activity and group dynamics might explain what is happening. We can think about how the brain sets up the interplay and the ways in which leadership and rapport emerges. And conversely, we can consider what jazz groups might teach us about our groups in daily life, whether in the family, friendships, the workplace, or at a party.

Scientific Research on Jazz

Recently, some psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to investigate how jazz musicians function. Much of their attention thus far has been addressed to the nature of improvisation, for example studying recurring patterns in transcribed solos, or, more recently, using brain scans like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see which parts of the brain are turned on and off when a musician improvises as opposed to when he plays from a score.1 [See end of article for numbered references.] Interestingly, musicians don't think a lot when they are improvising. One of the main findings of the research has been that during improvisation, some of the cogitative (consciously thinking) parts of the brain become less active, which means the musicians are not so much actively planning their next moves as they are allowing automatic, spontaneous responses to take over. It's amazing how brilliant and innovative some improvising can be without any conscious intent to do so. (Of course, a lot of thinking and planning does go into woodshedding and discussions in advance of the performance.)

Most of the scientific research, however, has been done only with individual musicians. While the scientists don't yet have the technology to observe the brain scans of a whole group in an actual performance, psychologists have garnered sufficient knowledge of group interactions to begin to describe the social and neuropsychological underbelly of the jazz ensemble. Let's consider how some of this knowledge might shape up. Again, we will focus on the phenomenon of co-improvisation, what the musicians refer to as the ongoing non-verbal "conversation" between them.

Co-Improvising as a Form of Human Conversation and Play

For musicians to improvise in response to one another successfully, they must bring together the following ingredients:
  1. a common knowledge and experience of the music (a musical culture);
  2. the ability to multi-task, to listen and play at the same time, staying in the moment while anticipating next moves;
  3. rich musical imagination and the capacity for spontaneous generation of apt musical phrases.

Ella Fitzgerald's scatting was a prime example of all three. Her musical vocabulary incorporated all the idioms of her day: swing, blues, the American Songbook, bop, and cool. She excited audiences through her spontaneous flow of phrases that were in synch with her bands and her audiences, and on one occasion (Ella at Juan-Les-Pins, Verve, 1964) at an outdoor festival in the south of France, she scatted around the sound of crickets hovering around the stage! (She made up a song called "The Cricket Song" on the spot!) She instinctively grasped the jazz idiom to the point where she could engage in memorable duets with Louis Armstrong, Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson, and a host of other greats as if she had worked with them all her life. Fitzgerald could have given many instrumentalists lessons in how to co-improvise, and on some occasions she unabashedly did so! One time, she stopped her accompanist, pianist Tommy Flanagan, on the spot, and told him to change his whole approach! She was very polite about it, but Flanagan never forgot the lesson.

The extensive talent and work required to attain the musical rapport sufficient for co-improvising means that only a very few will be able to sustain it on a high level. That is one reason why the most dedicated players form long-lasting ongoing groups to develop sufficient synchronicity with one another's playing to achieve their full potential for co-improvising with mutually transformative understanding of what they want to express. For this very purpose, saxophonist David Liebman has maintained an ongoing group, with periodic personnel changes, for over four decades, a group which has been responsible for many innovations, beginning with the groundbreaking album, Lookout Farm (ECM, 1973), which was quintessentially a collective co-creation of the entire expanded ensemble.

However, what is often overlooked is that, although musical know-how is essential to good playing, co-improvisation, in a fundamental way, resembles and is learned from everyday conversation and spontaneous play. Jazz in many ways is a transposition of daily life into music. Human relationships have their own "music" that involves body language, inventiveness, and responsiveness to one another. There's a playground near my apartment where I sometimes stop to watch the kids moving around the swings, sliders, and climbers improvising games and leading and following each other's movements while hollering chants and shouts that seem to be their own private language. It has a rhythm and dynamics all its own. A jazz group is not so different from children at play.

Such co-improvised play is less obvious in adult conversation, but it's there all the time, although too often inhibited by social norms. It's most obvious when people exchange jokes, or, conversely when people come together in an emergency situation and work together to save the day. Jazz is just like that. Even the sonata form of music: exposition, development, and recapitulation, may derive from the way people work and talk with one another. They identify a common problem or topic (exposition), develop the implications and possibilities (development), and then review what has taken place (recapitulation). As Leonard Bernstein argued in his famed Norton Lectures (The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Harvard University Press, 1961), music has all the characteristics of a language. Jazz co-improvisation entails the ability to invent phrases on the spot, engage in a meaningful "conversation," and bring it to a common conclusion.

The commonalities between co-improvisation, language, and spontaneous play suggest that the ability to engage in such exchanges is an inborn capacity of all human beings. Indeed, co-improvising may be an ability that emerges early in life, and then gets stifled in many people due to educational discipline and social expectations. Guitarist Pat Martino thinks so. He thinks jazz comes from the ability to be childlike, to imagine and fantasize and "let it all hang out" the way that children do. In my 2003 All About Jazz interview with Martino, he said, "the one thing I began to treasure was the ability to be playful again in a childish way... And I gave more credibility to the child, in terms of childishness itself..." (Psychoanalysts call this childlike quality "regression in service of the ego," the ability to play and emote spontaneously like a child, while maintaining adult ego boundaries and staying in reality. In jazz, that means the ability to spontaneously create (child) within a structure such as a key signature, rhythm, and chord changes (adult).) If Martino is right, then we might find that the ability to co-improvise in a jazz band goes all the way back to infancy, in the baby's earliest interactions with the mother and other caregivers.

The Origins of Co-Improvising in the Relationship between Mother and Infant

Indeed, child development researchers like the late Daniel Stern2 have shown that the infant is very active in initiating "games" with its mother and enjoying her responses. It used to be thought that the baby is only a passive recipient of the mother's caregiving, receiving her feeding, comforting, and tidying, but contributing little or nothing other than its own hunger and neediness. We now know that the infant, as pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton noted, is a "competent executive." It strategizes and "co-improvises" playful interchanges with the mother. Stern, who loved music and dance, even found that professional dancers recognized some of their own choreography in the videos of the interplay between moms and kids! Speech, art, music, and culture all appear to emerge from this spontaneous interplay that occurs in the days, weeks, and months after birth.

Some, but not all, of the mutual responsiveness between mother and child is copy-cat imitation, not unlike the way jazz musicians swap phrases and use musical quotations in their playing. In some respects, imitation is the basis of our identity and our common humanity. ("Anything you can do, I can do better.") Indeed, imitation can be found in non-human primates, and may partly explain how humans evolved in the first place. It's likely that, back in pre-historic times, even before we could speak words, we learned to relate to one another socially by recognizing, copying, remembering, and passing on common actions and goals, thus gradually facilitating tool use, language, culture, and other uniquely human characteristics.

Imitation facilitates co-improvising by creating a "priming effect," in which mutual responses develop into common expectations and routines, so that, for example, when the mother arrives with the milk bottle, the infant knows how to let her know with a facial expression or gesture that he wants or doesn't want it. Such priming effects occur in jazz ensembles in the way the musicians develop recurring phrases and motifs and use body language to let each other know what they want from each other. A classic example was the way Billie Holiday and Lester Young used to "prime" each other's phrasing and emotional expression when they worked together. In "trading fours" (alternating brief solos), musicians often feed off one another's ideas. Psychologists Bargh and Morsella3 summarize how priming effects work in daily life (I've highlighted the relevance of this quote for jazz groups):

"The evolved, innate basis of these ubiquitous priming effects is revealed by the fact that they are present soon after birth, underpinning the infant's imitative abilities... Such priming effects, in which what one perceives directly influences what one does, depend on the existence of a close, automatic connection between perception and behavior. Not only do people tend to adopt the physical behavior (posture, facial gestures, arm and hand movements) of strangers with whom they interact, without intending to or being aware they are doing so, but this unconscious imitation also tends to increase liking and bonding between the individuals, serving as a kind of natural "social glue."

The cohesion and co-improvising of a jazz group are sustained by such priming effects in which the musicians make "a close automatic connection between perception and behavior." That is, what they play is a direct, immediate reflection of what they are hearing from themselves and the others, an unconscious process of weaving musical patterns with one other. At various times in the history of jazz, this capability has come to the fore, where the usual pattern of charts with improvised solos gives way to a free-form playing where each individual goes his own way with a common melody and harmony. Dixieland is a prime example of such interwoven simultaneous playing of different ideas. In modern "free jazz," even key signatures and time signatures may vary at the same moment, yet the music is held together in an emotional and conversational way. The pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget observed what he called "parallel play" among children, each of whom seems to be operating within his own inner world, yet they still form a group. Free jazz may be thought of in some ways as musical parallel play.

The Social Super-Brain

Logical thought and problem-solving are slow in comparison to spontaneous play, and especially musical co-improvisation. Spontaneous play calls for rapid-fire responses among a group of individuals, as if they know what's going on in each others' brains, as if they are "mind readers." How can people relate so spontaneously and in synchronicity with one another that they form a unit so tightly connected that it almost seems to be one person, like the fingers and hands of a single pianist? How can a brain locked in a head and a body connect with other brains in such a way that they appear to act as a single super-brain?

Neuroscientists used to think that the human brain developed in evolution entirely to ensure the survival of the individual member of the species. It was believed that each individual is pre-occupied with meeting his or her own needs for food, water, sex, etc., and so cared little for others, in fact, would try to win out over the others. We now know that the survival of the individual depends in many respects on coordinating its activity with others. Cooperation is necessary for individual survival. Thus a flock of birds coordinates its flight as a group. Fish get about in schools. Monkeys gather in small communities and protect each other.4 Thus, in part, the brain evolved to carry out such cooperation. The highly-evolved brain has mechanisms that allow it to respond quickly and in harmony with others to achieve common objectives as a team, and those abilities developed before conscious problem-solving so they don't require a lot of thinking as such. In humans, such cooperation evolved to include very complex tasks that involved cultural transmission of social activity, knowledge, skills, and rituals from one generation to the next. So the human brain is configured for the strongest connections among individuals and across generations.

Mirror Neurons

Recently, the imitative priming connection that facilitates social cooperation and co-improvised play has been linked to a specific set of neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. In the 1990s, neuroscientists working in a primate research center in Italy accidentally discovered what may be a neurological basis of mutuality. They were doing research on monkeys as part of a study aimed at finding treatments for people with impairments of body movements. Electrodes implanted in the monkey's motor cortex generated sounds and signals on a screen whenever particular of movement-initiating cells were firing. One of the researchers noticed with great surprise that some of these cells fired in response to his own movements just the same as when the monkey made its own movements of a similar nature. The researchers called these cells "mirror neurons" because they responded to external activity as if it were a mirror of the monkey's own activity. Soon, researchers all over the world replicated this finding and identified mirror neuron activity in humans. Moreover, they found such mirroring activity in social behaviors, speech, and hearing, among other areas of human functioning such as empathy and facial expressions.

Thus, mirror neurons are brain cells that fire in response to perceiving another's action in ways similar to when one is rehearsing or performing the action oneself.5 Much as other neurons are specialized for cognition, memory, and emotion, these brain cells, by virtue of their location within complex neural networks, connect individuals to each other by registering perceived behaviors, emotions, and intentions of others "as if" the person were enacting or experiencing them himself. Mirror neurons appear to account for the immediate intuitive recognition of others as similar to oneself, so well stated by the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.6 when he wrote, "now it is precisely my body which perceives the body of another person, and discovers in that other body a miraculous prolongation of my own intention, a familiar way of dealing with the world." In co-improvising, when musicians are "in the zone," they often seem to play as if they are extensions of each other, "prolongations of their own intentions."

Mirror neurons may go a long way to explaining the "magic" of the co-improvising jazz ensemble. Through mirror neurons, the musician may hear the playing of the others as if it is coming from within his or her own mind! It's as if their brains have formed a super-brain that is multi-tasking various musical activities in synchronicity just as an organist with two or more keyboards and foot pedals puts together a total musical piece including rhythmic backup and counterpoint (simultaneous melodies). Remarkable examples of this synchronicity can be heard in the recording Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson at the Opera House (Verve, 1957). For instance, in their versions of "Crazy Rhythm," "Blues in the Closet," and "Billy's Bounce" there are sections of co-improvising where the counterpoint between Getz and Johnson—which was spontaneously created on the spot with little or no rehearsal time (and they rarely ever worked together before that concert)—is as tightly interwoven as if it had been previously composed or performed by a single musician. They responded creatively to one another's playing within a millisecond of what the other played, weaving an incomparable one-of-a-kind musical fabric of ideas. Such coordination occurs frequently in jazz but only rarely with the sophistication shown by these two masters. In a way, their respective mind-brains formed a super-brain that was composing the counterpoint between them. Mirror neurons are a possible way to account for these incredible moments of jazz co-improvisation, although other explanations are possible as well.


I hope this brief excursion into the psychology and neuroscience of jazz convincingly suggests that a large part of the "magic" of jazz is the way in which the musicians come together to form an interpersonal musical unit capable of co-improvised musical composition. The ensemble effect is a big part of what makes jazz beautiful and meaningful. Even if a musician stands alone on the stage in solo performance, he is responding to all his past and present musical influences and often to the emotional state of the audience. Much of this "unity of souls" happens so rapidly and without forethought that it seems mystical, as if inspired by a higher power. Although we can't rule out that God may be the Divine jazz musician, there are also logical explanations from daily life experience and the study of brain cells. To me, the science of how jazz musicians operate just makes the jazz experience all the more fascinating.

  1. Limb C.J. and Braun AR (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679.
  2. Stern, D. N. (2002). The First Relationship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Unversity Press.
  3. JA Bargh, J.A. and Morsella, E. (2008). The unconscious mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2008 Jan; 3(1): 73—79.
  4. Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, pp. 8—21.
  5. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1976). The Phenomenology of Perception, C. Smith (Trans.). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p. 364.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank saxophonist Dave Liebman and neuroscientist Michael Kaplan for their helpful comments on a draft of this article.

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