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.


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