I and two close musical associates, Bill Lowe and Kevin Harris, have just finished a whirlwind tour of 16 Boston Public Libraries to bring a program called Jazzin the Generations to intergenerational audiences throughout the metropolitan area.
In preparation for any teaching context, I try to take some time and explore just what it is that I want to convey to the audiences. Among several topics that return as recurring themes whenever presenting Jazz to any audience. One of primordial importance is trying to decode the mystery of improvisation to folks who as listeners, can sometimes only perceive it as some kind of cult magic.
As natural as the act of improvisation comes to myself and associates on the bandstand, the process is sufficiently abstract as to remove it from the realm of cookbook like instructions. Aha! You say. There are schools whose specialty is to teach improvisation to students in classes, which presumes that after the requisite number of classes have been completed, the students have learned the appropriate magic spells much like the muggles in the Harry Potter novels. However we also have examples as old as the tale of the Sorcerers Apprentice and as new as the tales of Hogwarts intrepid would be wizards to remind us that the mastery of a few incantations and a few deft shakes of the magic wand may only allow one to instigate more mayhem than one has the expertise to nullify.
Now it is true that at the technical level, improvisation can be approached like a science; like a mathematical problem. And carefully applied harmonic science will yield a “correct” series of notes across a span of chord changes, however even the casual listener will notice that something is lacking. In many ways the missing element is similar to the essence that’s lacking in a meal prepared by someone who is just following a recipe and a meal prepared by an experienced chef. The chef tastes the soup throughout the process and adjusts the seasoning according to his/her taste buds, determines doneness by experience instead of the clock and adds a pinch of this or that not in the recipe but because they know the meal will be complimented by the addition of this surprise element. Ponder the term “Soul Food.”
In a like manner, the Jazz soloist begins with the melody; the recipe so to speak. Then the chef tastes the tune emotionally as well as lyrically to gather the sense of its flavor. Next the chef sprinkles it with the herbs of life, some bitter, some sweet, some savory and some spicy. Heat is applied to the ingredients until everything begins to simmer with intensity. How much is always a judgment call; to much for too long and the result is scorched and indigestible.
Of course it would be romantically satisfying to say that the final ingredient would be a generous ladle of love, but truthfully sometimes the meal is meant to be edgy and challenging to the taste buds because life calls us to rise to the occasion in challenging circumstances. In other words, sometimes the nourishment is bathed in hot sauce and stuffed with fiery peppers. It is then however the chef’s responsibility to cool the fires by serving the love as desert. A serving of hope to remind us that things will always get better.