Jazz Tip of the Month No. 3: Creativity and Improvisation
Friday morning: Listening to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, creativity guru professor Sir Ken Robinson related the story of how the Beatles started writing great songs with only two chords and when they heard that there was a third chord they got on a bus and went to see a guy to find what it was. On the other hand he said that Michael Gove (our beloved Education Secretary) says you can't play music until you know all your scales. The Beatles story is undoubtedly embellished but it suggests a liberating notion that you can start being creative from the outset with a limited skill set. I think nurturing the creative spark from the start is essential so when I teach beginners, especially children, I aim to get them improvising by the end of their first lesson. And while Michael Gove is surely wrong (as usual) if he thinks creativity comes only with a high degree of technical expertise, there is truth in the idea that a better command of the medium leads to further creative opportunities. After all, the third chord was obviously incentive enough for the Beatles on their apocryphal bus journey.
Improvisation has been described as composing in real time, the difference being that to create a minute of music might take a composer a week (or whatever) whereas the improviser takes just the one minute. In a similar way you might contrast conversational talk with speech writing or dramatic script. However, the comparison between these two media (music and language) is limited in so far as what we express in music is largely non-referential and has little semantic content. (I am considering music in its pure form – without words, images or even dance.) It is music as a closed system where the sounds relate purely to each other in a sort of syntax, which is what I think is so intriguing and explains why we can be so engaged when we start to improvise on our instruments.
Although we can imagine all sorts of associations and feel emotions when we listen to music, they are very approximate and subjective. For example, when I was a music student I remember reading about a study in the Sixties where samples of music by Debussy were played to an audience who were not familiar with him. Debussy wrote incredible music to which he gave very programmatic titles, although often after he had completed the pieces. For example the piano preludes have such evocative names as Dead leaves, Sunken Cathedral, The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (translated from the French, of course). When the audience members were asked to put titles to the pieces there was no correspondence of title to piece (in the jargon: not statistically significant).
So it would seem music doesn't describe the world at all successfully. Indeed if it did it would be a second-rate competitor to language or image. But isn’t this the power of music? It is in essence a totally different practice and experience from the linguistic or representational forms in our lives. It offers a rather abstract but intensely deep system for expressing an aspect of our human or even animal essence. Music is a purely closed syntactical system with its own evocation of largely pure musical emotions. Now I expect this idea will be strongly contested by some so write in if you feel differently.
Coming back to improvisation as a special case of musical expression, I think another powerful metaphor is the idea of play. In a sense when we improvise we are playing in a game very much as we do in sport. And a sport open to participating with others and with spectators who intuitively understand some of the rules. The big difference, sadly, is that the crowds just aren't football-sized and of course we aren’t really competing, although there is something of that nature in the jazz jam session.
Participating in collective improvisation is to embark on a wonderful journey of joining in one of the highest forms of human communication. The process of near-instantaneous musical interaction is unique to jazz music and this affords a high degree of fun and satisfaction (and sometimes frustration). Because this playful exchange around rules of a musical language is such a prominent feature of the jazz culture it is a great example of nurturing the creative spark. The music produced doesn’t have to be ground-breaking in the artistic sense. Great improvised music is something that comes from those who dedicate their lives to the music and real innovation is achieved only by a few greats. But that doesn’t negate the validity of the beginner, the enthusiastic amateur or even the dedicated listener from participating in this wonderful music called jazz.
And that is why jazz will continue to thrive because it is an open culture and there are now plenty of opportunities to learn about it. So if you play an instrument or are just starting out (and it’s never too late) then listen to lots of music (recorded and live), get some instruction books, go to a jazz teacher, go to a jazz workshop or course, go to a jam session, get a rehearsal band together and one day get a gig. Get creative, get improvising!