MusicEd
Jazz Improvisation -
Guiding the Young Person and Adult Learner
















I chaired an absorbing session at this year's Leeds International Jazz Education Conference at which Frank Griffith spoke tellingly about helping adults and young people to tackle improvisation. He has kindly agreed to our publishing this version of his talk.

First, a little about Frank. Born in Oregon in 1959, he is a clarinettist, saxophonist, composer/arranger and currently Director of Performance at Brunel University. While resident in New York City from 1980-96, he arranged for Lionel Hampton, Jon Hendricks and Ron Carter. And he has played with the Mel Lewis Orchestra and Mel Torme, among others


Improvisation, like composition, is thought to be difficult if not impossible to teach. Noted saxophonist Paul Desmond, an English major at college, said "writing is like jazz, it can't be taught but somehow you have to learn it". North American composer Lou Harrison has stated "individuality cannot be helped - it can neither be encouraged nor prevented". While I agree that creativity and originality cannot be taught per se, there are many ways in which they can be coached, guided and encouraged. As a final quote from a master, legendary jazz pianist Junior Mance, who has taught Brad Meldau and Larry Goldings at New York City's New School Jazz Studies programme, explained that he didn't attempt to teach those capable youngsters as much as "help them become performers".

My aim in this paper is to explore the problems experienced by young people and adult musicians in tackling jazz improvisation and to propose solutions to inspire and encourage them to succeed in this quest, even if only for personal growth and accomplishment. These goals can be realised by musicians across many styles, and don't require great technical skill and/or theoretical knowledge.

Jazz, in general, can be a difficult medium to sell to listeners and aspiring improvisers alike. One reason being that it is often perceived to be enjoyed and appreciated more by the practitioners than the audience. The improvisation aspect can often "lose" the listeners to whom melody is paramount. The longer, more complex and/or abstract an improvised solo, can have a detrimental effect on keeping a listener's attention, often leading to their feeling cut off or shut out of the performance. This insular effect of a band "doing their own thing" can also discourage budding improvisers, as, while they may be enthusiastic about exploring this new area, they might not understand the gist of what is actually going on, leaving them in the same state of bewilderment as the non-playing listener. To add to this, students are fed copious amounts of technical and written information telling them what they can or cannot play on a given piece. This combination can often prevent creative forces from coming alive as the beginner ends up being too confused, self-conscious and/or flustered to flourish.
Jazz soloists who are over-keen to demonstrate ability and command of their instrument run the risk not only of estranging themselves from the audience, but from the rest of the band as well. This is often plainly evident to the listener and does not do the music justice as an accessible entertainment or something to be enjoyed by a paying audience. The beginning improviser can find it difficult to fulfil his/her solo role, whilst aware of these exclusionary tendencies in the music's reputation.

Jazz improvisation may often introduce or require too many new things at once from a student. These are the four key areas:
    a. Learning technical and theoretical information
    b. Embracing new rhythmical and stylistic concepts
    c. Acquiring knowledge of and exposure to new musical idioms, for example, Jazz, for the classically-trained musician wanting to improvise.
    d. Playing with new and different musicians on a regular basis.
Improvisation may require extensive technical and conceptual information to digest on one's instrument, along with, in many cases, new musical genres to embrace. Even in jazz itself, there are dozens of styles and periods that differ substantially from each other. For example, learning to improvise in the bebop tradition would be a much different prospect than extemporising over a 1930's Blues setting, or 1970's Fusion.

The most important step for a newcomer to any musical style is listening; critical listening, where one examines closely, noting how it all fits together.

That ongoing process is key to an improviser developing a concept as well as finding where it fits in stylistically. In today's ethos of learning-by-attending-classes-and-buying-the-book approach, little time is devoted to developing understanding by creative listening. That process requires more time, yet bears richer rewards, educationally and musically.

Many newcomers to improvisation find themselves interacting with musicians from different backgrounds. This factor can affect the way they work together, in both positive and negative ways. A successful improvisation is contingent just as much on group interaction skills as it is on individual musicianship and command of one's instrument and musical style. If one's musical experience has previously been in solo or independent settings, as is often the case with classical recitalists, accompanists and or studio-based performers, interacting musically with other players in a spontaneous situation can be a difficult transition to make. Especially in an improvised setting as there are fewer set rules and preordained routines to adhere to. Also, if one is suddenly interacting with people from a different social, educational or economic background, that can affect and influence everyone's ability and willingness to take on a new musical challenge.

Improvisation is conversational and interactive, requiring good relating skills, such as making eye-contact, with other band members. Such skills can be difficult to teach per se, but are important ones for improvisers to gain. Elsewhere in this website, Richard Michael makes this same very important point. It cannot be emphasised too strongly by tutors and trainers.

Classical musicians are trained to sound "good", (as in refined or finished) when performing. Whilst most improvisers obviously would prefer to sound good (in a general overall sense) it is often not guaranteed, especially in a learning/workshop context. The assiduous and perfecting type of practice that a classical performer will go through to prepare a piece is a very different process from that of an improviser learning a given tune or song. Most classical performances do not include or encourage chance or individual creativity in the same way that improvisation does. Because of this, many musicians with classical backgrounds may feel very exposed and self-conscious while attempting to improvise, especially in front of their peers or an audience. Furthermore, the Associated Boards' Grade exams have traditionally stressed refined, finished, free of mistakes performances, in order to achieve a top mark. With the advent of jazz exams now added to their offerings, the question of how one assesses improvisation in that traditional way arises (The Associated Board will be invited to respond to this vital point). The piano improvisations of jazz iconoclasts like Thelonious Monk and Erroll Garner come to mind as examples of undeniable individuality resulting from their unique bouquet of "mistakes".


- Improvisation: page 2