I always begin my jazz improvisation classes at Columbia College Chicago by asking this question. For many of them jazz improvisation is brand new, so it’s important to know how they think. The answers I get generally include the words spontaneity, creation, expression and inspiration. I ask for their help in finding connections.

Expression vs. Creativity

I write these words on a whiteboard in order to prompt further reflection. Students often think about spontaneity as the real-time invention of new music. Creativity is often perceived as a highly individual act. Students generally describe expression as the act of making a unique, highly personal statement. Their perspective is that this necessarily involves creating wholly original material.

The idea that improvisation happens when the muse strikes, is an undeniably romantic notion. But it’s a pretty unreliable way to learn to improvise. I offer a more practical definition.

Jazz improvisation is about making choices in the moment, from things you already know how to play really, really well.

This really makes students stop and re-think their ideas about improvisation. How can something be ‘improvisation’ if it consists of familiar materials?  If we aren’t ‘making stuff up’, then what are we doing when we improvise? We are expressing our thoughts and feelings, the essence of who we are at the moment.  We are communicating in the language of music.

Jazz is a unique language

Think about the day to day conversations you take for granted. Your ability to communicate effectively depends entirely on your ease with familiar words and phrases. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language you may have had a very different experience. When trying to speak, you probably experienced a fair amount of frustration and failure. That’s because you were mostly focused on trying to remember vocabulary and grammar. Most of your effort was probably directed at trying to access the language, at the expense of communicating effectively.

Attempting to communicate, to speak in jazz, is much the same. You can’t improvise creatively without being fluent in the jazz language. When you don’t know the language, you’ll always be searching for the right notes, phrases, and rhythms. As a result, you’ll have a lot of trouble expressing yourself. It’s not that you don’t have something to say, it’s that you don’t have enough fluency in the language to speak effectively. You lack vocabulary.

A Shared Vocabulary

All high-level jazz players make use of a shared vocabulary. This vocabulary consists of short phrases; groupings of notes with particular melodic, harmonic and rhythmic characteristics.  As you learn this vocabulary you’ll start to recognize commonalities in the styles of players from all corners of the jazz world. 

Unlimited possibilities

Learning this shared language brings you into the global jazz community. It offers you the chance to bridge cultural and generational divides and to collaborate and create with jazz musicians everywhere. Learning the language is hard work, but the rewards are worth it.