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The Mystery of Jazz Improvisation

Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is starting out with a blank piece of paper, an empty word processor document, a white canvas, a block of marble... or 32 measures of slash marks with no notes under them. The slash marks indicate that you are supposed to make up your own music during that time. You do get a bit of assistance from the chord symbols. They tell you what the right notes might be. But right notes don't neccesarily create good improvisation. In fact, some of the worst jazz solos I've heard consisted of all the right notes. So there is obviously more than that. If it was that simple everyone could do it equally well.

What is the element that made Charlie Parker stand out from the rest of the saxophonists of his time? That is the magic question, the Holy Grail of improvised music. Nobody knows. At least nobody who I've talked to knows. And I've talked to a lot of musicians. I teach jazz improvisation. This is difficult, because I'm not sure how I learned it myself. I certainly didn't learn it the way I teach it. I teach people how to play right notes, to construct melody, to do all the things than analysis says creates good jazz. But does that, in and of itself, work? Not a chance. In the wrong hands, this makes the situation worse. They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and everyone that's taught a budding musician the blues scale will attest to this.

But we all know a good improvised solo when we hear one. We can listen Louis on West End Blues or Bird on Tunisia or Brownie blazing through Cherokee and KNOW that's IT! But when you look at the notes on the page, they look very similar to what anyone might play. But it's not the notes. It's not the phrasing, it's not the sound. It's something I can't define. Of course all the factors are there, but it's more than that. It's magical. It's a moment in time that will never exist again.

People have tried to explain it. The old guys would say "you have to tell a story". This is a little hint, but still doesn't explain the magic that happens on the rare occasions when musical history is made. After all, how do you tell a story? The best stories are the ones that people have lived, so maybe that's a part of the truth. Maybe it's "paying your dues", another saying musicians like to use. I just think they don't know either. It's all true. You have to tell a story, you have to make the changes, you have to play with the right phrasing and the right feel. A computer can do that. Wynton Marsalis can do it, but that doesn't make him Louis Armstrong.

Maybe the reason we love music in general and jazz in particular is that it can't be explained, and it can't be taught. It just has to be. Who knows. It's humbling even to think about it, isn't it?

 

 
 
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