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I believe the most difficult adjustments humans make are those which require flexibility and change. We are a species of habit. One which prefers to return daily to the sanctity of it's own preserved environment and one which prefers to sidestep perceived conflict. As we age this becomes more apparent.

We are apprehensive when asked to taste, hear, touch, and view the unfamiliar . Exploring the unknown requires a certain amount of faith and a willingness to improvise. You must abandon preconceived notions concerning the eventual outcome.

Musicians for eternity have been improvising. Whether it's an object chosen to transmit sound or a combination of tones arranged to communicate a thought, they have been at the fore front of innovation. Bach, Beethoven and Chopin were great impovisationalist. In many instances they played from a basic sketch or as we do in contemporary music, a chart. Bach utilised a melody underlined by a figured bass leaving the inner details open for interpretation, including a series of Roman numerals as guidelines. Chopin developed a reputation as a master of improvisation as he travelled the Polish countryside dazzling audiences with his penchant for spontaneity. Still, other composers left some of their most acclaimed compositions incomplete, eventually pieced together by musicologists.

We think of jazz as being the greatest ambassador of improvisation because it proudly identifies this aspect as being a key ingredient in it's make up. In the late 1800's, trumpeter Buddy Bolden frequented the brothel district of Storyville and the notorious communities known as "The Swamp" and " Smoky Row" in New Orleans, playing a new form of music of his own creation that relied heavily on improvisation. It was only in 1917 when an all white group calling itself the Original Dixieland Jass Band released a recording called "Livery Stable Blues" did the public begin to hear jazz. The ODJB copied the original sounds black musicians were bringing northward attempting to put a personal stamp on it for themselves. This was hard to do.

The white and black experience had been born and shaped in entirely different cultural spheres. Blacks could look to West Africa and the Caribbean and the Yoruba traditions for their heritage. Rhythm, dance, and dialogue were an essential part of life's fabric. Sound and movement were spontaneous with all in the community willing participants. Whites relied mainly on European composers who in many cases composed in isolation and were subsidised by the state. It was the combination of these divergent histories that make jazz the ultimate expression of two distinctly different peoples.Black musicians can claim exclusive rights to patent the term, but it's growth as an art form has been a joint partnership between both cultures.

Rock embraced improvisation during the sixties. Up until then consise guitar solos were usually injected in the framework of the two and a half minute song , enough to add a little spice to the recording. The sixties found jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Joe Zwainul, Cannonball Adderly, and Ramsey Lewis integrating rock rhythms in their free flowing compositions. The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver and the Messenger Service, Jimi Hendricks, The Cream, Buddy Miles,Carlos Santana, Iron Butterfly among many others introduced a young audience to long , unending improvisational sections which could last forty minutes or more. This was the era of progressive rock. Much of the improvisation came from two schools, the blues or East Indian scales, introduced by guitarist Mike Bloomfield of the Blues Project and Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

I once taught an introductory class at Northern Illinois University on improvisation. To get the students, who age ranged from fourteen to fifty, to abandon the riggidity of relying entirely on written music , I encouraged them to speak through their instruments as if they were involved in a engrossing conversation. Express what was on the mind , listen, and communicate . With eight people weaving in and out the group began to sound like an avant garde band at moments dissonant at others in harmony. As they played a composition arose of their own creation. The greatest thing about the whole experience was witnessing the freedom of thought each shared with one another. Few situations in life encourage this. Try it, you'll revel in it!

Written by : Bill King


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