More Than a Coin Toss: Improvisation vs. Composition in Jazz

More Than a Coin Toss: Improvisation vs. Composition in Jazz

“In jazz the dividing line between composer and performer is a fine one subject to considerable overlapping in the sense that all jazz players can be considered composers since they are in effect composing extempore.”

Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz

Louis Armstrong has long been hailed as the George Washington of jazz, the first giant to emerge from the coterie of jazz’s founders to give focus to the new world of improvisation and swing. This image of Armstrong, a.k.a. Satchmo and Pops, has been polished anew by Ken Burns‘ video-documentary Jazz, which kicks off its second episode and ends, as a benediction with the trumpeter-vocalist’s indelible performances of “Tiger Rag” and “Dinah” — numbers he calls “good ol’ good ones” in dazzling appearance in an early talky, circa 1930. Standing before the game but overshadowed Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Armstrong sings two brilliant choruses, finishing with a completely self-assured scat phrase, elaborating on the simple, catchy melody with rhythmically-charged syllables that seem to beam from his bright eyes, knowing smile, and glowing being without mindful mediation. Then he plays a scorching out-chorus on his horn. The performance is so brimming with immediacy that audiences are easily persuaded it just happened.

The Roaring ’20s, the Jazz Age, was evidently an era in revolt against civilization’s old order, overwhelmed with its own spontaneous high spirits and in denial that an organized criminal enterprise was supplying the life of the party. It’s little wonder that a figure of fun representing the new style was elevated to a godlike level. But that’s not to deny Armstrong’s real powers.

He was said to be the loudest trumpeter of the time, required to play from the recording studio’s hall so as to let those musicians grouped around the microphone to be heard in the mono balance. His great chops, resulting from many hours since childhood of practice, enabled him to play higher and longer than other trumpeters of the time — indeed Pops made it his habit to conclude every song by reaching for an almost unattainable note and some of his most memorable solos climax with artfully paced repetitions of one blasted upper register tone.

Also, Armstrong absolutely did re-invent upon the melodies of many of the popular songs he embraced in the ’30s particularly using subtle pitch substitutions unprecedented accents and rhythmic displacements, startling hip details that refreshed stale conventions. He also kidded the simple tunes then expanded on them, identifying their most distinctive elements and reshaping them to new conclusions prompted by his own lyrical imagination.

It’s tempting to attribute his abilities to sheer force of personality as the young Armstrong was irresistibly charming and his musicality was evident in his speech, his lifestyle and his fashion sense. He was a denizen of the street, not a scholar or businessman; his message was enjoy the moment because the blues may be just around the corner. That he’d known hard times was evident in the moan and cry in his voice and his horn; that he’d triumphed over them, and could teach listeners to do the same, was clear from the adaptations, inventions and revelations he delivered that seemed to spring from him alone though they might be echoed or emulated in the music others made in his wake.

The actual process of his creativity being undocumented, it’s hard to say exactly how he turned other peoples’ tunes into his own, raising the matter of interpretation to auteur-ship, but it’s clear he did it again and again, even late in his career remaking Porgy and Bess with Ella Fitzgerald, assuming ownership of Cole Porter songs, in company with Oscar Peterson‘s trio, as well as themes from Walt Disney movies. On all these recordings, Pops’ gravelly vocal timbre stamps the song as his immediately as does the recognizable bite, heft and phrasing of his trumpet. Although many jazz experts insist Armstrong’s creative innovations were finished by the ’40s, that his repertoire, arrangements and style remained the same over the last three decades of his life, we continue to believe in Armstrong as a beacon of improvisation and spontaneity by virtue of the icons he broke in the ’20s and his desire to please the listeners before him always in the here and now.

Long before Armstrong’s routines became fixed, he modeled for jazz soloists ways they could distinguish their own improvisations. Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, even Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor — all the great improvisers — learned Pops’ lessons.

A) Be virtuosic; do all you can with your instrument.

B) Develop your own sound based on your tastes and apply it whatever you play.

C) Know what’s going on and use it for your own purposes.

With those skills presupposed, the challenge of what to play is conquerable by the musician who tries. Armed with self-knowledge and technical mastery, an individual can address improvisation on songs, chord progressions, modes, attitudes or specifics of time and place. Assuming one is never “free” of one’s own character the musician who’s open to immediate experience can yet be liberated by what they already know to arrive where they’ve never been before.

Take Charlie Parker as one archtypal example, an improviser who etched most remarkable spontaneous composition with his almost every musical breath. Mythologized as an achingly brilliant, life-long impoverished and culturally oppressed romantic hero — with an overlay of black American urban junkie genius stereotype — Parker’s flights of expression are much more ambitious, far-reaching and sustained than those of the mere Yardbird for which he’d been nicknamed as a hungry teen in Kansas City. When we listen, we are over and over lifted on Bird’s wings through his unanticipated course — dazzling trajectories of pure melody, seldom more than two choruses long, spilling at a flight-like speed out of the swing era’s rhythms and harmonies into the more intricate and intoxicating ether of bebop.

Parker was a virtuosic instrumentalist by any account, easily comparable to Paganini, in mastery of his medium. His attainment of his remarkable breath and finger coordination is legendary. Story has it that after being humiliatingly “gonged” for the amateurism of his alto playing by ramrod drummer Jo Jones of the Basie band during an audition jam, Parker retreated to an available mountain cabin, where he spent weeks obsessively running scales and intervals on his horn, compounding his own understanding of chords’ implications and connections, and perfecting his physical technique. It was about this time, too, that he committed himself to heroin dependency.

Parker was not just a heroin addict — he was a devout poly-hedonist, enjoying wine and women as well as smack and song. If we accuse (or simply depict) this self-realized musician of indulging certain compulsions, though, well, that backs us into a corner. Just what is it that drives an artist’s unprecedented accomplishment? Same demons that drive one to less flattering brinks? Bird indulged depths of personal behavior that were ultimately self-destructive, but he was not reputedly evil. We hear the world of an overwhelmingly gifted soul in his saxophone — including easily assumed strength, streaming lyricism, leaps of faith. Critical wit is another element of Bird’s story-telling, evident especially in the one existing film clip of him playing live, with Dizzy Gillespie and a rhythm trio after accepting Down Beat magazine awards on Broadway columnist Earl Wilson’s early ’50s television show.

Wilson is not the most elegant host of this rare event, bebop broadcast live — but jazz critic Leonard Feather convinces him to present the Down Beat plaques honoring Bird and Diz as players of the year. Wilson is mildly, thoughtlessly offensive, bungling the sense of the honors and referring to the musicians as “you boys” — at which Parker blinks. Asked if he has anything to say, Bird answers, “Well, Earl, they say music speaks louder than words.”

He and Gillespie, with pianist Dick Hyman (who’s face is not shown, only his hands) and an obscure bassist and left-handed drummer then kick off “Hot House,” a bebop anthem credited to Tadd Dameron, related to chord changes Cole Porter used on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Effortlessly commanding the screen, the saxist and trumpeter bite directly into the finger-busting variation of the three-phrase from which their improvisations will follow. Bird’s eyes are intense, and his hand jumps briefly from the sax’s keys to tweak the octave ring on his horn’s neck — it seems to have stuck.

Nevertheless, he takes the first improvised break — firmly setting four quarter notes right on top of the rhythm, inarguably announcing his name: “CHAR-LIE-PAR-KER!” There’s a grace note pause, then Bird unfurls one of those breath-taking, faster-than-light-or-sound trajectories of melodic rapture and grace-of-God rhythmic articulation that characterize this man’s music. I sometimes ask students to count the number of notes in this second phrase of his chorus, and no one can. After that marvel’s untraceable ups-downs-in-outs, Parker lays forth another, more relaxed distillation of the motif at hand, playing with it happily through the song’s second eight-measure section, resolving its particular puzzle before a final comment: an improbably faster repeat of the unrepeatably fast and complicated phrase he’d earlier blown, and a braying haw-he-haw (earl-wil-son) Bronx cheer, which dribbles off as Gillespie launches from Bird’s conclusion.

Very few artists in any discipline have proved able to throw together such riotiously rich, whether acidic or lush always beautiful statements as Charlie Parker could in an eyeblink, with spontaneous impulses triggering subtle, practiced movements of his fingers, mouth and lungs at the whim of his devastingly quick mind. Yet his efforts, and those of his acolytes, will likely inspire generations to come of musicians, dancers, visual artists — anyone wringing raw materials for the enduring truth of their moment, maybe even writer — to try.

More Than a Coin Toss: Facing the Flip Sides – Improvisation/Composition – of Jazz
By Howard Mandel
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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