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Role of Improvisation in Jazz Music Development

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Publish date: 30-04-2019

The aspect of improvisation is basically one of the fundamental features that crowns jazz above and apart from other music styles. Improvisation is particularly defined as an instant composition, the element of creating a new melody instantaneously. A song has a lot to derive from improvisation when composing jazz music. Normally, the progression of a chord in a particular jazz melody is followed by improvisation (Berliner 1994).

Improvisation is significantly more essential than composing in jazz. Although there are many cultures that uphold improvisation, the West provides a good example by its relevance in jazz music. For example, Beethoven’s listeners were particularly more astounded by his extempore performances than by the composition of his music. The subject of jazz music improvisation would appear to be an exceptional challenge to a psychologist, as an artist comes up with a unique work in real time (Crowther & Pinfold 1997). The innovation part of improvised jazz music is mainly determined by what is in the artist’s mind, although the combined efforts of several artists also yield much. Due to the phenomenon of improvisation, listeners will pay for and get attracted to the artist’s skills in music, mental process, and musician’s knowledge. The aspect of instant application of these factors is the main cause of improvised jazz music uniqueness (Pressing 1988). Typically, a piece begins and ends with a collective statement of an unruffled melodic theme. The artists improvise several choruses of melodic solos in between the opening and ending statements. Numerous small groups of jazz musicians do not read from the music they perform. Most jazz players will go for phrases that appear to be preordained, so listeners would guess where they are heading to, although it is created the moment you listen to the tune. The structure becomes flexible for the soloist to venture into different directions depending on the inspiration experienced at the moment.

Jazz artists have recently extemporized latest melodies that rhyme with the chord sequence of the subject. Through their long practice in improvisation, it has become possible and easier for them to steer through sequences to the chord, from chorus to chorus. They have become rather qualified in creating an apparently continuous series of melodies fitting to its vocal implications. Hence, improvisation has made it possible to quicken the rate of producing jazz music in a state where they can perform their instruments physically. However, improvisation of jazz music does not have to be accompanied by the instruments. Nevertheless, modern jazz artists prefer chord sequences which include their own unique compositions, the blues with 12 bars, and 32 measures form of ABAB or AABA that are drawn from popular songs. In this case, the piano rhythm section, the double bass, and drums accompany the horn players. A four beats to the measure and the basic metrical pulse are stated by the drums to emphasize the weak second and fourth beats, and to motivate the improvising soloist by playing rhythmic figures. In order to maintain the metrical pulse, a bass line is improvised by the bass player. A version of a given chord sequence is improvised by the pianist, with varied choice of voicing and chords, and then creating a ‘swing’ feeling through rhythmic figures to conduct a desirable performance.

Through improvisation, research has proved it possible to computerize the process. This does not mean to replace the artists with computers, but to advocate for the proposal computerizing the psychological idea of human creativity. That means that improvisation can be possibly modelled by devising a computer program, through the underlying principles of human performance (Ulrich 1977). This helps develop jazz music as there already exist computer programs that improvise jazz, though they seem to exercise simulated aptitude instead of cognitive modelling. Psychologists are still far from implementing any type of computer program which can perform as brilliant and skilful as musicians having faced many impediments and hindrances to modelling improvisation on the computer. This argument is based on principals and not on concrete proofs.  However, all this is a development of previous attempts to match jazz improvisation (Johnson 1992).

Armstrong’s Role in Jazz Improvisation

Louis Armstrong is considered to be the founding father of jazz improvisation. He is one of the most prominent jazz performers. Scat singing and melodic trumpet improvisation are considered the main seeds from which jazz music has sprouted to what it is today. Armstrong almost by himself developed the role of a jazz soloist. The improvisation Armstrong brought to New Orlean jazz (where he was their main trumpet player) and the most eminent songs of his days still remain unsurpassed by modern jazz performance. During a recording session in 1926 he forgot the lyrics and had to improvise some vocal chords.

Armstrong’s improvisations were quite unique. They were sophisticated and so daring at that time, often more melodic and subtle. As a performer, he had a deep gravelly voice that was instantly recognizable. He used to improvise vocal jazz using nonsensical words. He had a superb knack for scat singing.  Armstrong played his trumpet solos in a playful and melodic manner filled with recognizable energy that could only be achieved in an instance when he played. His unique and superb lyrical approach to jazz improvisation using the trumpet greatly shifted the face of jazz music. According to Bergreen (1997), prominent as an inventive trumpet and cornet player, Armstrong was immensely influential in jazz. He became a foundational jazz maestro who shifted the focus of jazz from collective improvisation to solo. He had a deep and distinct voice that resembled a trumpet’s sound. He demonstrated exceptional agility as an improviser by bending the song’s melody or lyrics for expressive functions. He was famous for vocalizing - using sounds and syllables in place of actual lyrics. He also mastered the art of scat singing, which can be observed in the song ‘Heebie Jeebies’. A legend tells that during one of his performances the sheet of music he was using fell to the floor. Despite that, he continued singing on his own without picking it up. The focus of jazz music changed from collective jazz improvisation to single solo performance, also known as personal expression. Armstrong practiced scat singing - singing nonsensical words and syllables, vocally simulating instrumental sounds. Scat singing became one of the most popular parts of Armstrong jazz performance. The main recorded Armstrong’s hits became the one with scat singing (Pressing 1988).

Armstrong greatly inspired countless musicians to play music of their own by creating a personal way of solo expression or personal style of improvisation. This can be achieved through voice improvisation. The art of Armstrong’s jazz improvisation was so unorthodox that even an outstanding music critic and composer stated that the highest reaches of instrumental skill, delivered with an amazing disciplined melodic manner and structure, are rarely found in one man. He made pop-tunes more appealing to listen to by re-composing them. His jazz performances were full of creative leaps, relaxing and driving rhythms, inspired, original and joyous. Armstrong greatly contributed to development of jazz improvisation. His improvisation changed the stage of jazz history, where solo performances became the focus of jazz performance (Bergreen 1997). Since then jazz changed from a functional/folk music to music where performers were praised for their creativity, freestyle improvisation, virtuosity, and artistic competence.


Ella Fitzgerald’s Role in Jazz Development

Some of the greatest jazz singers of all times learned jazz music improvisation through experience, performing, and interaction with founding fathers of jazz like Louis Armstrong. A good example is Ella Fitzgerald, whose lovely sweet voice and spontaneous vocal improvisation made her the most renowned and celebrated female jazz singer of her time.  Her vocal tone was pure and with a vocal range of three octaves: D flat3 to D flat 6 (Nicholson 1996). Her lovely voice stood out as the warmest and the most radiant. Like Armstrong, she became a maestro of scat singing that automatically made her prominent and recognizable. She also had an improvisational ability similar to that of a horn couple with impeccable diction. She used scat technique to perform one of her most popular hits ‘How High the Moon’ (Stewart 1987). Fitzgerald played a huge role in further development of jazz improvisation. Fuelled by her influence, scat syllables became a key element in the performance and improvisation of vocal jazz. Since then, scat singing and scat syllable choice began to influence vocal jazz greatly in terms of coloration, pitch articulation, as well as resonance of the performance.

During the early days of jazz music improvisation, performances were quite simple but not complex. It was rather an embellishment of the song’s melody. The improvising skill was purely guided by the ear. Gradually, jazz improvisation started to develop, due to the influence of Armstrong and Fitzgerald who shifted jazz focus from collective improvisation to solo improvisation. Armstrong introduced the technique of scat singing to jazz vocal improvisation. Solo improvisation continued to tap the deepest levels of jazz songs, until the bebop era of jazz began. During bebop era improvisation was more complex. It was full of unsingable notes which seemed to come out spontaneously. Improvising became more shifted towards extremely long solos. Harmonies became more intense and the rhythm section responded more to the soloist using accents commonly called ‘bombs’. Improvisation has continued to develop up to modern days. Nowadays jazz musicians apply knowledge of the past and employ the relationship between chords scale and chords progression as the basis of their performances (Cork 1988). Most experienced jazz improvisers can even descend to deeper levels when performing outside the tones of the song. This mainly occurs when improvisers play using semi scale tones.

In conclusion, improvisation is the dominant feature of jazz music. It makes jazz unique and grants the possibility to make the songs sound differently during each composure. Improvisation is mainly determined by the artist’s genius, artistic creativity and ability to compose instantly during performance. Instance application of improvisation is the most superb and amazing feature of jazz. Improvisation has been a long practice that has developed progressively. In the early days, improvisation was mainly done intuitively. However, great jazz musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, emerged and significantly contributed to jazz development from collective to solo improvisation (scat singing). Further development of improvisation was influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, the best female jazz singer ever. Even a bigger evolution occurred in the bipolar era, characterized by a bigger number of harmonies and very long solo performance. Modern jazz musicians mastered the method of using chord and chords progression during their improvisation.

Basically, improvisation has become a culture in jazz music. In addition to the structure imposed in song composure, jazz musicians strive to make their songs more appealing and more spontaneous. This can be done by scat singing and mainly through linking chords progression and chord scale. Improvisation quickened the evolution of jazz music and has even led to the idea of computerizing the improvisation process, though this possibility is still researched by psychologists. Improvisation of jazz music will continue to develop and outstand as this is the main feature that distinguishes jazz music from other genres.

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