Jazz isn’t the only art form that contains individualism and improvisation.
If you happened to catch my Christmas jazz show last month, you heard me remark about the individualistic character of jazz, even in the context of old tried-and-true Christmas standards. The impulse behind that however is by no means limited to jazz. Individualism is at the core of all the arts.
It would be too simplistic to say that all art is improvisational Like a jazz solo. But it is accurate to say that all art comes from the workings of the brain of the individual artist. And all artists are different. So when you hear an improvised jazz solo you are
hearing a quality that is present in all of the arts even though it may be less evident. Jazz improvisation just puts it front and center more obviously. Painters like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Jasper Johns, not to mention great stage actors, all are responding in the moment to impulses from their heart, from the brain, from their soul and in a flash translating those impulses into communication. In this way improvisation individualism is at the heart of all art.
It doesn’t just happen without work, even though the work is largely invisible to the outside world. The creation of a Miles Davis solo may happen in an instant but it’s the product of years.
A friend of mine recently put it this way: “There’s a lot of work that goes into that one magical and ethereal moment when you witness an artist create art right there in front of you.”
If you remember the old PBS series Masterpiece Theater, you may remember that a long time ago the episodes were all introduced by an Englishman named Alastair Cooke. As it turns out, those introductions were improvised. Cooke would do his preparation work—he would think about the play, think about the author, ponder the circumstances in which it was written. Then he would sit down in an armchair, the cameras would roll and he would improvise a perfect 90 second intro.
I wish I could do that. I wish I could improvise a good bass line from a chord chart.
I can’t do that. Not yet at least.
All this is to say that when you look at or listen to art, you’re hearing something that is both the product is the product both of spontaneity and individualism, and years of reflection study and thought.
Miles Davis himself said that “If anyone wants to be about creating, they have to be about change.” And sometimes with music, change and creation means playing the same song differently each time while still letting it remain the same song. A paradox like that requires something as powerful as art to make it happen.