Jun
05

You Are Jazz

Improvisation . . .
What do you imagine?
Jazz? Stand up comedy? Experimental theater? Modern dance?
If you were asked to improvise in the moment what would you think?
Probably your first thought would be fear, ooooh no- not me. I’m not going there.

A lot of us imagine improvisation to be some sort of magical talent that one is born with. The ability to manifest something out of nothing; to act with great purpose and spontaneity at the same time; to embrace and manage change with no prior preparation.
That set of circumstances couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in such art forms as jazz, dance and theater.
These art forms that have interactive improvisation at their core are representations of a human condition fundamental to every single one of us. That condition is simply that we do not know for certain what will happen as we move from the present into the future.

However we choose to define our lives we all live in a flow of time that can only move in one direction- from what we know to have happened in the past into an future that we do not know. And that means that, like the improvisers in jazz, movement and drama, every one of us is always improvising their way from a state of relative certainty into a future of relative uncertainty.

Consider the art of conversation. What happens when, by chance, you encounter someone you’ve known since childhood but haven’t seen or spoken with in a decade. Before the conversation even begins the recognition of the event transforms the context of your inner dialogue almost like shifting from watching one movie to watching a completely different movie. You experience a reorientation. a torrent of experiential memories and emotions that trigger assumptions and judgments perhaps leading to expectations about new possibilities. Amidst all of that, you begin to converse. Wordless ideas that form in your imagination (Noam Chomsky notwithstanding) that you spontaneously translate into creative language. You give sound and wings to your ideas intending the other person to understand them in a very particular way. All of this happens with no script, no score. It happens with the skills of linguistic improvisation, gained only through trial and error, acquired over the course of hundreds of thousands of past conversations.

This is improvisation. It’s sort of an existential technology. It happens on a circular continuum that transcends the medium of spoken word, music, dance or drama.

It begins with an idea. Some form of agreed upon common ground. Each party uses their particular skills and knowledge to create a structural foundation around that idea that will support its meaning and value- protect it so to speak- for the interaction that is to come. But at the same time, in order to hopefully achieve innovation- prepare that idea for transformation as well. Each party also uses those same skills to lead the exploration, the probing and the development of the idea. At its best this continuum of improvisation yields transformational results that the participants call innovative- an improvement for both in the meaning and value of the ideas they started with. At its worst this continuum yields chaos, confusion and alienation.

Think of the family structure. When two people decide to have a family they share the idea of the child. But it is hypothetical because until that child is a reality there is no real improvisation- it is all theoretical- even the planning purchasing and physical transformation. Once the child is born those parents, for better or worse, begin improvising. The duo becomes a trio- each parent using every skill and bit of experiential knowledge to work together to create a structure of safety and support for that child. The child is improvising as well, exploring their reality, making discoveries, formulating ideas and constantly feeding back a stream of behavioral information to the parents. Hopefully the parents integrate these responses in ways that expand their capacity to provide the framework of safety and support for the child. For better or for worse, the family is the ultimate improvisational organization

But what is the relationship between improvisation- and the realization of results that all would agree are innovative- an improvement in value and meaning?

How does improvisation lead to innovation?

In one regard the answer to that question would depend on who is asking and what they are asking about. But that approach to the question is quantitative. One that assumes the value of innovation to be based on very specific qualities of past outcomes that can and should be measured and adhered to.  In other words if we were building a jet engine or a nuclear power plant where the allowable margin of risk was very slight this approach to the question would be appropriate.

The question is more interesting, though, if asked in the qualitative sense. How does the action of improvisation begin to yield innovative results? Where and when, in that process of parents observing the child, do their responses change the world of the child in a way that allows the child to move beyond what he or she is familiar with, to risk, trust, explore and grow? And how can parents recognize and interpret the qualities that child will discover and manifest in a way that transforms the parents’ behavior so that they can continue to grow as well?

The jazz ensemble is an amazing microcosm of this process. We can observe how the improvising soloist feeds back to the supporting members of the rhythm section (also improvising) so that they can expand their support in the way the soloist needs to continue their exploration. More on this to come in future blogging.

But what can be gleaned from the way improvisation leads to innovation in jazz is that the process is always uncertain. Improvisation is always an uncertain process and does not in and of itself imply an innovative outcome.

But when innovation does occur it means that the within the process of improvisation there has been an alignment in understanding between roles of exploration and support – in jazz the interplay between the improvisation of both the soloist and the supporting rhythm section. That alignment allows for the release of the old to allow for the new. It also implies a consensus about what knowledge and truth from the past shall continue to support the meaning of what is emerging in the present.

This is the constant edge of improvisation leading to innovation. It is a state that is ephemeral, elusive and extremely vulnerable. And yet it is where all positive change begins.

The dynamics that jazz improvisers practice on a daily basis are musical. But they are also linguistic and empathic in a deeply humanistic sense. These dynamics begin and end with listening- an act that many of us have become very subconscious about. To really listen means to be aware of our position on this continuum of improvisation-to understand that our smallest actions and decisions contribute to the equation of improvisation manifesting innovation. . . or not.

Art is a reflection of fundamental aspects of how we perceive and relate to each other and the world.
Jazz is a unique art form that captures and musifies certain interpersonal dynamics that are fundamental in the improvisation of life.

Because life is improvised there is the art of jazz.

It’s about you.

  • anonymous

    What a cool way of connecting jazz improvisation to the human experience. When I stop and think, that’s all we do is improvise our way through life and the challenges it presents from one day to the next. So the truth is, everyone has that ability, because it’s at the core of the human experience. This is definitely something I’ll share with my students.

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