Charlie "Bird" Parker improvising on sax

The Paradox of Improvisation

The ability to improvise has been considered by many as an elite aspect of art, music, comedy, and even life itself. From a musical standpoint, improvisation can be defined as playing or singing extemporaneously, especially by inventing variations on a melody or creating new melodies in accordance with a set progression of chords For a musician to learn how to improvise jazz, he or she must listen to other musicians to understand what jazz sounds like ( This, however, supports the argument that there may not be such a thing as improvisation and that all improv is based on some form of emulation. Therefore, when comparing the literal definition of improvisation with the common conception of improvisation, there is a noticeable paradox created.In a literal sense of the word, improvisation means a creation of something new and on the spot, something the individual has never done before. For example, a jazz musician who is performing what is considered to be “improvised,” has most likely played the same chords/scales/instrument in the past. However, the performance cannot be considered to be improvisation over certain musical material, but it can be seen as an improvisation solely because the musician creates new ideas, while expanding on old ones, based on what he/she has encountered before. Jazz Improv. It is on the spot creativity- showcasing what one knows: melodically, harmonically, musically, communicatively, of his/her instrument, and very importantly in terms of phrasing/articulation. All in all, improvisation is a conglomeration of these delicate features, which is why it is so tough to master but also why it yields great success (at least inwardly if not on a popular basis)!

History of Jazz Improvisation

The evolution of the jazz genre can be mapped out by observing the level of improvisation.
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Early musicians like Jelly Roll Morton played a style of jazz that sounded much like the ragtime music played in dance halls in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Jelly Roll Morton’s 1924 King Porter Stomp is a great example of the jazz pianist combining the traditional bass rhythms of ragtime with a more relaxed right hand which loosely plays the solo notes.
As Big Band Jazz became popular in the late twenties/ early thirties Benny Goodman’s 1937 Sing Sing Sing featured not only the solo stylings of the clarinet, but also the featuring of every single section of the band including the drummer alone.
In the 1940s, several musicians were enlisted in the American army, so jazz ensembles took on a minimalist approach, with often only one instrument playing its own part of the tune. A list of 1940s small group, post-swing era combos. These far smaller ensembles led to the beginning of the jazz era we know of as bebop (see Bebop). Since there were less players to worry about, musical coordination and "togetherness" was no longer a threatening issue; everyone could communicate to find their part during a tune, as opposed to learning longer, fixed charts in big bands. Shorter charts meant conciseness, although melodies got tougher to recognize because they were based on complex harmonic structures.
Improvisation is then synonymous with Bebop because of the freer structure of these smaller ensembles and charts.

--------> STOP and LISTEN: John Coltrane’s Giant Steps (1960)
This is such a poignant example of the culmination of jazz improvisation.

The Nitty-Gritty- Q: What is Improvisation? (A: What you make of it...)

In jazz, to improvise is to play within (or around in most instances, and beyond as in Free Jazz) specific musical scales that belong to the harmonic changes of a given tune. There are musical rules and boundaries of sorts that jazz musicians follow, although in this improvisational tradition is has been known of musicians to tweak these boundaries and expand the genre much further (see Pat Metheny & Ornette Coleman radical improvisatory expansion). The musician will play variations on certain scales and chords in attempt to produce this improvisatory effect. Common harmonic alterations, which result in melodic tones heard during solos are: adding the tritone (dim. 4th/aug. 5th), flat/sharp/or natural 9th, sharp 11th, flat and/or natural 13th. These altered and varying tones add color to instrumental phrasing just as an expanded vocabulary does to anyone who wants to express themselves fully among other intellectuals and to wider audiences. Having a wide range of notes under ones fingertips allows for ease under these Q & A situations.

Current/Pop Culture and Improvising

Present in the current hip-hop culture, improvisation can be found in rap “freestyle” battles. Such "battles" are based onthe notion of on the spot creativity. Just like the jazz musician, a rap "freestylist" gathers words from their prior knowledge of the language and composes them in a way that creates rhyming rap lyrics (albeit sometimes offensive).
Improvised Rap Battle (one among many we find today).

From both the literal and conceptual sense of improvisation we can see how artists like jazz musicians and rappers try to develop a “(re-)interpretation and (re-)creation” of basic elements in a musical genre (Hutcheon). Thus, improvisation is a form of adaptation of outside influences, past experience, and prior knowledge that functions to generate spot creativity.

Improvisation is also a big part of Bebop

Bepop is all about a fast tempo improvisation, A bebop improvisation with the chordal harmony of a tune will have no reference to the original melody.
Here is a speaker talking about jazz, improvisation and bebop. Jazz Bebop Improv youtube video.