Jazz Professional               



Improvisation: Can it be learned?

The timely emergence
The flute's voice
Sophistication, the Samba and the Search
Playing with big orchestras
Enjoying a more interesting life
Let's get rid of the categories
Food for thought
Improvisation: Can it be learned?
Bud Shank Today
Selected performances

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1987

It is a difficult thing to talk about improvisation—to completely analyse and explain to someone what we do.

However, I do have the Bud Shank Jazz Workshop, and one of the things it specialises in is bringing out in kids this ability to improvise. Now, I think the fact has long been established that you cannot teach improvisation to someone who does not have whatever it takes—a gift, a natural talent or whatever. You can bring it out in people that don't know they have it.

A lot of classical musicians—some of them in the middle of their life—have all of a sudden found out that they can become excellent improvisers. A case in point is Jimmy Walker, the guy that was in the first flute chair with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and who became and is a very good jazz flautist.

But I think the most important thing is helping to release that ability in some of the younger kids, that don't know that they have it. And the other thing that we try to work with is: find kids who are natural–born improvisers but who have been carried away in, shall we say, the wrong direction, without paying attention to this crucial question, to listening to jazz roots—listening to all the people who have gone before them. The case in point is all the young tenor saxophone players who start with Michael Brecker—to them, there is nobody older than Michael Brecker. Now, those are the things that are wrong, and we find a lot of that. So it's a matter of directing people in the right direction, so that they can expand their abilities in the improvisation area.

That ability to compose spontaneously—I hate to say it, but I guess it is a gift. Some got it and some ain't! In my particular case, there was no reason why it happened; there's no music in my family—there's not even such a thing as an improviser in my family, of any sort. And I think you find that a lot. On the other hand, you find other people who grew up with music around them all the time—and they are also very good; sometimes better, because they've had some direction early in their life.

The essential ability is: to have so much control of what you're doing, to have control of your emotions and your thoughts and total control of your instrument and be able to think not only where you are but ahead, where you're going.

Most jazz musicians are way ahead of themselves, thinking where they're going—they're not involved with only that split–second moment of where they are. It's where they're going and where they've been, where they're coming from—it's constantly travelling. That's one of the things that the young kids don't realise, you know—they're concerned with the moment only, and what they're doing on a particular chord. You can't compose melodies, you can't compose phrases that way. Because even if you're playing one–note impressionistic–type nineteen–sixties changes—minor ninths for three hours—you still have to compose melodies; you have to think where you're going. You can't just think a note at a time—you're looking at a broad scale.

As I said, some guys are thinking seconds and seconds and seconds ahead of where they are. And this is a difficult thing for a lot of people to learn. You might find someone who is a pretty good natural improviser and does not yet concern himself with making long–note phrases. These are the kinds of things we're concerned with in my school: bringing this out of people, showing them the direction, showing them what you have to do to improve that.

I'm sure there have been a lot of people in the past who could have been good improvisers, but were not led in the right direction and lived their whole lives without ever even knowing it. I don't think it's necessarily the case that when a person is born with this ability he is going to fulfil that and become an improvising musician. I may be wrong about that, and that's actually the first time I've ever said that, but it would seem to me that it's the kind of thing that could lay there latent all through some person's life. It has to be brought out—by exposure, by direction.

Every musician that I've ever talked with—I guess I would say this pretty much across the board—that has been a success as a musician in general or a jazz musician in particular knew that they were going to be a professional musician by, say, ten or eleven years old; there was never any doubt in anybody's mind. There was never any doubt in my mind; from the time I got my first clarinet, it worked—I didn't know that I was going to be a jazz musician when I was ten years old, but I knew I was going to play, and it was straight ahead from there. And across the board you'll find that.

Obviously, a lot of people who have that desire to be a professional musician don't end up being improvising jazz players. They may turn out to be marvellous violinists in the symphony somewhere, and may have never been concerned about being an improviser—but they still had that desire to be a good musician.

Although talking about it is difficult, there have been lots of things written about it. Jerry Coker has written a lot; Jamey Aebersold has a lot of literature—and they're all we have to work with. There are a lot of things that I disagree with about both of their methods, but it's a11 we have, and so we use it to work with—and a lot of schools and colleges are using their literature to work with. I think the best thing that Jamey Aebersold has is his books on the II min 7, V7, I—the sequence which we use so much, over and over again—he does explain that well, and teaches kids how to use it, with study and with use of devices such as modes, and using play–along records, where you can hear the thing. Now, that's a device that can be learned—and it really is a marvellous device.

Incidentally, I never knew anything about chord changes until I'd made a lot of my first records—after I had been with Stan Kenton. I had been working at the Lighthouse for a long time before I knew anything at all about chord changes. I finally went and studied with Shorty Rogers, and learned what chords were. Because I'd played totally by ear prior to that time. And I was a well–schooled musician, you know; I had a legit background on clarinet, and I was a music major as such when I was in college, until I quit. But it was always so easy for me to play on songs, as soon as I learned them; I said: "What do I need to know those things for?" I finally found out why you need to know them—and by that time I had to do something about it in a hurry; so I'm glad I did find out.

But you find a lot of people like that—who play all their life by just using ear. And you find a lot of people who play all their life doing nothing but being totally conscious of the chord changes at all times. Both are honest, good improvisers, that are creative. Maybe not revolutionary—but creative, anyway.

We have in the United States—here also, I guess—a lot of teachers in music programmes who are hired as stage band directors, and they are probably damn good ones, but they are not improvisers, they know themselves very little about it, and they have been confined to using only the Aebersold and Coker books, without the benefit of knowledge of their own. This has misdirected a lot of kids and, again, that's why my school and a lot of other Summer workshops are thereto help straighten them out about when they need to know.

Can what Ornette Coleman does and what I do be equally described as improvisation? Yes, most certainly—it just depends on what device or what medium you're in, really. What has become known as avant garde or free jazz is improvisation totally without structure. Now, to me structure is very important, and I do not agree that we can do without it—it ends up where you're dealing with nothing but emotions; music as we know it has left. This then opens the door for a lot of what I would call inadequate musicians, as far as mastery of their instruments. They can get away with performing in that medium called free jazz, because they're only dealing with emotion—they don't have to know about structure, or about chord changes, or about scales, and they don't want to.

What, then, is music? When does it stop being music, whether it's improvised, written or whatever, and become something else? And I think, in a lot of cases, in the totally unstructured improvisation, that's what has happened—it's gone over the line from what 1 consider music to be.

However, I do agree with freedom and total stretching out within a structure. It does not necessarily have to be the structure of the great American song form, which is what most mainstream and bebop guys use, including me. You can have other kinds of structure; it can be very broad, but there must be something for you to latch on to. I'm dealing, when I play, with both time which is swinging and melodies, which are the emotional part, among other things. It's got to swing and it's got to be pretty, somewhere along the line—or if not pretty, at least some kind of melody's got to be there. I mean, you can make a melody up out of a diminished scale, however strange it may be—and you can develop on that. That, to me, is where the art of improvisation is—developing inside a given structure. And that given structure could be only one chord. Like a cadenza. Even a cadenza in legitimate music is a structure for creativity. It need not be improvised brand new every time they hit the spot in that concerto. But at least it's you, and not somebody else. There's another important part about this thing: improvisation is very personal. Your own personality, your own emotions are put to use within the structure that is given by the composer, by the musicians, by the conditions of where you are.

One of the things I say to my kids is: "Improvisation or jazz music, however you want to say it, is not an exact science—no matter what some of the people say in the books". It's an abstract art form, and when you're dealing in an abstraction there are intangibles; there are things you can't touch. You can't reach out and grab it and hold it and take it back and look at it; you can hear it and reflect on it. It's also a spontaneous art form; when it's a live performance, it's that moment, those moments, that evening. That's one of the reasons why records are good: it gives the audience, the jazz fan a chance to go over a over a section, a piece, or a whole side of a record. It helps them to see where to grasp hold of the points of that structure. In a club, it's probably more difficult; you're dealing only with excitement and emotions. Or the opposite of excitement—the downers—but still a lot of emotions.

Yes, it is possible to analyse too much. That goes for students, for jazz fans and for the performing improvisers. I get to a point, when I'm trying to think about what to tell my students, where I stop—because I find I'm screwing myself up.

Some of that stuff I don't want to know! Since I've been back playing again, in the last eight or ten years, I've been doing a lot more studying—becoming more and more familiar with the keyboard, and with chords and changes and scales. It's opened up a lot of new things for me; I'm finding all kinds of new territories, in areas that I've played all my adult life. All of a sudden it's a whole new ball game in there, and that's what is exciting for me—that's the way it should be.

I mean, I can still find exciting new things to do with "All The Things You Are". I don't play it very much any more, because I'm sure most audiences are sick and tired of hearing it—but that's not because I don't like to play it, because I would like to play it, and do like to play songs like that. There's a lot of new places to go—within that structure. And that's a perfect example of the great American song form used as an improvisational structure for a jazz musician. It's been going on since the forties—well, before that guys were using standard songs, but it really came into being with Dizzy and Bird and the bebop songs on "I Got Rhythm" changes and so on, and it continued from there.

So what it all comes down to, as I said, is trying to point people in the right direction. You certainly cannot take somebody who is a non–improviser and make him into one – it’s got to be there. I've seen people try—people who are marvellous musicians who had the desire to do it. I mentioned Jimmy Walker, who made it. But there's a girl flautist, a very good friend—one of the best flautists there are—who is really totally fascinated by jazz music. I've tried to help her; I've sent her to professional theory teachers to lead her to it; I've given her records to listen to—other people have done the same thing. No way—it does not happen. She can't even make up her own cadenzas, which is one thing that she would love to do. Her name is Louise Dutilleux, by the way—she's a great player. She is young enough; this is not somebody who's well–established as a legit flute player saying: "What else can I do?" This girl is in her late thirties, something like that, and really has an honest curiosity and fascination about improvising musicians—and can't do nothin' about it! You just have to do what you can do. And if you have that gift, you've got to make your opportunities. That's another thing that kids keep asking us: "Where do I go to play?" Well, I tell them that it was not given to any of us—we had to go find our spots, find our people to play with. They'll find it or create it—it's there somewhere.

Copyright © 1987, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.