The Art of Improvisation
Jan 13, 2013

Embracing the lessons of jazz masters in an innovative approach to news

Despite my deep-seated love for all things musical, I didn't really begin exploring jazz until I was twelve years old. I know this fact, intimately, because I know the exact moment when jazz became real to me. It was during the TV special, "Motown Returns To The Apollo," when I first heard Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine sing. I was completely mesmerized. I walked into the den, where my father was watching another program, and explained how much I loved what I had just heard. Tickled by my enthusiasm, he directed me to a stack of his old albums and told me I should just start "shedding" with them. Basie. Ellington. Sarah. Ella. Miles. Coltrane. Dizzy. Rather than give me a lot of factual background, my father pointed me in the right direction, then left my jazz education to be completely self-directed. And for that, I am deeply grateful.

Because I spent countless hours listening to the works of jazz masters on my own, I successfully avoided being swayed by subjective ideas like who was more critical to the furtherance of the art, or which album was more influential or essential to study. I liked what I liked, developed my own ideas of genius and expertise, and drew my own conclusions about whose music made the deepest impression on the contemporary artists I admired. Most importantly, I respected how easily these jazz greats could move between a brilliant written figure within the song and then branch out into an otherworldly improvisation. How they could become one with the composition AND their fellow musicians, and just free themselves to a new pathway of expression in the music.

When New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton wrote a blog stating that jazz was dead, I found myself agreeing with him when I took a close read. Jazz dies whenever someone treats another person's musical ideas like they are more important than their own moments of inspiration. Bebop was monumental because the rules were being written, broken and rewritten in real time. And modern musicians like the ethereal Esperanza Spalding remind us that there is no such thing as a "normal" path to stardom. Authenticity is always more important than being studied in someone else's methodology. You listen, you practice, you compose and edit, but when the lights and mics are on, it's all about how much you live in that moment. And how fearless you can be to take a good idea and run with it when you have the chance.

I'd like to think that I live that way. I study, I outline, I plan and I implement. But I also try to leave a little room for Spirit to come in and guide me into something wonderful that I could never foresee in advance. The art of improvisation. A gift, and a blessing, learned from the masters.

Here is last week's playlist: