this essay, I am going to discuss and compare a list of Jazz music that focuses
on improvisation and its evolution starting from early Jazz to contemporary
the early Jazz period, small ensembles from New Orleans played spirited and
syncopated dance music. A White group from New Orleans called Original
Dixieland Jazz Band performed and recorded “Livery Stable Blues” in 1917. This
piece is repetitive as the group did not do a lot improvisation but they made
different embellishment and variation. With clear and clean breaks, the
musicians managed to convey special effects of different animals such as
rooster and horse using instruments (Hasse, 2017). This effect can be heard in
1:18 and 1:38. These could be a starting and inspiration for improvisation.
the 1920s, the music was influenced a lot by ragtime and blues elements. The
piece I listen to is Louis Armstrong’s “Savoy Blues” released in 1927. As shown
in the song title, the music contains much of the blues scales. There is guitar
improvisation at 1:00 and then trumpet improvisation by Armstrong at 1:30. The
style of improvisation is quite reserved and controlled as the melody is rather
relaxing and simple.
another interesting piece by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five is “West End
Blues” (1928). Armstrong played the trumpet solo and scatted singing too. In
the middle section at 1:49-2:26, the soloist is Louis Armstrong as the
vocalist. He did not sing the lyrics; instead, he scatted and improvised using
his voice. The phrasing of the improvised melody fits very well with the
accompaniment and it is still within the 12-bar blues progression (“Analysis of
West End Blues,” n.d.). Louis Armstrong was known to popularize scat singing. Earlier
in 1926 when he recorded “Heebie Jeebies” with the same band, Armstrong stated
that he accidentally dropped the music sheet during recording but he continued
singing with nonsense syllables (Blazeski, 2017). The first response he did was
scat singing which is a vocal improvisation when he did not have the original
lyrics. The results turned out acceptable to the band members as well as the public.
The scat singing can be heard from 1:50-2:05.
we move on to the Swing Era around the 1930s to 1940s where big bands were
being featured and music is more likely in the written arrangement. The
improvisation is more gentle, restrained, cleaner and applicable to more
people. The rules of improvisation are to remain the structure of the song and
must follow the chord progressions that are assigned to the song. For instance,
“Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington and His Band shows characteristic of musicians
taking the turn to improvise even though it is just a short while because the
improvisation is not the highlight in the piece. Improvisation starts around
0:52 and each soloist is basically accompanied by the whole big band. Another
signature tune performed by the same group is “Take The ‘A’ Train” that
consists of piano, double bass, drum and brass instruments such as trumpets,
trombones and saxophones. The solo improvisation takes place very quickly in
between the band accompaniment and also was played like an orchestra.
that, the music started shifting the balance away from music writers towards
improvising instrumentalists, from big band jazz to small group and soloist.
The music is performed based on chord structure and relied on familiar
performing conventions. The instruments used are very minimal such as piano,
drum and one brass instrument. For example, “Autumn Leaves” is often called on
jam sessions or informal occasions and usually requires minimal rehearsal
because it is one of the well-known tunes that everyone knows. There are many
versions of “Autumn Leaves” covered by different artists around the world with
respective styles such as Nat King Cole that has an elegant voice, Cannonball
Adderley featuring Miles Davis that give impression of cool and fusion, Bill
Evans that is more to swing genre, Wynton Marsalis that challenges speed,
technique and complexity etc. Each musician has their signature style and
character in their own improvisation.
the mid-1940s, experimentation and Bebop music started to stand out and
manipulate the jazz music industry. This genre gave a big shock to the public
because it is totally different from the previous era with explosive
improvisations. The common characteristics of this genre are very quick tempo
and unpredictable complex content (melody and harmony) that are not suitable
for singing and dancing. The Bebop pioneer – Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” is
one the great examples of Bebop. The unique solo improvisation starts from 0:28
and it brings listeners to experience the sound racing, fragmented and often
1950-1955, Cool Jazz started to arise. After Bebop was revealed, there were
criticism and sarcasm as they thought it is a disgrace of musicians’ etiquette.
Musicians started looking for other methods to express themselves. The music
then became more laidback and spiritual. Cool Jazz iconic musician – Miles
Davis produced a lot of recordings such as “Boplicity” and “Birth of The Cool”.
In his music, listeners can feel the ‘coolness’, especially in improvisation.
At the same time, the shadow of Bebop was maintained through the melody
phrasing. Miles Davis had successfully made this genre including Bebop
acceptable to the public.
to 1970s, musicians explored new genre called Fusion or known as Jazz Rock. In
this period, musicians started to use electronic instruments and synthesizers
to produce electronic effects. One of the notable figures is John McLaughlin, a
guitarist in the band called Mahavishnu Orchestra. Pieces like “Vital
Transformation”, “Meeting of the Spirits” and “You Know You Know” are rock-like
but the rhythm is Indian-influenced. Through these pieces, it can be seen than
musicians started to like Eastern elements. Improvisation in Fusion is more to
groove-based and varies in length and complexity.
but not least, contemporary Jazz since the 1990s has no fixed genre because it
is so diverse. Musicians continue experimenting electronic music through
synthesizers and mixing all kind of genres together. “Pipeline” by Bill Frisell
shows a great example of music in the contemporary era. He and his band made a
lot of effects with the guitars while the drum provided the steady beat
throughout. Musicians are not afraid to explore new music and continue to
experiment the nature of sound (Poe, 2016).