Rethinking Interaction in Jazz Improvisation

By Givan, Benjamin | Music Theory Online, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Interaction in Jazz Improvisation


Givan, Benjamin, Music Theory Online


[1] In the wake of Paul Berliner's and Ingrid Monson's landmark interview-based research of the mid-1990s, the notion that "good jazz improvisation is sociable and interactive just like a conversation" (Monson 1996, 84) has become near-conventional wisdom in the field of jazz studies.(1) Numerous other scholars have since demonstrated conclusively that spontaneous ensemble interaction is a prominent element of jazz, and in so doing have greatly enrichened our knowledge and understanding of this signal Afrodiasporic art form as both a musical and a social practice.(2) Some have even gone so far as to characterize jazz as "a music that demands interaction" (Doffman 2011, 213); it has been said that dialogical interplay between participants is "fundamental and always present" within the idiom (Szwed 2000, 65), that it is "continual" (Gratier 2008, 80) and "constant throughout a performance" (Iyer 2004, 394), and that "if [it] doesn't happen, it's not good jazz" (Monson 1996, 84). Yet the concept of interaction in jazz nevertheless remains somewhat undertheorized. More still needs to be said about what, exactly, it is, and about the various roles it plays in everyday performance practice.

[2] For the purposes of this discussion, I define musical interaction as involving one or more members of an ensemble improvising spontaneously in response to what other participants are playing.(3) Improvisation, in itself, need not necessarily be interactive. But interaction, as defined here, occurs extemporaneously, rather than being predetermined in the manner of a scripted conversation or, say, the contrapuntal interplay in a fugal Baroque composition.(4) Musicians' statements and performance practices suggest that interaction, so conceived, can take a variety of different forms, some of which are ubiquitous in most any live performed music, including jazz, while others--including modes of interaction that are considered highly characteristic of jazz--are far from omnipresent in this particular idiom and can even at times be undesirable. If we can better understand when and why jazz musicians sometimes claim to prefer noninteractive performance conditions, we will be able to recognize more clearly the nature and limits of improvisatory interaction itself, as well as to differentiate more precisely between some of its various manifestations. We will also be positioned to briefly step back and consider why interaction emerged as a major focus of jazz scholarship at a particular point in time, and this trend's consequences for how jazz is viewed within the academy today.

[3] Jazz musicians do not always regard ensemble interaction as essential. For one thing, the idiom has a long tradition of unaccompanied solo playing. Pianist Billy Taylor (1921-2010) once observed that:

Many keyboard players enjoy improvising alone because solo playing gives them the freedom to organize all the elements of their music completely on their own terms. When playing solo, they do not have to react or respond to musical phrases, harmonic tensions, or rhythmic patterns provided by other musicians, as they do in jazz groups. Sometimes this leads to self-indulgent music which is boring and formless, but on other occasions the player is able to create music which is meaningful to many listeners on many different levels (1982, 23).(5)

Needless to say, jazz is a diverse art form, and Taylor plainly depicts solo playing as an exception to the norm. Moreover, when playing unaccompanied, many jazz pianists tend to mimic the idiom's typical interactive group format by enacting several ensemble roles concurrently. Taylor himself might treat a rubato unaccompanied ballad as an opportunity for unfettered pianistic self-expression, but when playing up-tempo alone he was more likely to support his right hand's horn-like melodic lines with left-hand stride patterns, walking tenths, or chordal bebop comping, all strategies embodying the dynamics of a multi-person rhythm section. …

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