The Art Of Improvising With Others



What does it take to collaborate with others to generate and develop creative ideas? To answer this question, I present the open improvisational bandstand, the epitome of spontaneous creative expressions and conversations. On such bandstands, the musicians use the given compositional ideas as a launching pad to construct new musical environments and move the piece through time. The performance is entirely unpredictable because—as Henry Threadgill, a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for music, explains—“the musicians start to change this thing, because that is what musicians do. They begin to take what I’ve given them, and reshape it and retune it, refine it. Now everybody’s got to adjust to that. It’s like a relay team or basketball team: You see how fast this guy’s taking off running, and you’ve got to adjust to that. Your communicative senses are what’s at play. You see what I am saying?”

Giving the musicians the freedom to compose live is a generous as well as a demanding proposition. If the musicians are unable to do what is takes, the entire project falls apart.

To meet the challenge of creating with others on an improvisational bandstand takes a breadth of capabilities. It assumes a comfort in creating without a predetermined outcome or roadmap. It requires an agility to respond to whatever may come your way, and a versatility to offer something that is meaningful to the music in the moment. It takes a compositional sensibility to construct with others, making decisions about when and how to build or bring down, offer contrast and surprise or context and support. It takes a willingness to play different roles, based on what the music needs—to initiate change or to buttress, to solo or to collaboratively compose. It takes submitting to the music instead of using the performance as a platform to showcase your abilities. (You often see a musician lay out—stop playing—before they feel the need to step in again. They do so because they don’t believe that they have something to add to the music in the moment.)

Jane Ira Bloom—a soprano saxophonist known for her contributions to the New York avant-garde music scene—underscored how challenging it can be to create live with others: “It takes a lot to listen, to reflect, to respond, to relate to others musically in a very present way. All of that has to be happening for the music to reach a certain level.”

At its core, creating live with others—improvisers underscore—takes deep listening. If someone is not truly present, it is noticed: The drummer Jeff Ballard recounted a story about how he was once chastised by a bandleader for not being “a hundred percent there.” It is this presence that enables an “honesty” which improvisers say is essential to their music. Jane Ira Bloom explained what this honesty means to her: “It’s about not shaping the music the way we want it to go, but the way that feels right at that moment. If you try to control events too much, you can squelch a lot of creativity that can potentially happen. As improvisers, we know if we’re treating every moment as spontaneous and fresh. We strive for it, it doesn’t always happen, but there is a kind of beauty and realization that can come with that honesty. What I have found over time is that the more honest I am with myself, and what’s going on in the moment, the more responsive people usually are. They can sense when something real is going on.”

It is not always easy to be present and honest when performing.  The Brazilian-born singer Luciana Souza described, with humility, the challenge that improvisers can face: “On the bandstand, you are performing in the moment, and you really have no choice but to totally dive into the music. You try to be there every night, but sometimes you don’t succeed. You work for it desperately, but in life there are distractions, and some nights you can’t really listen, or you are really not connecting with something deeper, or freer. You feel like, man, I have nothing to say. Sometimes in that emptiness you find something to say, and it is fantastic. Sometimes it is very surprising.”

To meet the promise of an improvisational performance, the expectations of the improviser are tremendous. They have to be present and honest, and sensitive to group play. They have to be musically versatile—capable of drawing from a broad palette to meet the needs of the moment, and proficient enough to learn the compositions they are presented with and engage with the other musicians on stage. (Steve Coleman—acclaimed for his innovations in music and a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship— said that he is “very careful about the musicians I pick. I can give lessons to people, things like that, but chances are that they have to be pretty advanced before we can even play together.” )

Remarkably, this broad set of capabilities is simply the baseline, necessary but not sufficient. What matters most is what an improviser says in the music. The aspiration is that these expressions offer depth and intimacy, surprise and provocation, and as such move the other listener and the music. When presented with something new, one or more of the other musicians on stage is compelled or inspired to respond in ways that are also imaginative, igniting a creative response in the musician who introduced something new in the first place. This call and response—the engine of an improvisational performance—is powered by the extent to which the musicians offer expressions that are unexpected and transcendent. David Binney, who has lead several experimental groups over the course of his career, spoke about how this works. The musicians in his group, he said, “bring an energy, a strong energy. It is something that as an improviser pushes me, inspires me to go further. They interpret my music in a way that is new to me, that maybe I did not think about, but I will usually, if not always, love.”

Not everyone is able to meet the challenges of improvising with others. According to the Cuban-born MacArthur Fellow Dafnis Prieto: “There are people who the way they sound improvising today is the way they sounded improvising yesterday, and the way they may sound tomorrow.” When the improvisers can be present and do what it takes, then somewhere in the performance, if not broadly across it, the listener will experience the exhilaration—the life—in the spontaneous acts of transcendence, and the creative energy and intimacy of unexpected musical conversations.

This article draws from ethnographic research of the New York City Jazz Scene.



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