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Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation

Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation

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by Paul F. Berliner

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A landmark in jazz studies, Thinking in Jazz reveals as never before how musicians, both individually and collectively, learn to improvise. Chronicling leading musicians from their first encounters with jazz to the development of a unique improvisatory voice, Paul Berliner documents the lifetime of preparation that lies behind the skilled improviser's every


A landmark in jazz studies, Thinking in Jazz reveals as never before how musicians, both individually and collectively, learn to improvise. Chronicling leading musicians from their first encounters with jazz to the development of a unique improvisatory voice, Paul Berliner documents the lifetime of preparation that lies behind the skilled improviser's every idea.

The product of more than fifteen years of immersion in the jazz world, Thinking in Jazz combines participant observation with detailed musicological analysis, the author's experience as a jazz trumpeter, interpretations of published material by scholars and performers, and, above all, original data from interviews with more than fifty professional musicians: bassists George Duvivier and Rufus Reid; drummers Max Roach, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Akira Tana; guitarist Emily Remler; pianists Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris; saxophonists Lou Donaldson, Lee Konitz, and James Moody; trombonist Curtis Fuller; trumpeters Doc Cheatham, Art Farmer, Wynton Marsalis, and Red Rodney; vocalists Carmen Lundy and Vea Williams; and others. Together, the interviews provide insight into the production of jazz by great artists like Betty Carter, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker.

Thinking in Jazz overflows with musical examples from the 1920s to the present, including original transcriptions (keyed to commercial recordings) of collective improvisations by Miles Davis's and John Coltrane's groups. These transcriptions provide additional insight into the structure and creativity of jazz improvisation and represent a remarkable resource for jazz musicians as well as students and educators.

Berliner explores the alternative ways—aural, visual, kinetic, verbal, emotional, theoretical, associative—in which these performers conceptualize their music and describes the delicate interplay of soloist and ensemble in collective improvisation. Berliner's skillful integration of data concerning musical development, the rigorous practice and thought artists devote to jazz outside of performance, and the complexities of composing in the moment leads to a new understanding of jazz improvisation as a language, an aesthetic, and a tradition. This unprecedented journey to the heart of the jazz tradition will fascinate and enlighten musicians, musicologists, and jazz fans alike.

Editorial Reviews

Describes how jazz musicians, both individually and collectively, learn to improvise. By chronologically leading musicians from their first encounters with jazz to the development of a unique improvisatory voice, Berliner documents the lifetime of preparation that lies behind a skilled improvisor's every note. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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University of Chicago Press
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Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology
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Thinking in Jazz

The Infinite Art of Improvisation

By Paul F. Berliner

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-04381-4


Love at First Sound

Early Musical Environment

Jazz was a street music in a sense, the kind of expression coming out of the black community. When I discovered jazz, it was like going to some part of the world where I hadn't actually studied the language, but finding out that I could understand certain things immediately, that it spoke to me somehow. I knew that I would have to travel a long and rocky road in my endeavor to play jazz, but I felt like I already understood the language.—Curtis Fuller

Precisely when musical development begins is a matter for speculation. It depends on definitions of both music and development. Some consider that the earliest musical conditioning takes place in the womb, where the heartbeat of the mother accompanies her baby's growth. Late in its development the unborn child also responds to sounds outside the womb as they are transmitted through the mother's body, although it is impossible to know how the sounds are transformed in the process or what perception the unborn child has of them. The act of birth itself can be viewed as the newborn's first performance. Raised in the hands of the attendant, its flailing arms and kicking legs comprise its first dance; its expressive cry, its first song.

Once out of the womb, the infant finds itself in a rich auditory world, many of whose elements are not easily differentiatable. Intermittent bird song, episodes of thunder, and the patter of rain melt together, filtering into the infant's immediate setting. Sounds made by machines with their own specialized dialects of pitch and rhythm intermingle with nature's patterns and sometimes impose upon them forcefully. The playful voices of parents periodically assume the foreground within this kaleidophonic array to engage the infant in responsive exchanges. In part, the infant gains a sense of its identity by discovering its own power as a sound producer and manipulator. Stirring on its mattress and extending its reach creates an entertaining counterpoint of escaping air, crinkling plastic sheets, and colliding toys. Vocal cords summon relatives to nurse it or pacify it with their company.

As infants make headway in sorting out the diverse patterns in their surroundings and defining their own relationship to them, they discover other sounds that, although differing from all others, bear a curious relationship to them, at times even mimicking their elements. The new sounds are called music, of course, and their precise characteristics can vary greatly from one part of the world to the next, from one community to the next, from one household to the next, and ultimately from one imagination to the next.

It is within the soundscape of the home and its environs that children develop their early musical sensibilities, learning their culture's definition of music and developing expectations of what music ought to be. Similarly, within the confines of their music community or music culture, children learn the aesthetic boundaries that define differing realms of performance, forming impressions of the most basic attributes of musicianship.

Early Performance Models

In reflecting on their early childhoods, many jazz artists describe the process by which they acquired an initial base of musical knowledge as one of osmosis. They cultivated skills during activities as much social as musical, absorbing models from varied performances—some dramatic, others incidental yet profoundly effective—that attuned them to the fundamental values of African American music. Ronald Shannon Jackson remembers his father's infectious habit of humming the blues "around the house" while carrying out daily routines. Vea Williams's mother sang jazz "all the time" at home; she possessed a beautiful, powerful voice that passed easily through the apartment's screens and resonated throughout the courtyard.

The children of professional musicians receive a particularly intense exposure to performance. Tommy Turrentine fondly recollects his father's "saxophone section" that practiced regularly in their living room. Music literally "surrounded" Turrentine as a child. Lonnie Hillyer also describes much of his early musical education as "environmental"; his older brother "played jazz, and he always had guys in the house fooling around with their instruments." In Barry Harris's Detroit neighborhood, he and his young friends absorbed the intricate rhythms of the "ham bone"; its clever body percussion—slapping movements between the thigh and chest—accompanied improvised texts. Additionally, in the surrounding neighborhood, the "average black family had a piano and at least one family member who could play boogie-woogie." Kenny Barron used to anticipate eagerly the daily arrival of the neighborhood ice peddler, a blues player who routinely availed himself of the Barrons' piano after delivering the family's ice, fascinating the youngster with his musical prowess. After he left, Barron would try to pick out on the piano "the little melodies and chords" he remembered from the performance.

Within the larger community, hymnody at church services, marches at football games, and soul music at social dances contribute further to the children's education, as do concerts in performance halls and informal presentations in parks and at parades. During the thirties, Charli Persip was especially fascinated by a black orphanage's high-stepping marching band that performed jazz and by the swing bands that accompanied stage shows in the intervals between film showings at New York City's renowned Apollo Theatre. Moreover, in some neighborhoods "every comer bistro had a piano, and the pianists were sometimes joined by a bassist and a drummer and, sometimes, a horn player. There was live music all over the community" (MR). Sympathetic club owners in Detroit left their back doors open so that passersby and underage audiences who congregated in the alleyways could sample the music of featured artists. Performers in the "bars, weekend storefronts, and neighborhood jazz clubs" in other cities similarly made a deep impression upon youngsters, as did informal get-togethers by musicians. George Johnson Jr. was enticed by weekly jam sessions conducted in the apartment of his building superintendent.

Music provided by record players, radios, and jukeboxes complements live performances within the general soundscape. People "could listen to jazz all day long" on the jukeboxes of Cleveland's neighborhood restaurants, cafés, and nightclubs in the forties: "You heard this music every place you went" (BB). Since the fifties, television has sometimes featured jazz as well. Record stores also offered places for young enthusiasts to gather and socialize, particularly when the stores provided listening booths for customers to sample the latest albums before deciding whether to buy them.

Some homes of musicians actually "looked like record stores" because the families owned so many recordings; they listened to music "constantly" (DP). In other instances, children participated in an "extended family" that shared and distributed recordings among adults. Patti Bown remembers private records circulating from house to house in the black community of Seattle. In another musician's neighborhood, few could afford records or record players; however, a neighbor whose generous spirit equaled his enormous collection made others welcome in his home. Evenings, everyone met there to listen to jazz.

Record collections of aficionados typically represented a wide range of popular jazz artists, including Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Ronald Shannon Jackson does not recall hearing the term jazz or such idiomatic designations as New Orleans jazz or swing when he was a youngster. In describing the music of "black dance bands" during the thirties as "jump music," his community simply viewed the music some called jazz as part of the larger family of African American musical traditions. The record collections of black families typically included examples of spirituals, gospel music, boogie-woogie, blues, and rhythm and blues, as well as selections of Western classical music and light popular classics. This discussion of early jazz musical education reminds us that exposure to their own community's music as well as that of the mainstream is one advantage commonly afforded minority children in America.

Musicians reflecting on their impressionable years tell insightful, touching stories of the importance of recordings in their childhoods. Melba Liston often contended with bouts of loneliness at home, for she had no siblings; early in life "music" became her "very dear friend," with the radio its primary vehicle. In another case, operating the record player was one of Kenny Washington's first manual skills. He often spent the day by himself listening to recordings while his father was at work. Family anecdotes attest to his emotional attachment to favorite recordings. As a toddler, Washington had learned to associate the designs on record jackets with their respective sounds. One day, he observed his father misfiling one of his albums. "I couldn't really talk yet," he explains, "but I started going through changes, trying to tell him that he'd put the record in the wrong case." His father was baffled, but his mother "insisted that he check it out. Sure enough, he'd put the record in the wrong case."

On another occasion, when Washington was intensely listening to recordings, his father interrupted him by placing a new one on the turntable. Noticing his son's agitation, he promised that he only intended listening to one cut. The younger Washington became increasingly upset as his father extended his promise, cut by cut on the album's first side, ignoring his son's appeals. When his father turned the disk to begin side two, Washington "went through a temper tantrum and ran down the hall," tripped over his pajamas and hit his mouth on a bed with enough force to knock a tooth up into his gums. "This was all over a record," he muses.

Early Training and Performance Opportunities

As youngsters absorb musical materials from the performances of others, they simultaneously cultivate a few skills in formal settings. The church typically provides children with their first experiences as performers. Yet Williams participated in church choirs that made progressively greater demands upon their members. Music and religion "were always intertwined" in Carmen Lundy's background. She remembers that "all the women from grandmother to granddaughter" sang in church choirs, commonly three to five days a week, and her mother led a gospel group that met regularly in their home. Lundy attended every rehearsal and performance.

Ministers of fundamentalist Christian churches sometimes provide congregation members with musical instruments during services or encourage them to perform on instruments brought from home to add color and intensity to the choir's performances. Jimmy Robinson remembers Pentecostal churches in which instrumental performance was as "natural" as singing: "Everybody in the congregation would grab any instrument and play it—tambourines, guitars, banjos, drums, anything." Some churches also offer music instruction and organize small ensembles 'to accompany services or to provide youngsters with recreation. Art Farmer began his musical development as a brass player with the church's tuba before a comet became available. Melba Liston made her debut in church as a trombonist; so did Max Roach, as a drummer.

The meaning that such experiences holds for learners became apparent to me when I attended a Holiness church service at the invitation of a jazz musician, a former congregant. Before the service began, a frail boy of seven years propped himself up amid the components of an enormous drum set arranged midway between the pews and the pulpit. As the congregation members sang and swayed—accompanying themselves by syncopated handclapping patterns and a collection of instruments—the child thrashed about on the drum skins, attempting to maintain a steady beat and to perform rhythms that fit the changing musical parts around him. Every eye was upon the young drummer, who beamed with tremendous pride as he performed. What greater inducement for the young musician's development could there have been than the warm approval and affection that the congregation showered upon him as he held center stage in this adult world?

While continuing to cultivate their skills in the nurturing environment of the church, young musicians also attended public schools, where they gained additional experience within various extracurricular performance situations. Moreover, schools commonly offered music appreciation classes devoted to the works of Western classical music composers; instrumental instruction programs typically taught groups of beginners how to read music. Schools also afforded them exciting access to a greater variety of instruments than many had ever seen. Arthur Rhames "hung around the band room" during all his free time in grade school and "fooled with every instrument I could get my hands on." Max Roach "dabbled" with trumpet and clarinet in elementary school as well as learning piano and drums, and Buster Williams studied drums and piano before taking up string bass. Whereas some youngsters cultivated multi-instrumentalist skills over their careers, most explored the band room's diverse options as a prelude to selecting an instrument of specialization.

Factors beyond the control of students sometimes determined their initial courses. Some adopted the one instrument that had been passed down in the family or that band directors assigned them on the basis of the band's needs, the availability of instruments, or some, perhaps dubious, personal theory about the physical suitability of one instrument or another for a particular student. In other instances, youngsters selected instruments, thereby revealing their early tastes and sensitivities. Logically, an instrument's sound was the most impressive feature for many, although sometimes the physical features of an instrument had important bearing as well. The "beautiful way" the trombone and saxophone "looked in music store windows" immediately attracted Melba Liston and James Moody to their respective instruments. The "personal images" that performers of particular instruments projected in concert inspired others. The first time Curtis Fuller attended a performance by J. J. Johnson, "I fell in love with him," Fuller remembers, "just the way he stood there and played. He looked so elegant" compared to the behavior of other musicians on stage who were "crowd-pleasing."

Having determined the objects of their affections, students sought to convince their parents that they were serious enough about music to warrant their own instruments. Ronald Shannon Jackson convinced his parents of his earnestness and ingenuity by performing for them with a drum set that he fashioned from pots and pans. As parents succumbed to their children's pressure, youngsters become proud possessors of instruments borrowed, rented, or purchased from neighborhood schools, churches, and local music stores.

School bands, orchestras, and choirs allowed musicians to perform a diverse repertory that included marches, tunes from musical theater, and simplified arrangements of selected movements from operas and symphonies. Additionally, "every black school had its swing bands that played stock arrangements," orchestrated versions of jazz pieces that were initially popularized by Erskine Hawkins, Count Basie, and others (DB). Also known as stage bands, these groups performed in school concerts, assembly programs, and occasional dances.

The public school system fostered a "healthy sense of competition" among young artists that contributed to their musical development (RSJ). Junior high school graduates typically attended a central high school where, pitting their skills against those of the best performers from the larger community, they competed for positions in new band organizations. Some programs featured a succession of stage bands starting with more elementary bands and progressing to the most advanced stage band, in which membership was the object of great pride and considerable striving among teenagers. "All-city" and "all-state" honor concert bands, stage bands, orchestras, and solo competitions further motivated serious young musicians.


Excerpted from Thinking in Jazz by Paul F. Berliner. Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Paul F. Berliner is professor of ethnomusicology at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Soul of Mbira, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and is the recipient of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for outstanding writing in music.

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