JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company

RUNNING TIME, 3:51

If jazz is improvised, how is it structured?

One of the things that people struggle with in jazz is the idea that it's being improvised. A lot of people think of music as something that you get from the page, you have to learn how to read music and then find a way to play it on their instrument. And if they don't have the music in front of them they don't understand how you can create music. Jazz musicians have in some ways returned music to its aural nature, uh, they are improvising, but one has to understand that what you do when you improvise does not necessarily mean that you are creating something out of nothing.

A metaphor that I like to use for this, I like to tell people, is that anytime you're speaking, you're improvising. What you have when you're speaking is a vocabulary and rules of grammar, and you use those things to create speech on the spur of the moment, as I'm doing now for heaven's sake; I don't have anything written down. There are degrees to which what you say can be absolutely spontaneous as if you're surprising yourself or whether you feel, "I've heard this lecture a million times," and in fact this person is almost running a tape recorder in their heads. The same thing is true of music – there are times when you have certain particular musical ideas that you have that in some ways means that as you're repeating, as you're playing a passage again, you in fact do do it more or less the same way each time. You've got something worked out and there are a few different things you can do with it.

There are other situations where you can say, as I think you can for most jazz musicians, that they have thousands of little musical ideas in their head and they also have a sense of how musical grammar works. They know that in a particular piece, under a particular chord progression, within a particular frame of mind, they know how to fit their pieces into the overall framework. The more options you have, the more in-depth the improvisation is. You know, if you only know like three licks, then your improvisation is not going to be that varied. The same way that if you speak and you only have 50 words, like Doctor Seuss, then there's only so much that you can actually do. But it's really not much different from speaking on the spot; once you have the situation and once you've acquired the vocabulary, then you can simply construct whatever you want on the spot. It just seems strange in music to be able to do that. Just the same way, like these kinds of books [that] are known generally as fake books, and they're called that way because you can do an entire piece just out of, say, one or two pages. It just gives you something like a melody and these chord progressions, and that is enough to allow somebody to know how to fit in what they know about music into this particular setting. And that means you could play for 30 minutes on these two pages and you don't have to be turning pages at all. There's a peculiar relationship of jazz to notation. I mean, every jazz musician has to know how to read notation, and yet you don't really need to read in order to be able to produce music, because once you've got the framework down and once you've mastered the vocabulary, then you are ready to do whatever you want.