What Is It Good for?

Authored by: Raymond MacDonald , Graeme Wilson

The Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies

Print publication date:  December  2018
Online publication date:  December  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138231160
eBook ISBN: 9781315315805
Adobe ISBN:


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Improvisation is a defining feature of jazz music and a key component of jazz musicians’ musical identity. However, in recent years there has been a significant growth in psychological interest in improvisation, not just as a feature of jazz, but as an accessible, unique, spontaneous, social, and creative process that can facilitate collaboration between many musical genres and across disciplines. This broader interest has highlighted improvisation as a contested term. If improvisation is a universally accessible mode of social interaction, this has implications for musicians whose identities and livelihoods may rest upon more virtuosic definitions of improvisation. This chapter will explore how musicians talk about improvisation, comparing jazz musicians’ discourse with that of musicians from other traditions. It will also explore how musicians critique their own improvisation, drawing on data from a study where musicians improvised in trios and immediately commented, in individual interviews, on a recording. We will comment on such issues as: how we can understand the aesthetics of improvisation as it is currently practiced; whether universal parameters for improvisation are important, and if so, what might they be; and whether maintaining a universal theory of improvisation devalues the term in any way.

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