Teaching free improvisation: some thoughts and exercises

I’d like to start this blog by sharing some ideas about teaching free improvisation to musicians who are new to it. I have one exercise, “Forest Duos,” that has proved to be an effective introduction to some of the key elements of group improvisation and choices one has as an improviser: listening, making transitions and endings, choosing material, choosing among varieties of interaction (the spectrum from imitative counterpoint to independence and contrast; use of space), development, flow, free and metric rhythm, dynamics, timbre, etc.

I’ll be part of a panel discussion on this subject at the 2019 JEN (Jazz Education Network) Conference in Reno with Ryan Meagher (organizer) , Dawn Clement, Ralph Alessi, and Samantha Boshnack. It’s called “Coloring Outside the Lines: How We Can Encourage Our Students to Truly Explore Improvisation,” and it’s Saturday, January 12, 2019, 2:00 PM – 2:50 PM in Sierra EL.

Here’s a handout I prepared for a similar panel on teaching free improvisation from the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) conference in New Orleans in January 2000. Graham Collier and Ed Sarath were also on the panel. This one-page summary includes some listening suggestions and some beginning ensemble teaching techniques:

Teaching Group Free Improvisation – IAJE 2000

Here’s a full explanation of my Forest Duos idea. It’s both an exercise with step-by-step instructions, and a composition or framework that can be used in performance:

Forest Duos – Group Improvisation – Chase – 2019

And here is a sample template and a blank template for use in structuring a Forest Duos performance.

Forest Duos – Sample Template – Chase

Forest Duos Blank Template – Chase

Forest Duos Blank Template – Chase – Word Doc to Download

As I say in the Forest Duos document, this evolved out of my studies with some of the great innovators in free jazz and free improvisation at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY, from my work with Tom Hall and other members of Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet over almost four decades of playing together, and from my work with student ensembles, mostly septets and octets: Berklee “large avant-garde ensembles” (1983-88), NEC Duo Ensembles (2003-9), and particularly this graduate ensemble I taught at New England Conservatory in 1995-6 (who helped name the elements like Forest, etc.):

chase nec ensemble 1995-96b

(The ensemble that first worked on Forest Duos and helped develop the idea. Back row: Joel Springer, Thomson Kneeland, Joe Karten, Zach Buell, Russell Mofsky. Front row: Eric Rasmussen, Allan Chase, JC Sanford. Not pictured: Satoko Fujii (piano). NEC 1995-6.)

When we talk about teaching free improvisation, a few frequently asked questions are:

What is free improvisation? The phrase is a commonly-used shorthand for improvisation that is open in form, where the form is improvised or flexible rather than specified in detail in advance; also, usually, there is no precondition about tonal or modal harmony. It doesn’t mean there can’t be any agreed-upon structure, any criteria or values, or any predetermined (stated or understood) guidelines for playing together, or that “anything goes.” Free jazz is usually used for music that has more characteristics of jazz — for example, in the roles of rhythm section instruments, or the way a composed theme is used — but has an improvised form (not specified choruses of predetermined length) and/or freedom to move anywhere tonally.

• How can you teach something that you can’t evaluate? What basis could you have for assessment of free improvisation in an educational setting? This question seems to be based on the premise that bebop improvisation is the norm in jazz education, and it is measurably right or wrong (the student is making the chord changes or not). There’s some truth to that, although simply making the changes is a small part of the art of bebop improvisation. But many things are taught where the form and details are not predetermined or strictly measurable as right or wrong: contemporary classical composition, creative writing, abstract visual art, modern dance choreography, and many other things. Teachers are not afraid to teach these subjects because they can’t assess every aspect of them quantitatively. If you’re concerned about assessment and measurable learning outcomes, you can make a grading rubric that weighs musical aspects — success in achieving the goals of the piece or project — as well as participation, effort, improvement, and productivity, as you might for a visual art or writing assignment in a class where students may have a range of ability and experience.

• How can we do this while maintaining control of the classroom? I think this is determined largely by the messages the teacher conveys. If the teacher or leader says this is serious but fun, a creative but structured experience, and we’re going to make something interesting, and gives the right amount of structure (process, duration, roles to play), then students can get started on a positive track, and they’ll respond well to greater freedom later. On the other hand, if the teacher is apologetic, anxious, disrespectful of the music (a free section was often called a “freakout” when I was a young jazz student in the early 1970s, with predictable results), or implies that something out of control is about to happen, then the results will probably reflect those expectations that the teacher has created.

Who likes this music? Not all jazz educators have learned to listen to and appreciate free jazz and free improvised musics. Some have a tolerance or sincere liking for Ornette Coleman’s early quartets and/or the freer music of contemporary players who have ostensibly “proven themselves” in post-bebop harmonically determined music — the Wayne Shorter Quartet, David Liebman, Joe Lovano, some ECM artists, etc. — but they may not “get” the music of Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, the AACM, or the European free improvisation scenes, for example. It’s important to know that the appreciation of this music is gained by listening and curiosity. Learning about the historical and cultural context and the artists’ biographies can help, too. You don’t have to like this, or any style of music, but it is a significant 60-year-old tradition at this point (free jazz has been around for more than half the history of recorded jazz) and there’s a worldwide audience for it which I would estimate is as large or larger than the audience for, say, traditional bebop instrumental jazz today. For example, the Big Ears Festival takes over Knoxville, Tennessee for four days each year with multiple simultaneous sold-out theaters full of people listening to a Milford Graves solo drum set concert, Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Roscoe Mitchell’s quartet, the ROVA saxophone quartet and guests playing “Ascension,” and dozens of others. The Moers Festival in Germany, Victoriaville in Quebec, and several others have been successful for decades, as are many small record labels and publications dedicated to this music. There are free improvisation venues and scenes in almost every major city, and in some small cities around the world. It’s a small portion of the music industry, of course (as is jazz as a whole), but it’s vibrant and ongoing, and comparable in size to many other traditional and avant-garde music scenes.

I think it’s important to point out that “free improvisation” and the related “free jazz” are not single styles of music. There have been, and are, subcultures of free improvisors and free jazz players that have developed quite distinct aesthetics, practices, and materials, and often they don’t interact with one another easily. The differences, it seems to me, are bigger than, for example, the differences among the swing-era players and New York and Los Angeles bebop players who appeared together on Jazz at the Philharmonic jam sessions. They shared a repertoire and enough assumptions about form, harmony, instrumental roles, and interaction to play music effectively together, even without rehearsal. Major innovators of free jazz and free improvised music coming out of jazz — for example, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and John Zorn  — have rarely performed with one another and have quite different musical ideas and repertoires. There are many prominent circles of players in free jazz and free improvisation that have had little overlap of players over decades. Some of this is social and geographical, but it’s also because they have different ideas about music. There have been some interesting encounters between these groups, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

I don’t use the term “non-idiomatic improvisation” because, as others have pointed out, if it’s recognizably, audibly a thing, then it has musical characteristics (including the absence of certain common musical elements) and is an idiom or style. Everything I can think of that’s been called “non-idiomatic” has sounded like post-1945 new music in the international (initially European and American) style due to a tendency to avoid tonal, conjunct, conventionally metric material. There are also certain recognizable traits in the pace and types of interaction and development over time. Often subgroups of improvisers within this field have very specific ideas about repetition, development, imitation, and metric agreement, or the avoidance of them. It seems a little inaccurate and perhaps self-flattering to suggest that this recognizable body of music is the only one that is not idiomatic. But categories and names for musical styles (including, of course, “classical” and “jazz”) are always incomplete and contentious and their boundaries are fuzzy, as they should be. The names of musical styles are just nicknames for loose groups of musics that have a family resemblance to one another.

I’ll write about teaching the history and analysis of free jazz, and about the music of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra (the subject of my M.A. thesis) in future posts. I’ll also try to follow up with a list of further resources for teachers: books, websites, listening materials, colleagues’ ideas…and free jazz playalongs (yes, they exist).

See also: allanchase.com

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