A Brief Historical Sketch
Improvisation, in general musical terms, is a form of theme and variation that dates back to the 14th century, and still remained a popular challenge to musicians. In this form a given melody is played, and through the act of extemporizing spontaneously, using the process of variation and ornamentation over a harmonic framework, the melody is played and then repeated as many times as desired.
The Development of Jazz Styles
The African element was very important in contributing to the development of Jazz, which is the American word for improvisation on a given folk or popular melody. Let’s look into the major contributing factors in Jazz music: The Work Song, the Play Song and Religious Music.
Africans were imported from their homeland to work in the cotton fields and the railroads in the southern states of America. This culture used music and dance for every occasion including work.
The first class of music, and the most primitive, was the Work Song. It was sung without accompaniment, in a rhythm which was compatible with the work being done.
The second class of song was the play song, which was later known as the blues. It was a blending of folk poetry and song. The poetry was a strict pattern of three lines, and with the addition of music and song it evolved into what was later known as the 12- bar Blues. The songs message was to speak of the hope, fears and experiences of these people. The song could be a sad one or a happy one.
The third and final class of pre-Jazz music was the Religious Song. The Gospel song was virtually a marriage between the English non-conformist hymn and the Work Song. These were sung during worship services and were improvised as a joyful hymn which was called a jubilee, accompanied by the clapping of hands and the stomping of feet, and at times a guitar or two or piano was used.
The Ragtime and early Jazz music style began developing toward the end of the 19th century, and was essentially inspired by the military march and cakewalk used in minstrel shows. The music was later popularized by being notated on paper and circulated as sheet music.
Traditional Jazz started in two areas ñ New Orleans and Chicago. It was during this period that Jazz improvisation as we know it, began. Small groups of musicians playing usually one trumpet, one clarinet, a trombone, banjo, tuba or bass, and piano would get together and jam. Their variations would stay fairly close to the original melody, using a form of arpeggio or scale-like figures, passing notes, and anticipation’s to decorate the melody. The Blues was always in evidence, and the phrasing was in a two-or four-bar section with opportunities for breaks (short cadenzas at the end of each musicians solo).
The swing era of the 1930s was the first time this style of Jazz improvisation was committed to paper. Large combinations of instruments were used, but still the pure spontaneous improvisation was retained for the individual soloist. This period was known as the Big Band Era. Swing music continued into the Forties gradually winning success, and many of its techniques were absorbed by the world of commercial dance music.
For the younger musicians, they found arranged swing dull, and they became tired of its harmonic clichés, its rhythmic monotony and its improvisatory limitations. Pioneer Jazz men of the Forties aimed for a clean break with the now commercial swing music of the Thirties. They began constructing new compositions upon the harmonies of the already familiar popular tunes, and broke the symmetrical type of two-bar, four-bar phrasing (even-length phrasing), and lengthened, or even broke, the natural phrasing of the song upon which the improvisation was based. They even went as far as to substitute the harmonies of the popular tune, changing its skeleton. More complex rhythms were used-double time, triplets, and accents on the weak parts of the bars. The blues scales and the flatted fifth chords of the 9th and 13th tones were added (it may be noted that this was borrowed from the impressionistic composers of that period). And again at this time it was a return to the smaller ensemble. This period of the Forties was known as the Be Bop Era.
During the Cool jazz time of the Fifties, jazz groups began using a wider variety of time signatures, e.g. 5/4 and 11/4. The sound of the music was almost slanted toward a classical feeling as opposed to the hot, emotional sound of traditional and Be Bop Jazz. Its variations were more economical and understated. The demands on reading and improvising were extremely high, and classical devices were especially incorporated.
The music of the Sixties was known as the Third Stream or Mainstream music. It was essentially neither Jazz nor Non Jazz, but it borrowed something from each. This modern wave of modern Jazz musicians concerned itself with experiments (modal, atonal and 12-tone serial music) as the basis of the musical expression. Here the innovators, as ever, improvised in small groups. They began with an agreed theme, but after this the music was free to progress where it pleased, the players exchanging melodic and harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Forms and harmonies were not tied to a progression. Rhythms were not necessarily governed by time signatures, and melodies were not bound to established tonalities.
In summary, improvisation has been the expression of emotions and thought since the beginning combinations of sound and rhythm, since the beginning of music as a science for expression.