American Improvisation

James Velasquez

October 11, 2012

“It’s impossible for me to feel like there’s only one way to do a thing. There’s nothing wrong with having one way of doing it, but I think it’s a bad habit. I believe in range. Like, there’s a lot of tunes that I play all the time – sometimes I hear ’em in a different register. And if you don’t have complete freedom, or you won’t let yourself get away from that one straight line, oh, my goodness, that’s too horrible to even think about.”

– Wes Montgomery

Jazz has always been in the American bloodstream. Even before its “invention” in the early 20th century, the blues spoke with a unique voice of “blue notes” and improvisation. At its heart, the blues was about a single individual or small group coming together and letting the blood flow a bit – you had your problems, and you played the blues to get them out. There is a similar belief at the heart of our Constitution: government always has its problems, but we try to solve those problems by using the government. The American man is, after all, an individual: a man with integrity enough to bear misery and seek a bright tomorrow; a man capable of enduring the “long trains of abuses” that always seem to head his way.

Yet the blues was always a bit immature. Not that it did not sing about mature things – the blues man had his heart broken over women, money, liquor, friendship, and everything else you might imagine – but it was also the folk man’s art. Lyrically and musically, the blues was born of the slave, and that put certain limits on what the genre was or could become. William Handy said that “the blues came from the man farthest down. The blues came from nothingness, from want, from desire.” Now certainly, a slave has a great deal to be blue about – indeed, the black American’s blues were far from over even after emancipation – but he also misses a great part of the human experience. The blues was born out of ignorance and suffering; a fact which was both a great virtue and a great vice for the genre as a whole.

In the end, it takes a lot of energy to be sad, a lot to be angry. Who could really be mad forever? I think we can understand why exactly the black man needed jazz music – in time, why America needed it. Born out of the brothels of Storyville, Louisiana, New Orleans jazz gave the black man something that he did not have before: direction. The blues turns within itself – it attempts to create an outlet and offer the cure through music. Jazz did not quite do that. Life was hard, but people had instruments and things were happening and money was going around; life was hard, but life was there.

Milt Hinton, a jazz bassist, said that “what makes a great jazzman is experience. Unless you’ve had experience and lived, what could you have to say on your instrument except a copy off records?” In a sense, that is precisely what jazz did to the blues: the black man knew his misery, but he started to know a lot more than that. Real jazz music is always “happening,” the notes swing in irregular ways, rhythms fall behind the beat and surge ahead, individuals pop out of the group and blend back in – dissonance is always present. When Wes Montgomery, the great jazz guitarist, talks about doing things in different ways, he is talking about the way that a jazzman experiences life and translates it into his instrument.

This is, in the broadest way, an American sentiment. We are rugged people, always moving. We crossed plains, uprooted our families and pressed westward, always dreaming of something better. Our cities are mapped like grids – they are always growing and expanding, with spontaneous and unplanned skylines cutting a beautiful silhouette into the night sky.

Indeed, we are a dissonant people. Much like jazz music, the American society is always bustling one way or another – we’re always doing new things. Our leaders phase in and out through elections, our idols are elevated and then fade away, and we are always trying to work out some pragmatic solution to the nation’s problems. While Americans have always felt a love for the rugged individualism of a Theodore Roosevelt, we also tend not to tolerate those who step away from the group completely; so also must the jazz improviser work around, above, and behind his band while still remaining within the whole of the music being played. The jazz experience finds its soul in the improviser, but the improviser will always remain, ideally, within the music itself.

And, of course, this may be what Americans can learn from jazz music – not everything is permissible. Our Constitution has a certain melody to it – the clear, definitive nature of Article I plays listeners some precise notes, but Article II gives us a chord and lets the imagination go to work. Yet what was the Constitution but an improvisation upon the “lead sheet” that we called the Declaration of Independence? Indeed, the Articles of Confederation seem a lot like a bad song that couldn’t win over the crowd.

But like a band, we must all play together and remain faithful to the song. The Constitution was our improvisation – and as Milt Hinton said, sometimes experience forces us to amend it and work on a better performance. Should the situation call for it, we might even have to make our adjustments onstage. Yet our improvisation is always for a noble end: it is meant to fulfill and defend the Declaration’s truth that all men are created equal and with unalienable rights. In America, as in jazz, the improviser who leaves his band behind – the individual who forsakes the principle of his craft for his own glory and achievement – that man does a disservice to both his fellows and the audience.

James Velasquez is a senior from Foristell, Missouri, majoring in Political Science and History.