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Musical Elements





II. Improvisation

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Art Pepper

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Benny Goodman

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Clifford Brown

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Paul Desmond

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Wes Montgomery

A. Basic Definition


Simply put, improvisation means doing, saying, playing, or singing something extemporaneously, that is, not planned ahead of time. 

B. Jazz Improvisation is Similar to Conversation


Jazz improvisation can be considered “musical conversation” (see Jazz Improvisation/Conversation analogy sheet). 

C. Learning to Improvise


Jazz musicians learn how to improvise in a way that is similar to how kids learn how to talk. 



Young jazz musicians learning how to improvise listen to other jazz musicians improvise and try to imitate them; kids (even babies) learn how to talk by listening to others talk and trying to imitate them. 



Jazz musicians play their instruments a lot; kids learning how to talk, talk a lot. 



To play better, jazz musicians study instrumental technique (the physical mechanics of playing an instrument) and music theory (how notes and chords fit together); to speak better, kids study pronunciation and grammar. 

D. "Hearing" Notes in Your Mind


When jazz musicians improvise, they are playing the notes that they “hear” (imagine) in their mind; they “hear” these notes just a split second before they play them (just like when you are talking, you “hear” the words in your head just a split second before you say them, that is, you are thinking the words in your mind immediately before you speak them -- it happens so fast and so naturally that it seems simultaneous, but in actuality, the thought occurs a microsecond before the action). 

the Herbie Hancock institute of jazz
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