Jazz and the Symbiosis of Text and Context in Improvisational Performance

Jazz and the Symbiosis of Text and Context in Improvisational Performance

Jazz is in my blood.  My mother was a Jazz singer from the South, and I grew up at her rehearsals from birth onward.  For the first three years of my life I was on the road with my mother as she traveled the 5 Star hotel circuit on the East Coast.  Arab music and jazz share many similarities in improvisation, and in this article I explore how text and context come together to make each jazz performance unique.


Music making as a parallel phenomenon of written text is a curious example of how context in terms of the performative social space alters the ultimate outcome of the performance genre.  Music that is performed in front of a live audience can be flexible; it breaths interactionally with the environment in which it is produced.  Improvisational music is the epitome of how context changes text; however, little has been written on it as compared to “finished works” of composed music:

“In the history of musicology, improvisation—sometimes defined as the creation of music in the course of performance—has played a minor role.  Musicologists have been concerned in the first instance with composition and less with the process than with the completed piece of music as set down by its creator.  Affected by the research traditions of visual art and literature, they have concentrated on the finished work, analyzed the interrelationships of its components, and looked at its history, but rarely have they been concerned with the varying orders of creativity that may have led to the final product” (Nettl, into i).

The genre of music known as jazz improvisation is an example of how the process of music making can be the product; the means is the end.   Issues such as discourse with the audience, and other musicians, during the course of a performance can change the outcome of a written text of the music.  According to Briggs in “Competence in Performance:  The Creativity of Tradition in Mexicano Verbal Art”, context can fall prey to issues of inclusiveness and false objectivity; where does one stop including factors of context?  What counts, or does not count?  I would say that in the instance of jazz improvisation what counts as context is audience interaction with the musicians’ interactions with each other in terms of social and taste culture issues.  Other factors such as spatial location and the socio-economic taste culture context can dictate what genre of music is appropriate for that audience.  I argue that in improvisation the text is the formula of the music pattern; that the skeleton formulaic structure of the music is the text, and the flesh is the environmental context within which it is produced.  Therefore, the process is the product in improvisational jazz.  A recorded piece of improvised music can also be text, as that piece of music is frozen in time, even if it was not pre-composed (Monson, 186).

According to Philip Bohlman, there is a creative dialectic between text and context in the study of folk music canonization (Bohlman, 104).  He also states that this model is also true of Western contemporary settings of music making; musical change is dependent upon the communities where it is performed, not just the musicians playing the music.  “Because the social basis of a community is continuously in flux, the folk music canon is always in the process of forming and of responding creatively to new texts and changing contexts” (ibid).  This idea can be extended to jazz improvisation, which according to T.M. Scruggs, is entirely reliant upon the community within which the music is played; the audience defines what style of music is appropriate to play (Scruggs, 185).

Bruno Nettl’s introduction to In the Course of Performance:  Studies in the World of Musical Improvisation, is entitled, “An Art Neglected in Scholarship”.  Why is improvisation neglected of the analysis that it is so deserves?  Why did it come late to scholarly study table?  I argue that it is easier to define a text that is stable; one that stays in one place and never changes, such as a book, or an article of material culture.  However, it is much harder to define a text that is moving and changing; improvisational playing in music is ever changing, and therefore much harder to pin down to definition.  This is perhaps why scholars have not written as much about improvisation as compared to its material and tangible cousins.

The landmark book entitled Thinking in Jazz by Paul Berliner is the shining exception to the rule that jazz is neglected in scholarship.  Written in 1994, Berliner portrays ideas about jazz through an ethnographic lens of New York City and its jazz scene.  Nothing that is written in scholarly fields is as thorough as Berliner’s work in this book; however, the majority of the book is written about very specific details about jazz, and not as much about the context of the performances.  He does emphasize that the process of jazz improvisation is an inner journey; an inner dialogue that one has with oneself, a kind of “talking to oneself”.

For this paper, I chose to extract what I felt was relevant as far as context/text and issues of playing styles and how they influence the ultimate outcome of the performance.  According to Ingrid Monson, “hard” ethnomusicology data, such as transcription and analysis, is taken more seriously by academia than “soft” studies of context.  Perhaps this is why it took so long for a comprehensive book about jazz to come out, and why once it did, it focused more on the anatomy and physiology of the music, rather than where that music was played, and how it circumambulated with the audience to form a cohesive work.

Ingrid Monson’s Saying Something:  Jazz Improvisation and Interaction is a well thought out and researched book on a lot of the information that seemed to be missing in Berliner’s book.  Her theory is that context in jazz improvisation is entirely reliant upon the emotional connections that the musicians have with each other.  She says that the idea behind jazz improvisation is to “say something” relevant within the music; that just as Berliner intimates, there is an inner dialogue going on while playing.  She asserts that “what counts” for jazz improvisation are the emotions that the musicians have for the historicity and indexicality of the musical genre, the emotions that the players feel towards that music, and how it intertwines with the audience (Monson, 5).  Her focus is on the rhythm section (piano, bass, and drums) and how that holds or does not hold the melody soloists’ improvisation together.

      This paper is an investigation into what is written about theories of jazz improvisation.  How is improvisational music made, and how do issues of genre in text/context, taste/culture, and process/product and discourse factor into the equation in the performative social space of jazz music?  How does one recognize improvisation?  According to Blum, one can look to Near Eastern writings and oral literatures that tend to emphasize the immediacy and the appropriateness of a performer’s response to a given situation (Blum, 28).  These responses

“Are to ‘unforeseen’ challenges and opportunities—perhaps by serving as the vehicle of a superhuman agent or connecting with a source of inspiration that suddenly becomes available.  We are not likely to speak of improvisation unless we believe that participants in an event, however they are motivated, share a sense that something unique is happening in their presence at the moment of performance” (ibid).

This “uniqueness” is what defines improvisation; the performance is irreplicable.


“Improvisation:  How is it done?”:  Orders of Creativity

If jazz improvisation is unique to the contextual situation within which it is placed, and the process is the product, then how is that process done?  What is the order of creativity of the process that becomes the product?  Scruggs’ article, “Come on in North Side, You’re Just in Time”, examines issues of genre and context in jazz improvisation by taking an ethnographic look at Chicago through the lens of a local famous tenor saxophonist performer, Von Freeman.  Scruggs attests that Von’s popularity had to do with the “unique place of his performances within the musical and social matrix of racially divided Chicago” (Scruggs, 179).   What Freeman performed on the South Side where the African-American community viewed his performances was quite different from what he performed on the North Side, which is home to the wealthier elite white people of Chicago.  These issues of socio-economic status directly influenced the structure and choice of musical genre that he performed, and his choices then influenced how the audience would respond to his music.

When examining jazz improvisation it is important to recognize that it does not follow the rules of Western classical musical notions of performance, and therefore falls more closely in line with “ethnic” musics.  Regula Qureshi, in an article dealing with Qawwali, or Pakistani Sufi music, says that in looking for the appropriate paradigm with which to study non-Western music one must go to the people from which the music came, and see how they speak of their music.  She says that one must look at the performance in two ways simultaneously, one of the music, and one of the contexts of that musical performance.  One must understand the rule system of the musical sound system of the inquired music, and then analyze the context of the performance using anthropological theory in terms of concepts of behavior, structure and process (Qureshi, 62).  Therefore, I will discuss the process of the order of creativity of jazz improvisation in these two categories:  musical formula, and musical context of performance.

Musical Formula:

Improvisational music is discourse-centered; it is dependent upon the interrelationship of the musicians with the audience, and amongst themselves while making the music.  Farnell and Graham attest to this discourse-centered method when studying not only language through a linguistic lens, but also music.  “According to a discourse-centered framework, culture is an emergent dialogic process, historically transmitted but continuously produced and revised through dialogues among its members” (Farnell/Graham, 412).   Therefore, jazz improvisation culture is discourse-centered; its process is emergent each time there is a performance.  Forms and processes are used by the musicians to eschew a performance; the forms and processes do not use them.

Going back to discuss music as a parallel phenomenon to spoken word in discursive terms, comparing jazz improvisation to the African-American oral tradition narrative is fruitful.   According to Luke Gillespie, the Parry-Lord “Formula” of literacy and orality applies to the tradition of African-American jazz music.  “Although the jazz and epic traditions are primarily transmitted orally through listening and performing, there are rules and musical-linguistic formulas which govern the realization and creation of both jazz and the epic.  In examining aspects of formula used in jazz, improvisation is discussed as an important component of jazz.  It is the ‘blend’ of literacy and orality that more accurately describes the process of musical improvisation in the jazz tradition” (Gillespie, 147).

In Lord’s theory of the epic poem, poets composed in a manner of building lines and half-lines of meter through means of formula and expressions of themes.  Again, Lord, like Qureshi, attests to the fact that this formula “needs to be seen ‘not only from the outside in terms of textual analysis, but also from within, that is, from the point of view of the singer of tales and of the tradition’” (148).  The repeated phrases in oral narrative and jazz improvisation are not only for the audiences’ benefit of reinforcement of a theme, but also for the performers’ benefit of formulaic structure of the tale or song.

Jazz improvised music is made up of chord changes, also called modulations in Arabic music; these changes dictate where the piece is moving to, and also limits the possibilities of movement.  Therefore, there is implicit structure of the music according to what scale, or group of notes, is played.  A jazz performer’s solo must coincide with his memory of these chord changes, as he/she is not working from a finished text.  “Schemata, or modes, exist in jazz, and these are the patterns, or modifications of patterns which form the framework upon which, or against which, the improvisator builds his new composition” (150).

The soloist is not alone in his improvisation, however; the other members of the band follow and keep the meter going while the soloist makes the “changes” in the chordal patterns.  It is important to note that the soloist can only improvise when the basic pattern has been memorized; the pattern is not created anew each time, but rather altered.  This shows the virtuosity of the soloist; how one makes clever changes to the basic pattern, and shows something unique to each performance (ibid).

This idea of new possibilities for the basic pattern is discussed at length in terms of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis in Chris Smith’s article, “A Sense of the Possible:  Miles Davis and the Semiotics of Improvised Performance”.  Awareness is everything in improvised jazz music, according to Davis.  Miles’ influence in jazz is undeniable, yet has been historically resistant to analysis.  Why is this?  The subtlety and complexity of Mile’s technical vocabulary has shown to be difficult to identify and analyze.  Smith attests that “Davis’ particular genius was centered in an ability to construct and manipulate improvisational possibilities, selecting and combining compositions, players, musical styles, and other performance parameters” (Smith, 261).   The cultural semiotic that Smith develops his theory upon is based on Euro Tarasti’s description of the “possible world” of a performance’s community, which is based in the symbolic techniques for leading and shaping improvised performance in a “ritual space” (ibid).  Miles believed that a “richly ambiguous symbolic experience” could only come out of this semiotic environment within which musical processes were possible.

However, Mile’s techniques for creating this ritual space were suspect to analysis; Smith cites a quote from Miles about one his famous works, Bitches Brew:  “What we did on Bitches Brew you couldn’t ever write down for an orchestra to play.  That’s why I didn’t write it all out, not because I didn’t know what I wanted; [but because] I knew that what I wanted would come out of a process and not some prearranged stuff” (262).  This ability to create and respond in a symbolic interpretative space is what he gave to his fellow musicians during the course of performance; this awareness of self and others through visual and sonic cues is what is necessary for a jazz musician to improvise effectively.

If playing improvised jazz well means having a good memory of the music, both long term by means of the historicity of the music, and also short term by means of remembering what you just played, then it goes to show that this genre shows a strong link between that memory and the emotion of the music you are playing.  Then, if emotion is an important factor in this genre, we can see how personality issues would either enhance or degrade the performance process, which in this case of jazz improvisation is the product.  If the product is dependent upon the morals of the player, then we can see how William Day’s article, “Knowing as Instancing:  Jazz Improvisation and Moral Perfectionism” comes into play.  Moral perfectionism is a term that Day says Stanley Cavell has coined, but that is similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea of “self-trust”.  Making errors in the music can have serious ramifications back to the problems one has in one’s personality, according to Thelonius Monk, a famous jazz musician (Day, 99).

“Moral perfectionism is best characterized not as a set of moral axioms or principles, as though it stood in competition with the dominant theories of morality (Utilitarianism and Kantianism), but as a kind of thinking that begins after or beyond such theories.  It is a thinking whose distinctive features are a commitment to speaking and acting true to oneself, combined with a thoroughgoing dissatisfaction with oneself as one now stands” (ibid). 

Using Berliner’s idea of the “inner dialogue” and Monson’s idea of “saying something” in jazz improvisation, one can see how errors in the process of music making can show areas where one can improve one’s identity, and the meaning that it projects out to others in the social space during the performance.  Another factor of speech and formulaic language is an idea that Ian Mackenzie puts forth about exactly how that memory is enacted in speech.  He attests to the fact that most of what we remember in vernacular speech is learned “by heart”, or memorized, and that most of the utterances that are created anew are done so spontaneously (Mackenzie, 173).  This is not unlike jazz improvisation.  Modulating and making the “changes” in the musical mode is central to improvisation; doing so spontaneously during the course of performance is not only expected, it is what others base a “good” performance on or not.

  1. Keith Sawyer has furthered this notion of spontaneity in his article, “Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity”.  He bases his theories on everyday speech utterances; he attests to the fact that vernacular speech is improvised, as there is no formulaic text, or script, from which to base one’s conversations (149).  Drawing on Dewey’s model of “art as experience” and Collingwood’s model of “art as language”, Sawyer makes the connection between improvisational performance and product-oriented arts such as painting, writing, and music composition.  He says that the creative process that goes on in the mind of a creator of material art is hard to uncover, as it goes on over long periods of time, and in “fits and spurts”;  not exactly easy to follow (ibid).  However, the creative process that goes on in improvisational arts is easy to fathom, as it is happening right before the researcher’s eyes all at once.  Also, many improvised performances, whether jazz or not, are fundamentally collaborative.  As Monson sites above, the underlying support of the rhythm section is crucial to the soloist’s virtuosity.

Musical Context:  What counts?

This idea of collaboration of the solo improviser with the rhythm section is a good segway into talking about context.  As there is not as much written about this topic, I am relying upon Monson’s and Berliner’s books to lead the way into a scholarly discussion of this phenomenon of interaction in the performative social space.  There is a term that Prögler employs to describe “rhythmic displacement” in jazz swing music:  “Participatory Discrepancies” (Prögler, 26).  This is a descriptive term which summarizes the choices that the rhythm section takes when interacting with the spontaneous musical moment of jazz improvisation.  By definition it implies that there is a normal “place” for rhythm, or meter, in jazz, and that when the meter does not follow exactly, the choices that the musicians make are indexical and determine the creative process of the music, and hence the ultimate musical product.

Interactive musical conversation happens with oneself during improvisation, but also with the other members of the band.  Musical conversation between the melody soloist and the rhythm section is intrinsic in understanding contextual issues on the stage of the performance.  Jazz is described as having a “groove”, or a feel, that is absolutely essential to good music making in this genre.  This “groove” is solely applied by the rhythm section.  Therefore, the context of the situation in which the improvisation is held is entirely reliant upon the rhythm section, even though it is the melody soloist that gets most of the accolade for a great performance.    Up until Ingrid Monson wrote her book, Saying Something, the rhythm section in jazz had been almost ignored and taken for granted.   Weaving their melodies, a melody soloist must depend and trust the other members in the rhythm section to keep the “groove” going; “an imaginative rhythm section can inspire a soloist to project his or her most vibrant voice, while disinterested accompaniment can thwart even the strongest artist” (Monson, 1).   She argues that one of the most metapragmatic framing devices in jazz is the “groove”; this is established by the interactions of members within the rhythm section, then flows out to interact with the soloist.

In Bauman’s article, “Speech Genres in Cultural Practice”, genre is defined by Boas and Malinowski as “a nexus of interrelationships among the constituents of the speech event and as an organizing framework for speaking practice” (Bauman, 747).  I would extrapolate this theory out to apply to jazz improvisation; the genre of jazz that is performed live is entirely reliant upon the players making the music, and the audience within which that music is made.  I am defining jazz culture as discursive, emergent, and dialogic; therefore, genre is culture-specific, and in the terms of jazz, it is spontaneously created.

Intertexuality and intercontextuality are two key words to remember when discussing jazz improvisation, as well; intertextual because jazz draws from many musical influences indexically, and intercontextual because jazz draws from many sources to shape itself during the creative order of process.  According to Henry Glassie, “context is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the mind of creator” (Briggs, 14).  Once again, memory and emotion are central to the discussion of context, just as they were central to the discussion of musical formula, because they are inherent in “the mind of the creator”.

The notion of taste within culture should be brought up at this point in the discussion of genre and context, as the idea of “style” is an elusive concept, and also lives within the mind of the creator of the art.  In Fenster’s article, “The Problem of Taste within the Problematic of Culture”, he argues that “any working theory of taste must explain the individual, group, and social originations of cultural ‘choice’, and the consumptive, communicative, and affective enactments or objectifications of taste” (Fenster, 88).  The interrelations of the individual’s choice, genre groups of taste, and then these groups with other groups at large form the necessary components for a theory of taste.  It should be noted here that personal choice is a big factor in both how the musical formula plays out, and in how the musician applies that formula to the performance; the process is reliant upon social and economic concerns that will determine what genre is played.   As Scruggs stated, these social and economic concerns usually pan out in racial terms; playing what “white” people want to hear on the North side of Chicago, and then playing what “black” people want to hear on Chicago’s South side.  One musician playing two very different genres, but still calling it jazz; the discursive element with the audience cannot be underestimated when looking at improvisation in these situations.

How listeners understand jazz improvisation makes the connection between musical performance and other aspects of culture.  In John P. Murphy’s article, “Jazz Improvisation:  The Joy of Influence”, he states that most scholarly literature of jazz analysis has been through the lens of historical music-theory, and that the holistic approach of connecting cultural context with musical performance has been neglected.  He looks at ideas of meaning and identity that performers and audiences alike attribute to improvisational performance, and comes to the conclusion that the ultimate outcome of all the contextual factors is the bringing of joy to the listener.  Historical musical factors must be overcome by the soloist in order to create something new in the moment, but yet still have recognizable landmarks to depict the genre they are playing in, and these landmarks must be mutated and modulated themselves in order for the artist to show his/her own true virtuosity.  If the mutation of the “traditional” genre is accepted, it brings joy; if not, then it brings anxiety (Murphy, 13).

This idea of a holistic approach of how listeners hear music is reinforced by Ali Jihad Racy when writing about Arabic musical improvisation (Nettl, 20).  The same rule is true in the Arabic secular genre of music; that rule of how a soloist chooses his modulations of the scale are dependent upon how others have played in the past, and how he/she is adding changes to make the most clever and well articulated spontaneous moment of playing.   In Arabic music the word is tarab, or “ecstasy”; that is the goal of all Arabic music, whether secular or sacred.  If the soloist brings a sense of tarab to the listener, then he/she knows that his playing was effective in bringing together all of the necessary elements to produce the right atmosphere for the best playing possible.


The idea that jazz improvisation is a culture unto itself provides new ways of thinking of about culture.  It is not static, but dynamic, and is completely dependent upon context.  Jazz culture is discursive, dialogic, and emergent; jazz improvisation is a process as the product, and as it is constantly in flux, very hard to pin down to definition.  However, looking at it through the lens of musical-linguistic formula, and intercontextual factors such as interrelativity and interactional with the other members of the band, and the audience, then one can see how the text of a jazz improvisation is the structure of the process, or order of creativity, rather than a static composition that is pre-arranged.  Bringing joy to the audience is done through clever use of the musical formula.  Music making then is seen through a new and exciting lens of ever-changing possibilities for spontaneous culture making, and shows one of the many reasons this style of music has persisted.

Sources Cited

  • Bauman, Richard.  “Speech Genres in Cultural Practice”.  Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, Second Edition, volume 11.  745-758.  Oxford: Elsevier.  2006.
  • Berliner, Paul. Thinking in Jazz:  The Infinite Art of Improvisation.   Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.
  • Briggs, Charles L. “Competence in Performance:  The Creativity of Tradition in Mexicano Verbal Art”.  Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Day, William. “Knowing as Instancing: Jazz Improvisation and Moral Perfectionism”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Arts. (Spring, 2000), pp. 99-111.
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  • Fenster, Mark. “The Problem of Taste Within the Problematic of Culture”.  Communication Theory, volume One:    Pp. 87-105.  May, 1991.
  • Gillespie, Luke O., “Literacy, Orality, and the Parry-Lord “Formula”: Improvisation and the Afro-American Jazz Tradition”, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 22, No. 2. (Dec., 1991), pp. 147-164.
  • Mackenzie, Ian. “Improvisation, Creativity, and Formulaic Language”.  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Arts.  173-179.  Spring, 2000.
  • Monson, Ingrid T. (Ingrid Tolia), Saying something : jazz improvisation and interaction. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • Murphy, John P. “Jazz Improvisation: The Joy of Influence”, The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 18, No. 1/2. (1990), pp. 7-19.
  • Nettl, Bruno with Melinda Russell, ed. In the course of performance : studies in the world of musical improvisation / Published: Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1998.
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  • Prögler, J. A., “Searching for Swing: Participatory Discrepancies in the Jazz Rhythm Section”, Ethnomusicology, Vol. 39, No. 1, Special Issue: Participatory Discrepancies. (Winter, 1995), pp. 21-54.
  • Quereshi, Regula Burckhardt. “Musical Sound and Contextual Input:  A Performance Model for Musical Analysis”.
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Scruggs, T. M.  “Come on in North Side, You’re Just in Time”.  Current Musicology, Nos. 71-73, pp. 179-199.   Spring 2001-2002.