Jazz pushes boundaries. It is an art form grounded in interpretation and improvisation – freedom of expression and personal choice. Performers, composers, and arrangers of jazz music strive to offer an original voice and advance artistic expression through the use of music vocabulary, instrumentation, and form. They dream of and make sounds unheard before and identify ways to breathe new life into standard repertoire.
For the student, interpretation is often easier than improvisation. Taking a jazz standard and planning ways to alter the melody or rhythm, stretch phrases, or insert space and ornamentation is different from spontaneously creating original music during a performance. Interpretation requires awareness of the musical expression and the ability to make effective choices. Improvisation, on the other hand, can be scary and intimidating for the student, at first, as she offers solos in front of other musicians and audiences. This risk taking instills confidence when she is successful and can be devastating if not. This means it is essential that she understand the improvisational process and receive clear guidance and feedback on her performance. Once familiar (and confident) the student is ready to interpret music, share original ideas, and use her artistic and intellectual imagination to play jazz.
For the teacher, imagination is an essential component of the instruction. She needs to creatively engage her students with effective techniques, and new ways of thinking about and making music during each lesson. She also needs to listen to her student and find ways to help her express herself through an instrument or with her voice – working together to stretch and grow over time. Teaching improvisation requires a step-by-step approach that allows the student to build on prior knowledge and abilities, and simultaneously develop skill and confidence.
For the performer, interpretation and improvisation allow for some of the highest jazz music making experiences as she shares her original ideas and skill with audiences. The ability to develop a solo that has a beginning, middle, and end; includes hooks, riffs, and/or quotes; and shows technical and artistic proficiency is exhilarating for musicians. In addition, these solos inspire other musicians and listeners, and advance the art form.
To illustrate our ideas a bit further, we offer the following examples of non-musical life skills, benefits, and educational lessons embedded in the study and performance of jazz music while interpreting, creating, and improvising: