Live Jazz and the Beauty of Improvised Performance

Jazz music is arguably the most unpredictable and visceral performance art that exists. During improvisational bouts, in the flash of a second before an improvising musician’s next note, no one—sometimes not even the musician—knows what will come next. While classical music can be deeply, profoundly expressive, and while theatre and dance can promote tension and resolution, jazz music alone is delivered in a unique way each time it is performed.

Studio recordings are able to capture some of the magic of improvisation, but they by nature reduce the performance down to a single take. It is often an excellent and exciting take, like a well-taken photograph of a beautiful vista, but as is the case with photographs, it can be difficult to convey the scale of a song in a recording. From a single musician, one song on a quiet and thoughtful evening can be wildly different from the same song in a hot and rowdy night club.

As with all performance arts, it is up to the performer to take the audience to the place that the music comes from. Classical music may be composed, theatre may be scripted, dance may be choreographed, but jazz is dependent on the mood, the mind, the energy, and the fire inside the musician. For this reason—while there is certainly nothing wrong with listening to recordings of jazz music—jazz is an art best appreciated live, where the music is in a state of living, breathing relationship with its maker.

Work, Play, and Music

From the moment that jazz was first recorded, the music became subject to commodification. Musicianship was as much a trade as a passion, if not more so at times. Though many musicians hone their craft through live performance and taking creative liberties, studio recording time mandates polished, rehearsed performances that can restrict musicians to a set tempo and timeframe.

Many of the most prominent musicians throughout the 30s and 40s were part of a musician’s union. The unions were a necessary evil for musicians, many of whom faced nearly certain poverty and abuse without its protections. Still, the protection of unions often came at the cost of personal freedoms. Musicians were expected to perform when they were scheduled to perform, practice when they were scheduled to practice, record when they were scheduled to record, and not play when they were not scheduled to be playing.

For many, creative expression was only allowed onstage. As jazz music migrated from large dance halls to small nightclubs, musicianship migrated from performance to improvisation. During the early 40s, this came out in New York in particular, in a movement that would come to be known as bebop. Following an era of jazz music that had become predictable and routine, a handful of musicians decided to make “music for musicians,” outside of the standard.

The Jazz Clubs

While swing music continued to dominate dance halls, opera theatres, and large venues for some time, bebop began to circulate in small night clubs late into the night. Artists such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane began to push back at the industrialized, rigid confinements of unionized work. They would perform all night, and then keep playing long past closing, pushing one another to new and innovative modes of jazz music. And for the audiences who turned up and crowded into the clubs, the music was never more exciting.

As the decade wore on, each musician became famous in their own right, turning jazz as a whole into an individualized expression of thought. Large, ten to twelve-member swing ensembles dwindled in popularity while compact, three to five-member orchestras took familiar jazz songs and twisted them into unique, primarily improvised performances. As these quartets and quintets took to smaller and smaller venues, the jazz club began to dominate the jazz scene at large.

During this time, while bebop musicians did leave behind a fair number of recordings, jazz flourished in the dark of the night. Songs had new life breathed into them with each performance, as musicians sought to outplay one another with a fervor never before seen. Still today, if you want to experience jazz in its truest form, you cannot listen to it filtered through studio time and premeditated polish. You must sit in one of those clubs, follow to the edge of composition, and allow yourself to be taken into the wild and creative unknown.

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