Marvin Stamm

 Internationally Renowned Artist
 and Former Jazz Trumpet with
 the Stan Kenton Orchestra:

 Explains 'How We Do  What We Do'

Jazz solos!


Jazz improvisations! 

What are they? How are they done? What is a musician thinking about when he or she plays a solo? What makes us do what we do? Go where we go? What is it that keeps us racing up and down that long and wondrous road of exploration so our musical ideas remain fresh, vital, full of energy and fire?

These are questions I am asked frequently. To most people, what I do as a Jazz improviser is sometimes mysterious, often times magical.

Without taking any of that away, I believe I can explain what is involved in the fine art of improvisation and the process of executing it to perfection.

In truth, improvisation is a musical language with which Jazz musicians converse with each other. They learn just like everyone else who masters their native language; not from books, but by ear!

How did you learn to speak your native tongue? Did someone teach you to speak?  No, of course not! You learned by hearing that language spoken by people around you, usually family members. By the time you were a year or more old, you had begun to speak that language, and, by the time you actually studied the grammar and had assimilated the syntax of that language, at approximately age eight, you had been fluent in the language for about six years!

Consider, for a moment, how many people have studied a foreign language in school for three or four years but are still unable to speak that language? Yet, if for a period of time you were placed among those to whom that language is native and you had to speak that language, your ears would become attuned to it. You would quickly develop a vocabulary and learn how to put words and phrases together in order to speak it with ease. The longer you remained immersed in that situation, the more fluent and sophisticated your skills in that language would become. How does this apply to Jazz improvisation? And what motivates a musician to begin improvising?

Usually a young musician will hear a particular track on the radio or a CD which inspires him to grab his instrument and attempt to duplicate what he just heard. Initially, it takes a good bit of time to relate what he heard to his instrument as his ears are not yet accustomed to this process. But as he faithfully continues this ear-conditioning regime, he rapidly improves his skills. In the course of learning to do this, he constantly finds himself hearing new things he wants to try and play, thereby further developing his ear and adding to his musical vocabulary. All the while, he is learning from those who came forth before him and established their own individual musical voices. In my experience, no player who has not gone through this process has ever developed into a skilled and creative improviser! This process develops a musician's ear, and, like learning to talk, the player copies other people's style, articulation and phrasing all the while exercising his or her technical abilities by just playing the music, not focusing on his instrument. 

Simultaneously, the young musician develops a vocabulary and learns the intricacies of the language, the phrasing, articulations, rhythms and harmonic approaches in order to clearly express himself. The more he applys himself, the broader his skills become. The more expansive his vocabulary, the more fluent he becomes in the language. Eventually, as he becomes impatient with imitating others, he begins to use his recently acquired skills to put forth his own ideas and to express his deepest personal feelings. Sound familiar? Just like learning to talk and developing one's speaking skills!

Over a period of time, the neophyte player develops into a full-blown Jazz linguist, and, if perceptive, realizes this is a life-long task in which he will constantly participate in to become more fluent, so he can enhance his musical vocabulary, find his own highly-individualized voice, and establish a niche for himself with his music. This is the long, and sometimes winding road he must travel to become an articulate Jazz improviser.

What happens when four or five musicians come together to play?

What happens within their 'conversation'? 

Quite simply, it is a 'call and response' to each other. What each musician plays elicits, in a millisecond, a response which then triggers further 'dialogue' from his colleagues, each in their own way throughout the entire piece. All of this is based on the musician's thorough knowledge of his subject matter, or, in this case, the tune he is playing.

Apply this to people talking together in which they exchange thoughts and ideas based upon their knowledge of a specific subject. In conversation, the more one speaks with others the more they absorb and expand upon the knowledge and ideas of others. As they attempt to educate themselves and refine their own skills of communication, they, in turn, become better speakers with greater abilities to listen, respond, converse. This is the same process we use to become articulate improvisers except that we use our instruments! Of course, we can only improvise to the level of mastery we have acquired on our instruments, a step not required in conversation.

Now having developed into a skilled Jazz improviser, one who has trained his or her ear and learned the theories of harmony and rhythm, how does one develop a solo? 

In my case, I first listen to the style and context of the music, then immerse myself into the feel of the rhythm and harmony and let that elicit a response from me. In a big band context, I listen to how the arranger has structured the setting into which I am being placed, the textures of the sounds around me, and then, based on the harmonies and rhythms, try to create my own melodic lines initiating a conversation with the orchestra while continually striving to find something original and new. In the process, I respond to all that surrounds me, the manner in which the rhythm section 'comps' underneath me, the backgrounds the arranger has written to accompany me and what the tempo, rhythm and style of the composition suggest to me. I try to create a discourse with the group I am within and say something expressive and musically appropriate.

In a small group, I'm less restrained, free of written frameworks which enables me to be more spontaneous in style, tempo, rhythm and harmonies. Also, if I desire, I can change the 'feel' and setting of the piece. For instance, I can play a composition in Bossa Nova style one evening and the next evening play it in a 'swing' style. Even if they continue to play a piece in the same style, most creative Jazz musicians strive not to be repetitive. They are always searching for new ways to express themselves and expand their ideas and skills of communicating.

In closing, it is difficult to put into words what prompts someone like myself to play in a specific way at a specific time because I play extemporaneously, just as we talk extemporaneously. 

Do we think about speaking? 

Or, isn't our speaking dictated by the situation at hand and based on our need to respond to that situation by expressing our own ideas and thoughts, which then creates a dialogue with those who elicited that response. 

Jazz improvisation, like speaking, is just that. Even more. 

It is the eternal search for the holy grail of creativity which permits us to weave a musical mosaic of incredible beauty, power and symmetry unlike anything that has gone on before!