Is Improvisation Freedom ?

Fieldnotes by David Henning

This will present evidence from a small ethnological field study conducted in Paris in a concert on the 10/10/2015 and in discussion with the musicians held on the 12/10/2015. I will try to assess to what extent improvisation is freedom, or what else improvisation might be in the context of an all-improvisation concert held at La Java. It shall be argued that improvisation is freedom to a great extent for the group as a whole, but only to a minor extent for the individual musicians. It shall further be demonstrated that for the musicians, improvisation is about responsibility, building relationships and conversations.

The context

The venue of the concert was a peculiar location centred in Belleville, the former working class district of Paris. It was established in 1923, and several famous musicians kick-started their career here, notably Edith Piaf and Django Reinhardt. The place has gone through numerous transformations since then, always adapting to the tastes of the locals. Most recently it has discovered the electronic music and usually hosts slightly queer, but renowned electronic parties. Standing outside the cultural centre I could not help but think this was an abandoned building, it looked completely run down. However, upon entering and going down to the concert facility, it became more cosy and welcoming. If not especially notified it would not be a location I would happen to stumble across to watch a concert. I therefore thought it was an interesting choice. It gave me the impression it was a concert for people that are especially interested and have certain knowledge of the Parisian music scene.

The band is part of the project “The Bridge”, which aims to increase cross-Atlantic collaboration between American and French Jazz musicians, and give them the space to not only play, but also discuss and learn from each other. When the band came on stage their individuality was immediately apparent. The musicians wore clothes with no coherence between them. The drummer, Dana Hall, showed up in a shirt, but both Sylvian Kassan and Mike Ladd wore seemingly random T-shirts. The clothes of the woman caught my attention as she wore extremely colourful clothes, wrapped around her body. It was evidently inspired by African traditions and posed a huge contrast to the clothes of the other musicians. They all come from different background; some have significant musical education background (Sylvian Kassap, Dana Hall), whereas others are essentially self-taught musicians (Mike Ladd, Mankwe Ndosi).

The concert they played at La Java that tonight was an all-improvised concert. Meaning, nothing was planned beforehand, everything was made up on the spot. At the time of the concert I was not fully aware of this, and was consistently asking myself how much of the concert was improvised and how much was planned beforehand. Upon realising nothing was planned I was at first surprised, but then immediately drawn towards the medium of improvisation and their usage of it. Despite the band having taken a completely “collectively improvised approach” (Such, D. G., p 5), the songs did not turn into chaos and at times seemed to have a clear structure. It therefore struck me, to what extent is improvisation freedom? And if it is not freedom, what other things might improvisation be about? I will aim to answer this question throughout the next pages.

Improvisation and Freedom

In order to be able to draw any conclusions, about whether improvisation is freedom we first need to be able to establish what each of the term means.

In the genre usually referred to as jazz improvisation generally means making up something on the spot. However, there are large differences in the spontaneity and liberty of an improvisation (Such, D. G.). Bebop and hardpop jazz musicians usually play improvisations in the context of certain chord progressions. Thus, while it is made up on the spot, it is made up in a context of relatively strict rules. If a musician played notes that did not fit the chords, it is considered wrong. Furthermore, the songs have a certain structure and improviser know at what point in the song he will play and how many bars his improvisation will last. This stands in complete contrast to some of the improvisation done by “out-jazz” (Such, D. G.) musicians (I borrow the term from Such. It refers to avant-garde and free jazz). Take William Parker and the Little Huey Orchestra as an example. Parker would at times suddenly point at a musician in the middle of a concert and ask him to start the song with an improvisation (Hazell, E. 2004). Here the musician had no time to think about the improvisation beforehand, he had no chords to follow as he was starting the song and he had no idea how long the improvisation will last. This is clearly a very different type of improvisation.

I therefore tried to use the Oxford Dictionary to help clarify the situation. However, even then I ran into problems. The Oxford Dictionary defines improvisation both as “Create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation” and “Produce or make (something) from whatever is available”. These are two very different definitions related to the discussion in the previous paragraph. The first one refers to out-jazz improvisation, as something is created and performed spontaneously. The second one is more related to Bebop and Hardpop improvisation, where something is made from within the structures that are already available. Because the concert was an all-improvised concert with no given structures, thereby being more linked to out-jazz, I will use the first definition: “Create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation”.

Let us now turn to freedom, an even more difficult topic. The history of freedom in jazz is closely linked to the experience of the African-American people. This is clearly exemplified by the quote “My people, all they want is a place where they can be people” (Bechet, S. 1960, p 202-203). Jazz was in the early days a place for people to express themselves, to be themselves. It was a place where, after 40 years of slavery, people could be individualistic, a place where people could be recognised as people. Thus, it might be said that jazz was a total social fact, an event that is able to illuminate and draw attention to seemingly distinct practices and institutions. In those ways, it was inextricably linked to freedom and individualism. Since then, society has changed significantly and also jazz has evolved into a much broader genre with numerous subgenres. Nevertheless, the concept of the individual touch, the idea of “jazzing something up” is still at the very centre of all jazz. What is freedom in this context? How can freedom be defined?

Again I turn to the Oxford Dictionary for help. Oxford Dictionary gives many definitions of freedom, the two I deemed the most fitting were: “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants” and “The state of being unrestricted and able to move easily”. In both cases this can be related to music. The first one is simply: the power or right to play as one wants. The second one can be seen as: the state of being unrestricted and the ability to move easily in the musical context you’re in. Interestingly, the idea of freedom was very much discussed during the “rencontre publique” held the Monday after the concert. I deem the second definition of freedom more fitting, as improvisation is more about restrictions and movement rather than power and right.

However, even if we pin the definition of freedom down to the second definition this is not clear enough. The definition is divided into two parts, which are not necessarily mutually compatible. The state of being unrestricted is very different from the ability to move easily in a musical context. You can have the ability to move easily, but still be very restricted in your possibilities. Similarly, you can also be unrestricted, but not have the possibility to move easily. This may sound strange, however, ability to move easily is more related to your skill level as a musician and familiarity with a music genre, whereas the actual restriction is what restrictions the structure provides. I therefore, define freedom in a musical context to be: the state of being unrestricted.

This section has come to the conclusion that the definition of freedom being used in this essay is: “the state of being unrestricted”, and the definition of improvisation is: “Create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation”.

To what extent is improvisation freedom?

Having defined the term freedom and improvisation I will now try to determine to what extent improvisation is freedom in the concert of “the bridge” in La Java.

Improvisation is freedom in this concert because it gives the group the possibility to play what they want. In contrast to planned and arranged music, this improvisation concert gave the musician a much greater possibility to shape and transform the music to their liking on the spot. You could hear that throughout the music. A cue given by any of the musicians, for example Mike Ladd, would easily be picked up by the rest of the group and used to further transform the music. This made the music much more adaptable and flexible and stylistic changes were, effectively and quickly executed. Using the definitions above, the ability to spontaneously create music gave the group the possibility to be completely unrestricted during the course of the concert. They could do whatever they wanted at any point. This was also greatly employed as could be noted in the many different types of songs played: rap, spoken word, quite rocky jazz, soft songs. There was a multitude of approaches to music employed throughout, creating a large variety of songs. Consequently, for the group as a whole improvisation is freedom to a great extent.

Interestingly the individual musicians see it very differently, for them improvisation has little to do with freedom. Sylvian Kassan for example said that: “Being good at improvisation means you are able to play what your mind wants you to play. Being able to express yourself freely through your instrument”. However, you constantly have to consider the others in the ensemble and support or respond to them. It therefor has very little to do with freedom. You are constantly restricted by the structures developing spontaneously from the people around you. He elaborated further and said: “sometimes you follow lines that you have given yourself, and stick to them, because these are the best response to what the others are playing.” He therefore does not consider himself free at all, and for him, improvisation does not give you freedom. The other musicians echoed this notion too. Mike Ladd said: “a musical relationship is like any other relationship, you have to respond to cues in order to achieve something.” You cannot just walk off on your own, feel unrestricted and do whatever you want. If each individual musician would do that, the music would descend into chaos. Dana Hall also emphasised that he does not in any way feel free during an improvisation concert. He constantly has to pay attention, support others, and build something with them. Using the definitions above, for the individual musician improvisation is not freedom because the ability to spontaneously create music did not at all lead to them feeling unrestricted.

It is worth noting, that the musicians intent on supporting each other and collaborating can account for why the music did not turn into chaos, and why I felt it at times had a clear structure. They used the medium of improvisation in a way that was not related to freedom, thereby creating a coherent whole.

This section has demonstrated that while the group, as a whole, was unrestricted and thus free to a great extent. The individual musicians did not feel free at all during the concert. Therefore, for the individual, improvisation was freedom only to a very small extent.

What other things might improvisation be about?

Having established that for the individual musician at the concert of “the bridge” improvisation was freedom only to a very small extent. It would be interesting to look at what else improvisation might be for the musicians.

Dana Hall put a lot of emphasis on improvisation as responsibility. When you are improvising you are constantly responsible for the other individuals in the group and thus, rather than being about freedom, improvisation is about responsibility. He considers himself to be part of a collective or a dialogue that constantly poses questions and gives answers. Therefore he is always responsible. The other musicians agreed with him, and said that you are always responsible to the others in your group and to what you are trying to build. Rather than a space of freedom, improvisation can be seen as being a space of responsibility.

Mike Ladd, as already mentioned, sees improvisation as a relationship. And like in any other relationship you are not free. He drew an interesting parallel to sex and argued that, “in order to achieve something while having sex you need to respond to cues”. The same thing is true for improvisation, if you want to achieve something with your music; you need to constantly respond to cues given by the other musicians. For Mike Ladd, rather than being about freedom, improvisation is about building and creating relationships with the other individuals in the ensemble. Also here, the other musicians agreed.

Mankwe Ndosi described improvisation as a conversation. She drew a parallel to ocean waves that move back and forth, constantly building momentum. Improvisation was a dialogue between the different musicians that move back and forth, from one to the other. This could sometimes be quite literally seen in her conversation with Mike Ladd during the concert. He would say something, and she would respond to him, sometimes with words and sometimes with sounds, thereby creating a conversation that moves back and forth. However, it was not only meant in this sense, but also in a slightly more abstract one, where the conversation is not as clear to the listener, but still fundamental to the collaboration of the musicians.

All of these ways of describing improvisation are interlinked and quite similar. I nevertheless, thought it was interesting to present some alternative view of what improvisation might be about for the musicians while playing.


This ethnological study began by describing the context of the place, the band, and the type of concert they were playing. It was an all-improvised concert held by a diverse band in cultural club in the working district of Paris. Then I went on to discuss the two key concepts employed in the study, freedom and improvisation. I evaluated several definitions, before settling on one for each: “the state of being unrestricted”, and “Create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation”. I then went on to consider to what extent improvisation is freedom and found, that while improvisation is freedom to a great extent for the group as a whole, it is only freedom to a small extent for the individual musicians. Finally, I considered what else improvisation might be about, taking inspiration from the musicians themselves. I found that for the musicians it was about three things: responsibility, building relationships and conversation. None of them mentioned freedom as being in any way important for them. As a final note, I would like to point out that the conclusion is drawn within a very specific context, and thus cannot be applied to other musicians or concerts held. Furthermore, changing the definitions of freedom and improvisation would also greatly alter the conclusion.