Meet in the Middle: When You Want to Improvise, but it’s Not Entirely Jazz

I grew up playing classical music and longing to be in jazz band.

Granted, it didn’t take long for that to come to fruition—by eighth grade I was taking solos and groaning at lead parts like I’d done it all my life—but with jazz comes an often-stifling series of mistreatments. I don’t have to tell you that; I haven’t touched the art form in over a year, and while I still miss the music, I’m waiting for the opportunity to get back into it on my own terms with people who won’t shut me down at every turn. The thing I loved most about jazz, though, was simultaneously what I hated: the improvisation.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge fan of bebop. Sure, it’s nice, and it’s certainly an important part of jazz history, but if given the choice, I’ll opt to avoid it most of the time. (I won’t say all, because there are a few tunes I’ll always hold near my heart.) I’m almost certainly at a disadvantage when it comes to bebop, though, because it was the style that got shoved down my throat when I wanted to learn other things. People wanted me to fall in love with it, and maybe I could have, if I’d had the time to come to it on my own. But for now it’s that awkward subject that gets danced around over Thanksgiving dinner. (At least, if I had Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of jazz musicians. Which I don’t.)

The things I wanted to do with jazz required a lot more cooperation than I got. I wanted to have the option to entirely break the groove out of a solo section and deconstruct it. I wanted to ask people to play counterpoint (and not just the rhythmic kind). I wanted to be able to ask my friends to follow me through strange spaces, but the peers I was closest to balked at the idea and my teachers made it clear my ideas didn’t belong in their classrooms.

Lately, I’ve been chasing some of the same goals, but I’ve been doing it from the experimental classical side of the house. (Plot twist: experimental classical and experimental jazz aren’t really different beasts. Fluxus and Ornette Coleman were two blocks away from each other in New York.) I’ve spent time falling back in love with improv and allowing myself to move away from the performatively-male side of things that so often manifests in jazz music. I don’t have to shout down a rhythm section these days. I don’t have to play a million notes anymore. Hell, I don’t have to play any notes at all—not when I have a whole sound world of extended techniques to choose from. I can nonverbally ask the performers around me to follow me, and this time, in this space, they probably will. That following won’t inherently be of the “I have a fully formed idea, please help me execute it” variety, but it’ll be the acting and reacting I’ve been hoping for for so long.

Because put another way, I grew up improvising and longing for someone to share it with.

It started before I made it into jazz band—as my mom likes to remember (usually with a groan), I’d sit at the piano at home and play whatever came to mind like I’d done it all my life. It continued in high school, where I had one fleeting year with an improvisation ensemble that allowed me the freedom to move beyond my instrument’s traditional roles (or beyond my instrument entirely). As I got older, I started calling it composing instead, but I kept looking through jazz clubs and classical studios for the common thread.

And I didn’t find it there, because for most people who teach and pursue traditional styles of music (yes, including jazz), that’s not what it’s about. Sure, maybe in an abstract sense—everyone’s supposed to be able to find that freedom somewhere—but in the end, you’re going to have a hard time getting a drummer and a bassist to explode a chart with you, even if you’ve asked them nicely. This stuff doesn’t make it into jam sessions or small group work, and it’s not because people aren’t capable—it’s because there’s some invisible barrier that tells everyone to stay in their lane. To do what you know will sound good. To limit your risk-taking, even (or maybe especially) when the only people around are your peers.

I suppose that’s why I’m glad I ended up at CalArts. Sure, the jazz folks here still play bebop (sometimes), and there are plenty of people on a traditional classical track, but we’re lucky to have such a strong spirit of collaboration that folks are happy to sit down with something they’re unfamiliar with in pursuit of something new and interesting. Maybe it’s that separation of composer and performer and audience member, that segregation of responsibilities and duties to the ensemble, that kept me from finding these moments with my peers in the desert. Maybe they were too scared of the words follow me when uttered without context.

To be clear, I don’t blame them. I got here in the end. This young person was not irreparably harmed by the making of this artist. But it’s strange and a little bit sad to look back at the people you once expected you’d follow to the ends of the earth and realize they’re no longer at your side.

Maybe I always knew jazz wasn’t going to be healthy for me. Maybe I just hoped the people I found, the friends I made, would meet me in the middle. ♦

Thanks for reading! If you’re looking for something quasi-improvisational and you’re comfortable sitting with the topic of sexual assault, check out Letters from the Aftermath. If you’re a survivor/victim/casualty yourself, I highly encourage you to consider like no one’s watching if it interests you.