Billy Connolly, Daniel Barenboim, Willie Wonka, Jazz Bastards and the Universality of Improvisation

Billy Connolly, Daniel Barenboim, Willie Wonka, Jazz Bastards and the Universality of Improvisation

We are all musical. Every human being has a biological and social guarantee of musicianship. And that’s not a vague utopian ideal but a conclusion being drawn by a growing number of researchers investigating the foundations of musical behavior. The earliest communication between and a parent and a child is not prototypical language. The cooing and the babbling and the interaction that takes place between a newborn baby and their parent is essentially a musical improvisation. So improvisation plays an absolutely critical role in the earliest communication and bonding of our life. The patterns of interaction laid down in the early weeks and months will shape our behavior for the rest of our lives are essentially a musical improvisation.

Derek Bailey famously said (I’m paraphrasing him here) “That improvisation is the most widely practiced but least understood recognized form of music”. It’s a point of view which has launched a thousand dissertations but I’d like to suggest that this is no longer the case.

Daniel Barenboim, giving the BBC Reith lectures a few years ago was asked a question by pianist Julian Joseph. “You haven’t mentioned improvisation in your lecture. What do you think of improvisation”. Barenboim paused, and said “improvisation is the highest form of art”, conforming the belief that an improviser has command of his or her instrument and lightening fast musical reflexes to respond in the moment. Two weeks after listening to the Reith Lecture I was watching Willa Wonker and the Chocolate factory with my daughters, which contains a scene in which Augustus Gloop gets sucked out of the chocolate river and ejected from the factory. As that’s happening the Oompa Loompas sing “Big fat greedy Gustus Gloop is a big fat nincompoop”. Charlie asks Willy Wonka how the Oompa Loompas know that Augustus Gloop was going to fall into the river, because they sang the song straight away? And Willy Wonka replies “Improvisation is a parlor trick, anyone can do it”. So there’s two conceptions of improvisation. 1) It’s the highest form of art, 2) It’s a parlor trick, anyone can do. For me, both are problematic.

Shortly after watching Willy Wonka I was in a Glaswegian chip shop and to cut a very long story short into the chip shop came Billy Connolly. And we got into this fantastic conversation about music in the course of which we discussed Norwegian fairy music, sympathetic strings, folk music… and eventually he said “What instrument do you play”, and I said “I play the Saxophone”, “Do you know Mickey Deans?” (a old stalwart Glaswegian saxophonist) he asked. “Yes, I do know mickey Deans”. “Do you play in the band with Mickey Deans?” “We’ll I used to play in the band with Mickey Deans, but I now play improvised music, you know, unlistenable music nobody likes”. And he said (impersonating Connolly) “Brilliant! That’s Brilliant! You must be doing something right if those jazz bastards don’t like you!”

And that’s my final conception of improvisation, something that upsets the “Jazz Bastards”.  My contention is that improvisation is a process whose time has come. Improvisation is the being recognised as the earliest and perhaps most important type of communication that we engage in. Gilbert Ryle, the British Philosopher, said that “a brain that is not improvising is not alive”. Improvisation is the ebb and flow of our daily life. There are countless conceptions of what improvisation is but what it provides is a place for collaboration, a place to meet and share ideas and to develop new works. Whilst improvisation is possibly the earliest form of communication, it still has a very important role to play in contemporary music.


Note: this article is an edited version of a Rant given as part of the 2015 Jazz Rants at Club Inégales on Wednesday 18 November, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.


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