[Dixielandjazz] History of Improvisation

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Fri Jan 28 09:20:36 PST 2005

Long, but interesting. From a European Jazz/Classical/Pop composer and

Steve Barbone

The History of Improvisation by Misha V. Stefanuk      

Improvisation is a musical activity that for many musicians is associated
with jazz. It is true that most music we call jazz is improvised. It is also
true that improvisation is a most integral part of the jazz club scene
today. People who come to listen to jazz are expecting solos that follow the
melody. On the other hand in classical music we expect everything to be
performed exactly as written. However the process of removing improvisation
from classical music only began in the last quarter of the nineteenth
century. Only for the last hundred years was improvisation banned from
mainstream classical music.

I imagine that when humans first picked a pair of wooden sticks and started
banging rhythms and singing, there were no instructional materials
available. So I would assume that rudimentary music was partially improvised
simply because it was impossible to repeat anything exactly without writing
it out.

>From what we know about ancient music notation, the first developed systems
were those of writing chords and scales rather than complete musical pieces.
That is why most diatonic scales have Greek names- Lydian, Mixolydian,
Phrygian, Dorian, Ionian, Aeolian and Locrian. Surprise, surprise! That is
exactly how we teach jazz theory. Starting with chords and scales, we then
develop the ability to improvise.

In Johann Sebastian Bach's foreword to Inventions and Sinfonias, he suggests
that these pieces are examples of how one should improvise inventions. At
the Moscow College of Improvised Music, improvising fugues was a part of the
curriculum. I also remember theory class taught by Yury Kholopov at Moscow
Conservatory. Everyone in the group was asked to improvise every musical
form that was studied.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has been known to change his clavier parts on the
go. Most of his larger piano works, like Sonatas and Fantasies, have a
number of different cadences written down, but Mozart himself would play a
new cadence every performance. Beethoven at 17 years of age, when he was
introduced to Mozart, impressed him with his "improvising skills" in 1787.

Franz Shubert's Dances are also known as chains of waltzes. They were to be
performed as a free combination of any of the waltzes, or as they were also
called "landlers." At the time these pieces were written, improvisation was
one of the requirements for any pianist. While romantic piano music was
becoming more complex, both Frederick Chopin and Franz Liszt have been
famous for their improvisations. Early in his career Liszt used to play a
potpurri from an opera the day following its performance. Some of Chopin's
editions have different versions of the same piece, some of which are almost
three times longer!

So the idea of improvisation belonging to less serious music is not very
credible. Up until the twentieth century musicians used to improvise. In the
twentieth century, most classical music takes a very technological and
formal approach, which makes improvisation often impossible due to the
extreme restrictions on music material. That formal restrictive approach is
also largely responsible for the smaller audiences that enjoy "contemporary
classical" music. 

Another unique event in the twentieth century music is the invention of
jazz. Being a symbiotic art form, jazz is unrestrictive, democratic and open
to all kinds of ideas. It is no surprise that improvisation becomes a very
significant part of it from the very beginning. Similar to ancient music,
early jazz is not written out; therefore it is slightly varied every time
the same piece is performed. At the beginning of the jazz era, most jazz
musicians simply could not get a formal musical education. However jazz
caught the eye of serious composers almost immediately. Jazz inspired many
of the compositions of Claude Debussy, including Children's Corner, and
Aaron Copland wrote a clarinet concerto for Benny Goodman.

Today it is hard to find any serious jazz player without a conservatory
education. There are no restrictions for anyone to enter music schools other
than talent, and almost every musician studies a significant amount of
classical music. In my opinion, training in improvisational skills for
classical musicians is just as necessary. Improvisation erases the gap
between the theory and the practice of music. It makes music come alive,
helps musicians understand the great composers better and gives them
tremendous creative freedom.

In my own artistic life I find myself performing all kinds of music, and I
enjoy exchanging ideas between different musical forms. I always try to
explain the similarities between genres and historical connections between
musical styles. I also wrote a number of instructional materials that assist
in learning improvisation in particular. Being a composer and a pianist, I
had to learn both of these skills, and improvisation is simply a combination
of both.


WHO IS Misha V. Stefanuk?

He started playing piano at the age of 5 and composed his first piece at 9.
He studied at the Moscow Studio of Music Improvisation Art, the Moscow
Conservatory School, the Russian Academy of Music, Belmont University,
Skidmore Jazz Institute, and Washington State University. He has written
more then 100 works for a variety of instrumentations, as well as music for
more than 30 theater shows. Mr. Stefanuk wrote an original score for Y2K
Survival Guide with Leonard Nemoy. Misha has composed a significant amount
of music for network television, including programs such as ALL MY CHILDREN
(ABC), ONE LIFE TO LIVE (ABC), Passions (NBC), Chris Isaak Show (Showtime)
and First Monday (CBS). Among his other works are the Mel Bay bestsellers
Jazz Piano Chords (2001) and Jazz Piano Scales (2003), Jazz Piano for the
Young Beginner, and Piano for Adults (2003). His Piano Christmas for Easy
Piano made the publisher's 20 Gifts for under $20 List for Christmas 2004.

Mr. Stefanuk is a monthly columnist for Creative Keyboard and was a judge at
the 6th Annual Chopin Youth Piano Competition, June 2004 in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin. Mr. Stefanuk is a prize winner of the Stereotypes and Nations
Composition Competition held by Muzica Centrum Art Society in Cracow, Poland
for his composition Equinokse for oboe, string trio and prepared piano, and
of the Concerto Aria Composition Competition at Belmont University for his
piece The New American Symphony. He was also named Outstanding Piano Player
at the 29th Annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, and has won full
scholarships at Belmont University, Washington State University, and
Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute.

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