How to study improvisation?

In the late ’80s, in Holland, when teaching a workshop for the Dutch jazz-organisation SWING, John was asked to talk about how to study improvisation. His explanation was recorded and an old cassette of it was recently found in John’s archives.

Here’s a transcript of it, and the recording itself is here .

“Well, about improvisation,

it’s very important, the first thing, especially for European people, is rhythm. You have to study that again and again and again. If you don’t have the rhythm in your improvisations, it’s not interesting, and it’s not music. So this is the first point. And that rhythm, you can practise by playing, trying to play percussion things, you can play different kinds of drums. And you can also play, try to just play rhythmically on your instrument, whatever instrument you play.

Just make some ostinato-things and then you can record, and then you see how you lose tempo because you don’t have the right life in it. You must understand, you must try to find out what it takes to keep life inside the music. And try to find out what it takes to make the music not become boring when you play a repeated thing.

And then, of course you have to know your instrument, and you have to practise exercises in all the keys. It’s necessary, if you don’t know the chords, also the ones that belong to the hipper keys.

And the last thing is that it’s also good to compose, if you try to make some little compositions, maybe some of you are already doing some pieces and so. But it’s good if you can write, just simple pieces for a start, and then try them out, you know, maybe you can make a, if you don’t have a group to work with, you can make a tape composition where you have different voices. Just make short pieces, it doesn’t have to be any big symphony.

And so, you make a little piece, maybe once a week, or once every fourteen days or so, so after a while you get to understand how you can work with the materials of the music and it’s the same material as you use when you improvise.

When you know how to work with a small theme, how you can change it around and make it sound different by doing different things to it, then that’s the same principle that you use in improvisation also.

That’s all, I think!” (laughter)