Descriptions of improvisational thinking by artist-level jazz musicians



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I investigated the thought processes of seven artist-level jazz musicians. Although jazz artists in the past have spoken extensively about the improvisational process, most have described improvisation only in general terms or have discussed specific recorded improvisations long after the recordings had been made. To date, no study has attempted to record artists’ perceptions of their improvisational thinking regarding improvisations they had just performed. Seven jazz artists recorded an improvised solo based on a blues chord progression accompanied only by a drum track. New technologies made it possible to notate the recorded material as it was being performed. After completing their improvisations, participants described in a directed interview, during which they listened to their playing and looked at the notation of their solos, the thinking processes that led to the realization of their performances. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using a qualitative research methodology. Six main themes were identified through the coding of the interviews. In all of the interviews, artists described making sketch plans, which outlined one or more musical features of upcoming passages. These plans became increasingly more explicit as the time to play each idea approached. The artists also described monitoring and evaluating their own output as they performed, making judgments that were often incorporated into future planning. Interestingly, the artists at times expressed surprise in hearing what they were playing, indicating that not all of the improvisations were based on ideas that were first imagined before they were played. The artists described four strategies for generating the note content of their improvisations: recalling well-learned ideas from memory and inserting them into the ongoing improvisation, choosing notes based on a harmonic priority, choosing notes based on a melodic priority, and repeating material played in earlier sections of the improvisation.