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Jammin’, improvisin’, groovin’… – Mark Doffman


Our latest guest post features Dr. Mark Doffman, from the University of Oxford, introducing his research on improvised jazz performances – digging beneath the apparent mystery of spontaneous musical group creativity to examine the interactions and gestures that lie beneath and the context in which they operate.

Imagine a common musical scene in jazz –a group of players at a jam session, meeting for the first time on the stand, launch into a number without more than a word, play through the number and end together to the enthusiastic applause of the audience. In my experience, listeners at jazz gigs, even people who attend such events regularly, often express surprise or even incomprehension in the face of this improvisational tour de force – just how do the musicians do it without rehearsal? Nor may an audience member’s understanding of these unplanned but organised sounds be necessarily clarified by talking to players; so much that goes into such a performance is tacit knowledge, gleaned over many years and often resistant to being fully communicated through talk. Improvisation in these moments assumes an air of mystery. Of course, however much musicians would like it to appear so, it is not mysterious – but it is complex. This post briefly outlines some of the questions about live musical interaction that have interested me and is based on research on jam sessions over the last couple of years.

There are two questions in particular that intrigue me; first, how do musicians manage to play through a song and end together without working out what they are going to do ahead of time? A second question might also be how do the details of playing, the immediate work of a musician’s fingers, if you like, tie in to the social fact of playing music with particular traditions, practices and institutions woven around an immediate, improvised performance?

Though the two questions are related, the first might be easier to answer.  In part, the spontaneous improvising at a jam session could be seen as, in the words of Derek Bailey, ‘a conjuring trick’  [see his great book Improvisation: its nature and practice in music Da Capo Press, 1992].  A trick in that what is presented as spontaneous has a considerable amount of prior, shared knowledge underpinning the process. So the point of spontaneity extends back in time through many hours of rehearsal, private practice and listening to other musicians. Included in this knowledge base would be the formal structures of jazz standards (AABA song form for instance), chord sequences and scalar patterns/shapes that form the basic scripts from which improvised solos develop. A much more embodied notion of knowledge however also underpins much of the musical interaction.  The coherence of group improvisation relies on procedural knowledge, the acquired bodily understanding of, for instance, playing a groove together. This feeling of coherence between players is tangible but often difficult to express – so much of what works between players often lies below awareness in the moment and is difficult to describe after the fact.

Beyond the various types of knowledge required to make it to the end however is the conduct of players on the bandstand – formal knowledge by itself is not enough. By conduct, I mean both the musical sense of conducting and the idea that there is an ethics of group work – good conduct if you will.  So, the sense of responsibility (and its limits) towards others on the stand is vital to the coordination of unplanned performance. Role is implicated in conduct. Dependent partly on whether a player is a frontline soloist or part of the rhythm section, then the sense of leading or following, actively cueing through gestures or use of gaze, or using melodic/rhythmic/harmonic shifts to signal changes of direction will vary. In this sense, the boundaries between social and musical interactions become rather blurred in the service of good conduct. Conduct has a historical dimension too.  Over the course of jazz, the jam session, for instance, has altered from the ‘cutting contest’ beloved of the early bebop players in New York to many contemporary jam sessions which in my experience of the London scene tend to be much more inclusive and less competitive affairs.  Conduct in the moment is thus framed within a historical juncture – what is going on around and about at the time.

In looking at this relationship between conduct and knowledge, I have used some methods borrowed from interaction analysis that help to answer these questions through analysis of live performances by players at jam sessions in London. Recorded performances were edited in Avid Media Composer and then clips transferred into The Observer, behavioural analysis software that allows for the coding of movements and gestures and so on in a video sequence. By coding the different gaze and gestural patterns that musicians deployed during the course of a number and through interviewing some of the musicians (about their work generally and the performance in particular), then it was possible to gain a detailed understanding of conduct and conducting on the bandstand. Knowledge gained over many years by musicians through solitary practice, formal education and of course playing with others is activated, made to work through patterns of interactive gazing and gesturing, patterns that change and intensify as the performance hits critical points. For instance, as knowledge becomes less certain between players as a number comes to a close, then patterns of gazing and gesturing supplement and to a degree take over from knowledge. Nor are the patterns uniform across the group.  Musical role, in particular, has a considerable impact on how musicians make use of their eyes and bodies in the midst of a performance.

If the coincidence of knowledge and conduct makes sense of how musicians produce a coherent performance on the fly and answers my first question – broadly, ‘how do they do that?’  – the second question above is a little trickier to answer and I leave it hanging for readers to engage with. How do we trace the lines between what is happening at the tips of a musician’s fingers – the expressive behaviours of a musician and the larger socio-cultural context in which players find themselves? A question of structure and agency. Is the fine grained expression in a solo or ride cymbal pattern inevitably and always the product of structures around it.  Answers on a postcard, please.

[For a fuller exploration of jamming and creative collaboration on which this blog is based see my article ‘Jammin’ an ending: creativity, knowledge and conduct amongst jazz musicians’ twentieth century music, 8/2 203-225; this examines the way in which musicians end a song together at a London jam session]

Mark Doffman, Faculty of Music, University of Oxford

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