Improvisational: Living jazz

Jazz stands for freedom. It’s supposed to be the voice of freedom: Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don’t be a perfectionist.

Dave Brubeck

Letting go of what’s expected. Taking an unusual path to the destination. Streaming consciousness. Formulating new juxtapositions and approaches to tone, meter, sound. Carving out a singular, spontaneous experience that may never be replicated. These are some of the many potent practices jazz musicians bring to their instrumentation, their evolving sound and the genre as a whole. And it should be said: lucky for us.

As we navigate the terrain of work, family, extra-curriculars and what’s required to meet daily needs, how refreshing would it be to inject a little of the jazz mentality into our lives?

Jazz music can teach us a lot about letting go of the expectations we place upon ourselves: about how to embrace improvisation and living in the moment. As a product of the expansive territory the genre covers, jazz encourages exploration and venturing out in new directions. It fosters listening to what’s happening in the moment and riffing off that. Responding to what’s unraveling. It’s intuitive and symbiotic. It’s a powerful conversation that can change your life. If fact, renowned saxophonist, Stan Getz echoes this observation: As far as playing jazz, no other art form, other than conversation, can give the satisfaction of spontaneous interaction.

An important American art form for two centuries, jazz has morphed into so many verities, partly due to its idiosyncratic pension for breaking rules and shattering standards (the poetic equivalent might bring up names such as e.e. cummings, Bob Kauffman and Anne Sexton). As with all great art forms, it forces us to look at things differently. It stretches the limits of our mainstream experience and offers us something unexpected in challenging our preconceived ideas. A great piece can start out as a seemingly straightforward ride then detour into a high-speed race near ledges without guardrails before returning us to the highway, tires squealing. It can also turn from a lumbering dirge into a whimsical romp on a dime.

Jazz wasn’t a heavy presence in our growing up, but we weren’t exactly strangers to it – the tendrils of its reach so ubiquitous in all musical forms. Our grandparents had jazz playing softly in the background of their tiny kitchen. We tried to inhabit a Ricki Lee Jones lyric on the radio: He sure is acquired a cool and inspired sorta jazz when he walk. We tried walking jazz. We sat in on jazz band in high school which led us to take Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk for some spins. We also added some of John Coltrane’s smooth sax and mixed in a dash of Charlie Parker’s frenzy as we attempted our own compositions.

More than imitating a sound or a string of notes, we were imitating the practice of being present in the moment enough to allow the conversation to occur. Playing – with instruments or otherwise – unrestricted. It’s what we do when we want to be the best at whatever it is we do; not a perfectionist, just the best that we can be in that moment. It takes a lot of rehearsing. A lot of trial and error. More than anything, it involves taking calculated risks and not being afraid to fail.

One doesn’t have to fall in love with jazz music to appreciate it and stitch its ideas into everyday life. In fact, a lot of what we do as parents and employees involves a good amount of improvising. Applied jazz: an unconventional approach to problem solving or relationships wherein we keenly listen and compliment a situation for a desired result; working within the flow of things rather than battling against it which might just lead to new perspectives and understanding. While dissonance and opposing forces are integral parts in jazz arrangements – as in life’s arrangements – it is a resonant refrain that results from practicing improvisation and letting go of ingrained expectations.

When we are able to stop thinking five to ten steps ahead of where we are and be present in the moment – when we become active participants in the conversation life is having with us now – we might just be more able to adapt to and enjoy the terrain before us.


Siblings Anne and Joe are co-founders of Susan Lane Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to broaden literary opportunities in Northeast Michigan. The Twin Compass appears here in The Alpena News the last Thursday of every month.