During his victory speech in South Carolina on Saturday night, Newt Gingrich joked about allowing President Barack Obama to use a teleprompter in debates. Gingrich has made this joke before, implying that the president needs far more preparation than he does to discuss the issues. I haven’t found any statistics comparing the ratio of Gingrichian teleprompter comments to criticisms against President George W. Bush for using similar devices, but let’s agree that neither side is safe from these attacks. It’s also safe to assume that they arise out of some powerful perceptions (if not necessarily actual facts) about the candidates.
Speaking off the top of one’s head in an articulate, exciting manner seems more impressive than doing so from a script. Spontaneity implies intelligence, poise and sincerity, while canned lines imply inauthenticity, an indicator that the orator doesn’t really know his or her stuff. After all, isn’t it easier just to read something? Aren’t we hearing something more honest when someone improvises?
Let’s face it, many jazz lovers make the same value judgment. Even if we listen to and love a variety of composed and extemporized genres, deep down we assume we’re hearing “more” of an artist when they’re improvising. The use of the phrase “opens up” is telling: it’s rarely used to describe an arrangement. A good jazz chart knocks our socks off, but we hear the “true” musician when they’re creating in the moment. It’s also why highlighting a musician’s inspirations rather than their innovations can be damning: referencing another player too much in a solo implies planning, and worse, imitation. Creating something entirely original from an admired colleague’s utterances never seems as personal when compared to offering something totally unfamiliar.
For even casual listeners, jazz is primarily associated with a soloist improvising multiple choruses. Stylistically jazz has steadily shed all perceived impediments to completely “free” improvisation: first the written score, then the set melody, next chord changes, then key and in some cases even a steady groove. This development not only leaves a lot of jazz in stylistic limbo, it passes over some great music that happens to be on paper.
In an interview I conducted with Vince Giordano last year, the bandleader, performer and historian glowingly described the music of the twenties and thirties as “a combination of orchestrated stuff and loose jazz.” In his liner notes to An Anthology of Big Band Swing, Loren Schoenberg applauds arranger Bill Finegan’s ability to “…create scores with little or no improvisation that were still highly effective jazz.” It’s also worth noting that many jazz musicians have found inspiration from the written and rehearsed pages of the classical tradition (which itself is not always reducible to a score).
And if all the performers of Bach, Mozart and Brahms are doing is simply reading from a score, then anyone can be a great orator; all they need is a speechwriter and a research staff. There are quite a few ways to express knowledge and sincerity (or for that matter to sound knowledgeable or sincere). Whatever the relationship is between jazz and improvisation, music and spontaneity or expertise and preparation, the point is “what,” rather than “how.”
Duke Ellington understood his players so well that many parts he composed for them were mistaken for improvisations. In performance, where the sheer sound of “Concerto for Cootie” comes from seems like a footnote: