An Improviser is Born

by Bill Benzon

I was improvising before I’d learned the word, but I wasn’t systematic about it until years later. I suppose for a time the word had a bit of a mystique about it, as it does for many. After all, the norm in Western musical practice has been to read music that someone else, the composer, had written. The composer is the authority; you are a mere conduit; and improvising, where you (shudder) make it up yourself, that’s VERY mysterious.

* * * * *

You mean, no notes in front of you. Just make it up?


And it comes out OK?

Sometimes, sometimes not. It depends.

Isn’t that very brave and dangerous?

No. Do you speak from a script?


Well then, there you have it. Don’t need a script for music either.

* * * * *      

I started taking music lessons when I was ten years old. My earliest teachers taught me to read music, and only to read music. So that’s what I did. But at some point, I forget just when, I decided I wanted to play simple tunes that weren’t in lessons. I decided, well, I’ll just have to figure out how to do it. I do remember that, when I was in sixth grade, I was particularly taken with the theme song to a series that played on Walt Disney’s Sunday night TV show. I forget the name of the series, but it was about mountain men and the song had wistful lyrics about living in the mountains.

I decided to figure it out. I had a spiral-bound book of music paper and used that to write out the tune. I didn’t bother with the rhythm, just the pitches. I picked a pitch to start with and wrote it down. And then I figured out each subsequent pitch in the melody. How’d I do that? Trial and error. I’d play what I’d figured out so far and then make a guess at the next note or two or three, whatever. If it sounded OK, I wrote the pitch down. If not, I tried other notes until I found the right one.

I have no specific recollection of the process, nor of how long it took me. Half an hour, and hour? Did I do it in one session, two, three? Don’t recall. All I recall is that I did it and that I remember that tune to this day, almost six decades later.

A couple of years later, after I’d joined the marching band (see Leapin’ Lizards: Three Lessons from Marching Band), I’d make up my own march tunes while practicing. Well, maybe yes, maybe no. I would play march-like melodies that I made up myself. Just how long they were, or how they were structured, I have no recollection. Nor do I know whether or not I would continue one line of musical thought from one practice session to another. Nor, for that matter, do I know how much time I devoted to this activity, as opposed to practicing the assigned lesson material. All I know is that I did it. I was playing music based on what

I thought up, on what I heard in my mind’s ear, not based on written notes in front of me.

At the same time I had begun to work on Rafael Mendez trumpet solos. What he played on the recording was sometimes different from what was written in sheet music. So I figured out what I heard on the recording and played that, noting specifically how it differed from what was written down.

The point is simply that I was learning to rely on my ear. Which makes sense, when you think about it, because music is for the ear, no? Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all improvised, didn’t they? So why did improvisation disappear from classical music during the 19th century?

I digress.

When I was in high school I played in the stage band – that’s what they called a big band, just why that name was used, I don’t know. I played the second trumpet part; Jerry Horner played first. One of the tunes in our repertoire was Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme”. There was a trumpet solo in the 2nd trumpet part. I had a choice: 1) I could play the solo that was written into the part or, 2) I could improvise a solo over the chord changes, which were also written into the part. I chose a third alternative: I composed my own solo. Just how I went about that, I do not recall. But I had enough skill on the piano that I could pick out the chord progression. Who knows, maybe I played chords with the left hand, trumpet with the right; and wrote the notes down.

All that’s just detail and it doesn’t matter. I was now making up my own music, if only in small ways. I’m sure I spent time making up my own little tunes and I certainly worked out tunes that I heard and liked. But it would be several years before I got serious about improvisation.

I played in both marching band and concert band in my first year at Johns Hopkins. Then I put the trumpet away for two or three years. Why? Don’t know. I forget whether it was in my senior year or my first year of graduate school (still at Hopkins) that I got the trumpet out, got back in shape, and joined the concert band. Whenever it was, 1969 or 70, one day after rehearsal a couple of guys approached me about playing in a rock-and-roll band they had performed. The band was modeled after Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago (aka Chicago Transit Authority) and they needed a trumpeter.

I have no idea just why they approached me. I certainly didn’t have any kind of reputation that I was aware of. I mean, what kind of reputation could I have possibly had? But sure, why not? They had songs by both BS&T and Chicago in the repertoire; the horn parts had been written out. All I needed to do was play the parts. But I didn’t have any intention of becoming a soloist, like BS&T’s Lew Soloff.

Then, one day in rehearsal, before we’d ever played a gig, we were working on “For What It’s Worth” (as I recall), not a horn-band tune, but one of the guys had likely written some simple horn lines. We’d played through the vocal part and were just riffing at the end, maybe the guitarist was soloing, I don’t recall. I started playing simple trumpet riffs that I intended as back-up figures. The guys liked it and maybe I started going beyond just back-up riffs. And so I’d slipped into playing a trumpet solo. Through the back door as it were. On the sly.

For all I can remember, we decided that, yes, there’d be a trumpet solo at the end of “For What It’s Worth.” And we made room for trumpet solos in other tunes as well. It turns out that I was pretty good. It was a rock and roll band, so of course the guitarist had his solos, as did the keyboard player, and the two other horn players as well, a trombonist and a sax player who doubled on flute. I played with the band, St. Matthew Passion, for about two years before the band broke up, as most of the guys were leaving Hopkins.

It was a great experience. Our first gig was at a party thrown by one of the political science faculty, Rick whatshisname. He had a row house near campus. The party was in his basement. We set up in one corner.

The gig was glorious. I still have vague visual and even kinetic memories of it. But mostly what I remember is how very much fun it was. We had a great time playing and the people had a great time dancing to our music – the two things go together, of course.

You want to know what life’s about? Well life’s about many things and I’m not going to say it’s a party. But a good party, a GREAT party, that’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s something you remember for a long long time. I don’t remember most of the gigs we played, but that one I remember, not in specific detail, just the glorious fun.

I also wrote some arrangements for the band, “A Lighter Shade of Pale” (Procul Harum), “Something” and “Hey Jude” (The Beatles). But mostly I worked on playing kick-ass solos. Since we were a “cover band” – that is, we covered music by other bands rather than writing our own – I had records of all the tunes where I had solos. I’d practice soloing along with those tunes. But I’d also play along with anything I liked, and certainly along with jazz records. I believe this is when I bought some Jamey Aeberold play-along-records. The record had rhythm section parts for jazz tunes. You would then play the melody at the beginning and the end and improvise solos to the rest.

But perhaps the single most valuable thing I did was to play wild. I’d become interested in avant-garde jazz, where there were no set melodies, no chord progressions, and often no set pulse either. You just played whatever you felt like playing. No rules.

It’s harder to do than you’d think. You’d think that, with no rules, with anything goes, it would be easy-peasy. In the abstract, yes. Concretely, no. You’ve got to remember that you’re playing the instrument with your body. And the easiest thing to do is to play patterns you’ve already got under your fingers. That tends toward boredom pretty quickly. The fact of the matter is that in order to play wildass shit that sounds weird and perhaps even wonderful, you have to think.

The fact that there are no preset rules doesn’t mean that there are no rules. It’s just that the rules arise in the context of playing. You have to discover them, and go with them.

If you do it right, if you really work at blowing wildass shit, and listen to what comes out of the horn – that’s so important, listen listen listen – what you’ll discover is that this wildass stuff begins to make sense. It no longer sounds so wild. You’re working the territory, discovering the order. As the noise begins to make sense, you have to work outward to the nonsense, thereby expanding your reach. The nonsense will, in time, make sense. Then it’s time for more nonsense.

Perhaps it isn’t quite like that. That makes the process sound a bit too pat. But something like that is definitely true. Go wild, and listen.

At the same time, of course, you’re working on chord progressions and scales and all that standard stuff. But always work at keeping something wild happening. It’s the growing tip.

Anyhow, that’s what I was doing while playing with St. Matthew Passion. Our last gig was particularly memorable. One of the tunes we played was “She’s Not There”, originally recorded by The Zombies, but we likely were more influenced by Vanilla Fudge, a psychedelic band. We were not even remotely like Vanilla Fudge. But we had our devices. In our arrangement the three horns would start with a chaotic improvised freak-out (the wildass shit I was just talking about) and then, on cue from the keyboard player, the entire band would come in on the first bar of the written arrangement.

On our last gig it was just me and the sax player. The trombonist couldn’t make it. The sax and I started our improv. The music got more and more intense until Wham! I felt myself dissolve into white light and pure music. Cosmic consciousness? Who knows, but that’s just words. The experience itself was beyond, words, beyond BEYOND.

It felt good.

I tensed up.

It was over.

After the gig the sax player and I made a few remarks about it — “that was nice” — enough to confirm that something had happened to him too. One guy from the audience came up to us and remarked on how fine that section had been. Did he know what had happened? Or, if not ‘know’ exactly, did he sense a special magic in the performance? I ask because performers and audience often have a very different ‘sense’ of the same performance. Perhaps the guy was just complimenting us on our ‘freak-out’ chops, not on any magic in the music.

And that was it, St. Matthew Passion’s last gig. Our first gig had been a joy forever and our last, for me it was something else forever. I had glimpsed a truth. A profound truth? Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows. But a truth.

I was in my middle twenties, still at Johns Hopkins. I was now confident in my ability to improvise, to make up compelling music on the spot. But it wasn’t until I went to SUNY Buffalo (State University of New York at Buffalo) that I really came to terms with jazz improvisation. But that story will have to wait, though I’ve already told much of it in this post about Frank Foster. Frank had played and arranged with Count Basie in the late 1950s and then went on to work with the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Elvin Jones. He was a superb jazz musician, one who’d worked with the acknowledged masters, the prime inventors of the music.

But that’s another story, for another post.