The Power of Improvisation

According to Forbes, employers currently value creativity as the single most important trait in an employee.  Everyone is looking for ideas and unique solutions to problems as ideas drive our current economy. Hence, the role of education has changed too. Rather than being facilitators of knowledge, teachers need to help their students develop their creativity and ideas. Initially, creativity was linked to high intelligence but most recently it has become clear that it is not a psychological trait but rather an idea that varies depending on cultural and historic factors. Further evidence shows that engagement in improvisational activities and the arts seem to increase levels of creativity and idea generation. As a jazz artist, I practice improvisation on a daily basis and regularly engage with groups in the process of creating new ideas and a new product. This model of creative group engagement in a jazz combo has been in existence for over a century and I started wondering if elements of the model could be applied to other group settings whose goal is to come up with ideas and a new product. As I started investigating further, I came across quite a few studies and essays that investigated the same model – here are just a few examples:

Barrett, Frank. Coda: Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations. Communication Research 1988 15: 582.

Bastien, David and Hostager, Todd.  Jazz as a process of organizational innovation.

Florida, Richard and Goodnight, Jim.  Managing for Creativity.  Harvard Business Review.

Holbrook, Morris. Playing the Changes on the Jazz Metaphor: An Expanded Conceptualization of Music-, Management-, and Marketing-Related Themes. Foundations and Trendsin Marketing,Vol. 2, Nos. 3–4 (2007) 185–442.

Limb, Charles and Braun, Allen. Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance:

An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679.

I figured I was on to something and came up with a class idea to study the elements of a jazz combo and learn how to transfer those elements to solve ideas.  The class is now “Creative Thinking Techniques and Entrepreneurship for Arts Management” taught on a yearly basis here at IU. In addition, together with David Baker I did an in-depth investigation on jam sessions with surveys and interviews and of course lots of jamming myself, and the result were these seven factors that define the jazz jam process – here is the link to the complete paper published by the Journal of the Music and Entertainment Industry Educators Association this December:

1. Individual competence and knowledge of the Field.

Definition: All efforts to achieve the highest competency and knowledge level for all participants

2. Practicing Improvisation as the ability to overcome self-consciousness

Definition: Improving the willingness to take risks and find new solutions

3. Establishing Mentoring System and Role Models

Definition: providing access to mentors who are willing to share their expertise and interact

4. Democracy and collaboration

Definition: Providing equal opportunity for all participants to step into leadership roles while all other participants provide their expertise in support towards the goal of achieving the most creative and innovative product

5. Leaders and Sideman

Definition: The identity of a group or company as a leader in their field or rather as a supporter/ supplier according to their strengths

6.  Community support

Definition: Help and encouragement by a group of partners from anywhere (e.g. suppliers, audience, competitors, universities, associations) similar in some way.

7. .Continuous evaluation systems

Definition: Providing feedback/ evaluation throughout the process

Below is an analysis exercise to match the elements to a jam session.  But more importantly, how do these elements get transferred to other group settings? I’m working with an entrepreneurship class in Leicester/ England and we’ll complete an analysis of a company that pinpoints the equivalent of these exercises for a business.  I’ll make sure to post the analysis and further progress on our investigations. The MEIEA paper also provides plenty of examples for transfer.  The crucial element is that improvisation can be learned and exercised and frequent engagement in improvisational activities has an impact on the brain’s creative capacities.  Watch this Ted Talk by Charles Limb for the scientific proof and happy improvising!

Here is a video example of a recent session – see if you can pinpoint some of these factors.  To get started here is a bit of help:

Analysis of Jazz Jam Session Elements for the performance of “There Will Never Be Another You” during a jam session at Players Pub, February 8, 2015 featuring:

Matt Riggen – valve trombone

Chris Parker – sousaphone

Jeffrey Parker – trumpet

Janiece Jaffe – vocals

Monika Herzig – piano

Peter Kienle – bass

Josh Roberts – drums



  1. Individual Competence and Knowledge of the Field (K)
  2. Practicing Improvisation as the Ability to Overcome Self-consciousness (I)
  3. Establishing a Mentoring System and Role Models (M)
  4. Democracy and Collaboration (D&C)
  5. Leaders and Sidemen (L&S)
  6. Community Support ©
  7. Continuous Evaluation Systems (E)

Time            Element

00:00            K – everyone has instrument ready to play, know how

D&C – agree on song, distribute tasks

00:14            L&S – Chris takes lead and counts off

00:37            E – Recover from missed note

00:38            I – Chris forgot melody, improvises

00:52            D&C – players switch off playing melody

00:58            E – trombone plays wrong note, Chris evaluates with facial expression

1:06            D&C – Matt turns to communicate on who should take first solo

1:10            D&C – Chris takes lead, everyone else goes in supporting roles

I – Chris improvises new melodies in jazz style

1:50            E – especially high note is acknowledged by Matt

2:34            C – audience claps and shows support

2:35            D&C – Jeffrey takes solo, Chris moves out

I – Jeffrey improvises new melodies in jazz style

3:11            E – bad note, ensemble notices and covers

K – ensemble adjusts to the competency level of the younger player

3:51            D&C – band was ready to wind down but Jeffrey continues and band             immediately goes back into supporting role

E – realize mistake of soloist and support and cover

4:30            C – audience claps

D&C – Matt picks up as soloist from Jeffrey’s ideas

I – Matt improvises, ensemble joins improv with pianoless texture

5:48            E – Vocalist takes microphone, communication on what to do next

6:26            C – audience claps and shows support

D&C – switch off lead and support roles

I – vocalist improvises melodies

6:36            D&C – vocals and trumpet exchange places

7:25             D&C – piano complements vocals in unique way

7:42            E – nods among performers to acknowledge end of solo and success

D&C – switch to piano solo

I – pianist improvises melodies

8:00            D&C – vocalists steps aside

8:47            D&C – piano leads with a descending pattern and drums and bass join with  various means of support

K –

I – drums and bass are willing to take the improvisational risk

E – head nods acknowledge the unqiue moment and idea

9:20            D&C – new rhythmic idea, bass and drums join to support

I – drums and bass are willing to take the improvisational risk

9:38            D&C – bass takes the lead, drums and piano go into supporting roles

I – bass improvises melodies

E – Vocal and trumpet are ready to go but realize that bass solo is desired

10:14            D&C – bass signals end, everyone else is ready to take on roles as needed

E – start trading forths, communicate order and impact through eye contact

I – everyone takes part in the trading through improvised ideas

C – audience and band acknowledges successful bass solo

11:33            D&C – vocals take the lead with melody, band takes on supporting roles

I – melody is in wrong key for vocalist so she improvises alternative melody

12:16            I – an ending is needed, band improvises options

E – close communication among players to pick an ending formula

12:42            C – Applause and acknowledgment by audience and fellow players

E – Players acknowledge and complement each other