Thinking in Jazz The Infinite Art of Improvisation
by Paul F. Berliner
University of Chicago Press, 1994
Cloth: 978-0-226-04380-7 | Paper: 978-0-226-04381-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-04452-1
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226044521.001.0001


A landmark in jazz studies, Thinking in Jazz reveals as never before how musicians, both individually and collectively, learn to improvise. Chronicling leading musicians from their first encounters with jazz to the development of a unique improvisatory voice, Paul Berliner documents the lifetime of preparation that lies behind the skilled improviser's every idea.

The product of more than fifteen years of immersion in the jazz world, Thinking in Jazz combines participant observation with detailed musicological analysis, the author's experience as a jazz trumpeter, interpretations of published material by scholars and performers, and, above all, original data from interviews with more than fifty professional musicians: bassists George Duvivier and Rufus Reid; drummers Max Roach, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Akira Tana; guitarist Emily Remler; pianists Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris; saxophonists Lou Donaldson, Lee Konitz, and James Moody; trombonist Curtis Fuller; trumpeters Doc Cheatham, Art Farmer, Wynton Marsalis, and Red Rodney; vocalists Carmen Lundy and Vea Williams; and others. Together, the interviews provide insight into the production of jazz by great artists like Betty Carter, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker.

Thinking in Jazz overflows with musical examples from the 1920s to the present, including original transcriptions (keyed to commercial recordings) of collective improvisations by Miles Davis's and John Coltrane's groups. These transcriptions provide additional insight into the structure and creativity of jazz improvisation and represent a remarkable resource for jazz musicians as well as students and educators.

Berliner explores the alternative ways—aural, visual, kinetic, verbal, emotional, theoretical, associative—in which these performers conceptualize their music and describes the delicate interplay of soloist and ensemble in collective improvisation. Berliner's skillful integration of data concerning musical development, the rigorous practice and thought artists devote to jazz outside of performance, and the complexities of composing in the moment leads to a new understanding of jazz improvisation as a language, an aesthetic, and a tradition. This unprecedented journey to the heart of the jazz tradition will fascinate and enlighten musicians, musicologists, and jazz fans alike.


Paul F. Berliner is professor of ethnomusicology at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Soul of Mbira, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and is the recipient of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for outstanding writing in music.


List of Figures

List of Music Texts


Introduction: Picking Notes out of Thin Air? Improvisation and Its Study

Part I. Initial Perparations for Jazz

1. Love at First Sound: Early Musical Environment

2. Hangin' Out and Jammin': The Jazz Community as an Educational System

Part II. Cultivating the Soloist's Skills

3. A Very Structured Thing: Jazz Composistions as Vehicles for Improvisation

4. Getting Your Vocabulary Straight: Learning Models for Solo Formulation

5. Seeing Out a Bit: Expanding upon Early Influences

6. The More Ways You Have of Thinking: Conventional Rhythmic and Theoretical Improvisation Approaches

7. Conversing with the Piece: Initial Routines Applying Improvisation Approaches to Form

8. Composing in the Moment: The Inner Dialogue and the Tale

9. Improvisation and Precomposition: The Eternal Cycle

10. The Never-ending State of Getting There: Soloing Ability, Ideals, and Evaluations

Part III. Collective Aspects of Improvisation

11. Arranging Pieces: Decisions in Rehearsal

12. Adding to Arrangements: Conventions Guiding the Rhythm Section

13. Give and Take: The Collective Conversation and Musical Journey

14. When the Music's Happening and When It's Not: Evaluating Group Performances

15. The Lives of Bands: Conflict Resolution and Artistic Development

Part IV. Additional Factors Affecting Improvisation, and Epilogue

16. Vibes and Venues: Interacting with Different Audiences in Different Settings

Epilogue: Jazz as a Way of Life

Part V. Music Texts

Appendix A: House Congressional Resolution 57

Appendix B: List of Artists Interviewed