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5 Exhilarating Jazz Improvisations to Unshackle Your Spirit

Part 1

“Islam,” said Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, “does have a policy embracing the happiness of this world....We believe that Islam is an all-embracing concept which regulates every aspect of life, adjudicating on every one of its concerns and prescribing for it a solid and rigorous order.”

Al-Banna was enunciating a commonplace. One of the chief elements of Islamic apologists’ polemic against the West is that Islam, unlike Christianity and other rivals, is a complete way of life, one that governs every aspect of the believer’s life, down to the smallest detail. But one detail remains unproven: that having every aspect of one’s life “regulated” is really a recipe for “the happiness of this world.” This is the key question at issue between the proponents of Sharia and the defenders of free societies: whether the human being can and should be entrusted with the right and power to make decisions of his own, or whether it is preferable for him to submit to a total system of control – one so all-encompassing that it tells him how to wear his hair, how to brush his teeth, what clothes to wear, and even how to evacuate his bowels.

Contrasting to this is the philosophy of life that assumes that the human spirit best flowers when it is not subject to such all-invasive control, but is allowed to find its own rhythm and choose its own direction. And that’s why jazz is a foremost expression of the American spirit. Every aspect of the music is not controlled; rather, the players compose it right on the bandstand. The blazing and tragic reedman Eric Dolphy once said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” That is true of all music to a certain extent, even the most carefully scored and coordinated, for every performance is subject to human vicissitudes, particularly when different musicians interpret the same written notation -- just compare recordings by two different orchestras of the same orchestral piece to see this. But it is true above all of improvised music, in which each performance comes from the soul (or lack thereof) of every performer, and every aspect of the music is most gloriously and emphatically not regulated.

All composition begins in improvisation, but the composer who is writing a score takes the time to reflect, sharpen, polish, and shape his musical thoughts; the improviser, on the other hand, is walking the tightrope without a net, trying to create something compelling in the moment. If he fails, the music will be dull and uninteresting; if he succeeds, it will be spectacular -- as spectacular as the flowering of America and the West when individual rights were respected, and when so many fewer aspects of life were controlled.

Every great improvisation is, therefore, a monument to freedom -- one to savor, and to celebrate. It would take a book, or more precisely a library, to catalogue them all and to give each its due, but within the confines of the space we have, here are a few choice monuments to the free and unfettered human spirit:

1. Louis Armstrong, “Dinah,” 1933

Louis Armstrong’s importance cannot be overstated; he practically originated this music himself. Ensemble jazz with short improvised patches arose in the early part of the twentieth century, with Armstrong’s great precursor Jelly Roll Morton laying claim to being its sole “inventor.” But it was Armstrong who had the imagination, the audacity, and the chops to extend his improvisations and make them the centerpiece of his music, making them into much more than the brief elaborations on the melody they had been before his arrival on the scene. This example comes from slightly later than the period of Armstrong’s first flush of inspiration and innovation, but all of his wit, exuberance, and musical inventiveness are on abundant display.