5 Exhilarating Jazz Improvisations to Unshackle Your Spirit

(AP Photo,file)

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.


2. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, “Hot House,” 1952

Parker (alto sax) and Gillespie (trumpet) took improvisation on the chord structure of a melody to its outer limits. “Hot House” is based on the chords of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” used as a pretext for high-speed, breakneck melodic inventiveness (which this YouTube clip only fleetingly and inadequately captures). No one could match Parker for harmonically sophisticated improvisations elaborated at high speed – for that matter, no one could match Parker’s speed in any other aspect of life, either.

3. Miles Davis and John Coltrane, “So What,” 1959

Miles Davis and John Coltrane together best illustrate how jazz is an expression of the individual soul. “So What,” one of the first pieces featuring musicians improvising on a single scale or mode, rather than a series of chords and all the different scales that emanate from those chords, has Davis (on trumpet) and Coltrane (on tenor sax) taking exactly the same material and going in radically different directions with it: Davis spare, taciturn, and reserved, and Coltrane searching, effusive, and loquacious. (Watch closely at 3:42 to see – for just a split second — the ever-cool Miles Davis’ mouth drop open in awe at Coltrane’s astonishing invention. And with good reason: it is astonishing.)

4. Eric Dolphy, “God Bless the Child,” 1960

If improvisation is walking a tightrope without a net, then solo improvisation is walking a tightrope without the rope. But Dolphy soars safely to the other side, simultaneously proving that the bass clarinet was good for more than just spooky spy movie background music.


5. Pharoah Sanders, “Hum Allah Hum Allah Hum Allah,” 1969

No article postulating that jazz is the antithesis of Sharia would be complete without a nod to Muslim jazz. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Pharoah Sanders was the king of psychedelic jazz, not infrequently couched in explicitly Islamic terms. Vocalist Leon Thomas, the king of the West African yodel, begins this glorious freakout by announcing that “peace is a united effort of coordinated control” – a succinct summation of the Islamic understanding of peace as something that is bestowed upon one from without, and is a matter of coordination and control.

If peace really is a matter of coordinated control, then Islam is indeed peace, as Islamic apologists insist. But Pharoah Sanders’ music cuts against the words, for while the background is loosely organized as a setting for the improvisations, they are anything but coordinated or controlled. “Hum Allah Hum Allah Hum Allah” unwittingly bears witness to a message quite different from its stated one: that true peace comes from allowing the spirit to flower in its own direction, free of overbearing control from the state or other external authorities.

Pharoah Sanders was and is too great a musician, and too honest a man, to allow his dogma to dictate the direction of his music. He knew in his heart that the way toward the happiness of this world, contrary to al-Banna’s confident proclamation, was not regulation of every aspect of life.


Every great jazz improviser knows that truth well, and expresses it in music. For that, we can all be grateful.


Previously From Robert Spencer at PJ Lifestyle:

Jazz and Islam, Part 1: Why Did Lenin and Muhammad Hate Music?

Building Bridges Between Christians and Muslims: A Case Study


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