Improvisation as Liberation

“The act of engaging in free-improvisation will become a liberator, and emancipator, for many people to touch into their emotional lives in a non-verbal and non-judgemental way. We must introduce this healthy way of life.”— LaDonna Smith

What lessons could we learn from jazz to help us do our work better?

When we think about jazz music, we might often think of improvisation as one of its defining elements. Improvisation is essentially composing melodies, solo and on the spot. Regardless of whether one appreciates this form of music or not, we can use jazz as a paradigm through which to explore improvisation as a way of being in the world.

Jazz itself is rooted in Black liberation. It was developed by African Americans who drew  musical influence from African rhythms and European harmonics. Defining jazz, however, will always be restrictive and possibly inaccurate. But what is interesting to consider here is its characteristics: jazz is about rule breaking, nonconformity and constant experimentation. Jazz, in fact, is “not just music, it’s a way of life, it’s a way of being, a way of thinking,” Nina Simone said. “Don’t call it jazz, call it social music,” Miles Davis once said. 

Many jazz musicians were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, whether directly or through their art, which may explain why jazz is a beautiful metaphor for certain forms of activism. Cornel West spoke of jazz freedom fighters and said it was “not so much as a term for a musical art form, but for a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid and flexible disposition toward reality, suspicious of ‘either/or’ viewpoints.”

So if we think about improvisation in this way, it’s liberation. It's a way of letting go, of playing, of not sticking to the script. Importantly, it’s not ignorant of the past or unskillful, quite the opposite. Like in many other art forms, it is only once you have learned the required skills, that you can break away from them. 

Importantly, improvisation is not an individualistic quest, it’s more like an individual’s contribution towards a collective work. To do that, the improviser must be responsive to the situation. Hans Georg Gadamer says it’s like a conversation, where the goal should not be “in trying to discover the weakness of what was said, but in bringing out its real strength.” 

And beyond the artistic skills required to be able to improvise (whatever form this may take), being responsive and building on the collective requires that we act ethically: we need to master the art of listening to the other, and let go of our preconceptions or personal goals. If we are able to do this, according to Gadamer, we might encounter the limits of our own knowledge – and that is where we encounter ourselves. This is a place of humility and creativity.

This is where we can relate jazz to our work;  in seeking to not be reactive, but responsive instead; in not just following rules but using our skills to adapt to whatever the situation requires; in having a grounded understanding of the past. This is also where innovation can happen.

We can even think about improvisation as a characteristic of leadership: it’s not about command and control or fixed hierarchies, but rather regenerative and adaptive, to others and the situation. It invites us to self-organise, to shift power and decision-making; to become more like a living system.

In The Philosophy of Improvisation, Gary Peters says improvisation has become an exercise in healthy living, with a concern for coexistence with others, the ecosystem, those on the margins and those silenced. Discourses of improvisation have increasingly expressed a “collective language of care and enabling, of dialogue and participation, a pure aesthetically cleansed language of communal love,” he writes.

But of course much of our work and lives get inadvertently organised into plans, schedules, outcomes and goals, and it often feels like our lives must follow a straight and narrow path. So how do we balance what is pre-planned with our ability to be responsive, creative and open to discovery? 

Perhaps while we ponder that question, we can listen to a bit of jazz by joining the upcoming International Jazz Day on 30 April, which is calling on global peace and unity, and will be hosted by UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Herbie Hancock, featuring musicians from around the world. 

Words by Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes


‘After Ideology, or Alterations in Time,’ Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit

‘Jazz Lessons in Human Rights,’ Silence Magazine, CRIN and the Rights Studio

‘Improvisation as Original Ethics: Exploring the Ethical in Heidegger and Gadamer from a Musical Perspective,’ pdf, Sam McAuliffe.

The Philosophy of Improvisation, Gary Peters

International Jazz Day, 30 April 2022:

Further resources

One-Way Street, Walter Benjamin

Dr. Cornel West on free speech, utopian futures and music, Interview on 95bFM, August 15, 2018.

‘Why MLK Believed Jazz Was the Perfect Soundtrack for Civil Rights,’ Ashawnta Jackson, October 16, 2019, JStor Daily

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