In the beginning, there was Improvisation. There had to be. Before music could ever be remembered, written down, or recorded, some intrepid caveman just had to bang it out. That same intimidating “blank page” one senses when first sitting down at an instrument, picking up a microphone, or creating a new Ableton session had to be confronted with spontaneous creativity. Music is so fundamental to the human experience that tracing its exact prehistoric origins is futile. Nobody invented it, it’s just what we do. But what we can say is that it had to start with Improvisation, that brave tightrope walk from which all music emerges.
Improvisation is the active process by which we spontaneously organize the sounds around us into musical expression. Music evolved as those improvisatory moments were repeated and refined. Naturally, if something sounded dope, even our prehistoric ancestors wanted to hear it again. Musical style took shape, with different groups passing on their own unique sounds from person to person, and generation to generation. Later on, notation systems came about and allowed for those once transient bursts of creativity to be more accurately recorded and propagated. Recording came along relatively recently, and offered even more retention. But with those developments came a tradeoff between the spontaneity of the present and that of the past. Certain cultures, particularly in the West, chose to prioritize the latter. Others, especially folk music traditions, stayed firmly rooted in the more ephemeral approach, prioritizing the present moment over any fascination with past practice or future evolution. Black Music found the sweet spot in between.
Improvisation is central to African music. As an aurally transmitted musical culture, the process of collective, spontaneous creativity is the means by which the music is propagated. It has to be played to continue existing. But with such high stakes, it’s no free for all. Much like the Massai people of Kenya and Tanzania are defined by their signature plaid textile patterns, there are fixed rhythms which define the music of different tribes. To deviate too much from the norm is an affront to the collective, which puts a limitation on the improvisatory range of any given player. Yet at the same time, each individual is encouraged to express themselves as much as possible within those confines. It’s an electrifying tension between collective flow and individual expression.
This improvisatory equilibrium can be felt across the Black Music spectrum. If someone’s freestyle at a rap battle was too free, it would start to lack style. Imagine someone pulling up to the fictional club in “8 Mile” and rapping in symbolist free verse. It would no doubt be original, but it certainly wouldn’t fare well for Yung Mallarmé. You could stand out by playing an all flamenco set in Panorama Bar, but only if you were after a literal once in a lifetime opportunity. And in reality, such radical confrontations never happen, so great are the energies of the collective and tradition. Black Music is a school of hard knocks, where self-expression is gradually learned through countless missed shots with increasingly higher stakes. There ain’t no half-steppin’, as one Big Daddy Kane would remind you. If you’re bad, you’re bad, and will be informed of the fact in real time. But when you hit that sweet spot, there’s no better feeling. In the practice of Black Music, freedom is earned. But you gotta pay your dues first.
Slavery and the resulting juxtaposition of African music rituals with European advances in music technology had a surprising effect on the improvisatory nature of Black Music. One might expect all of the soul to have been ironed out with increased precision, but in fact just the opposite occurred. With more resources on hand to reliably preserve the musical traditions of their ancestors, Black musicians of the diaspora had more source material. Black Music didn’t suddenly become a music based on notation, and most attempts to write it down still have a certain “uncanny valley” effect, like an impressive A.I. that never feels quite human. On the contrary, it became even more aural. The ability to more accurately record and replicate sounds increased how much could be passed on, and how much could be referenced. Black Music remained an improvisation based music, but one in which the improviser now traversed a wider path. With ever more traditions to honor, there was even more freedom to gain from doing so. The communal magnetism of African music proved powerful enough to connect and empower on a global scale, first within the disparate branches of the diaspora, and then the world at large.
Black Music continues to evolve at a radical pace in lockstep with society and technology. The rapid development of Jazz in the early 20th century would have been unthinkable without advances in recording that were happening at the same time. Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, recorded between 1925 and 1928, were revolutionary, not only as an inflection point in the transition from traditional New Orleans Jazz to the modern version which came to prominence, but also in the ability for those creative strides to be experienced by people the world over. It’s hard to imagine Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker developing bebop so soon in the following decades without the increased pace of musical evolution brought about by recording. Within a mere half century in America alone, this rapid musical prototyping led to genres as far-ranging as Rock and R&B, Disco and Hip-Hop, all distinct in their own aesthetic, but never straying too far from their common ancestry as Black Music. By the time the archive made its way into the hands of producers like J Dilla and Kanye West in the 90s, a full mastery was even more unobtainable, but the pursuit even more enticing. The torch becomes heavier with each passing, but brighter as well.
As the ability to create and distribute music has advanced exponentially, more and more people have been brought into this improvisatory network, and it’s become nearly impossible to tell where Black Music begins and where it ends. Those fundamental elements of traditional African music – Call & Response, Blue Notes, Polyrhythms, Improvisation – have now been fractalized, expanded outward, and superimposed on the world as the ubiquitous soundtrack to 21st century life. Everything from the Soundcloud rap at the bleeding edge of Hip-Hop to Bulgarian folk pop using four on the floor kicks demonstrates the omnipresent influence of the uniquely powerful and transmissible folk music of Africa. It’s impossible to imagine modern music without the influence of Black people, because modern music is Black Music. We’ve all been touched by it, and are therefore all a part of it. All we have to do is listen, and start playing.
Start listening with this playlist of Improvisation-based Black Music: