Categories of Creative Freedom in Approaches to Jazz Improvisation

Mark C. Gridley

Portions of this article were published online on November 15, 2021, in College Music Symposium, Volume 61, Number 2.


Playing jazz represents more extensive freedom of creativity than in any other art form. Each performance requires at least some of the music to be spontaneously composed during the act of the performance. Most styles require the solos as well as some of their accompaniment to be improvised freshly on-site for each performance. The extent of the spontaneous invention ranges from mere embellishment to full paraphrase to the generation of entirely new melodies that are compatible with the starting tune’s accompaniment harmonies. Some styles involve no planning whatsoever. This paper clarifies and illustrates seven categories of freedom that characterize the creativity of jazz musicians.

Embellishment. The most limited extent of creative freedom is to merely embellish the tones in an existing melody. It could involve changing the durations of selected tones. It might entail changing the arrival times of selected tones, even as much as displacing the position of entire phrases in relation to the beat, thereby retaining the pitches but changing their rhythms. Or it may involve adding grace notes or adding vibrato and changing its depth and rate within each tone. By comparison with the categories of creative freedom which follow, this is sometimes designated as “a straight reading.” Such improvisation is often done during the first chorus in renditions of a piece which will undergo more extensive creativity as the performance unfolds in subsequent choruses. On the famous “Star Dust” recording of 1940 by Artie Shaw’s band [Victor 27230], the opening theme statement by trumpeter Billy Butterfield is mildly embellished.


Paraphrase. The modifications of a straight reading can ease into a greater extent of improvisation known as paraphrase, which could involve adding and subtracting pitches and delaying or eliminating germs of the original melody. This entails recasting the original melody, but not so far that its identity is no longer detectable. Creative paraphrase is exemplified in renditions of “Star Dust” by Louis Armstrong from 1931 [Okeh 41530; CD as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Columbia Legacy C4K 57176], and Ben Webster from 1965 on his album There Is No Greater Love (Black Lion, 1965). Examples of exquisitely crafted paraphrase can be found on the Stan Getz rendition of “It Never Entered My Mind” in the album Stan Getz and J. J. Johnson at the Opera House (Verve 8265, 1957) and in the trumpet solo on “My Funny Valentine” in the album My Funny Valentine: Miles Davis in Concert (Columbia 9106, 1964). Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie radically paraphrased the melody to “I Can’t Get Started” in a performance that he recorded in 1945 [Manor 1042].

Arpeggiation. A more elaborate departure includes drawing tones from the accompaniment chords and using them as the basis for original inventions that sound less and less like the melody that came with the song. Sometimes this sounds merely like playing the chord tones one at a time, technically known as “arpeggiation.” But if done cleverly and with rhythmic vitality, it can form a compelling solo line or one portion of a more elaborate line. For example, if we were to pretend it was an improvisation instead of a written tune, consider the melody line to “In the Mood” which draws directly upon the tones in the accompaniment chords. “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid” is another example. Louis Armstrong did this in select phrases on his 1927 solo on “Savoy Blues” [Manor 1042]. Lester Young used this approach within a few phrases of his solos on his 1936 rendition of “Lady Be Good” [Vocalion 3459] and his 1939 rendition of “Pound Cake” [Vocalion 3459]. His ending phrase on the Sound of Jazz studio album version of “Fine and Mellow” exemplifies this (Columbia CK 45234; 1957).

Inventing a New Melody. The most creative category of improvisation consists of inventing an entirely new melody that is at the same time compatible with the progression of harmonies that accompany the song. The fresh melody is constructed spontaneously after stating the theme of the piece that is being performed. It is continuous within the tempo and the progression of chords that accompany the theme of the piece. It bears such integrity and tunefulness that it could suffice as an original theme of its own, and some have been so tuneful that they have inspired lyrics. The most inspired of all jazz improvisers managed to do this frequently. Among the best examples are Charlie Parker’s improvisation from 1945 on “Parker’s Mood” [Savoy MGV 12009]; Miles Davis’s solo on “Iris” on the Miles Davis Quintet album E.S.P. (Columbia 9150; 1965); Davis’s solo on “Freddie the Freeloader” on the album Kind of Blue (Columbia 64935; 1959); Wayne Shorter’s fifth solo chorus on “Eighty-One” from the Davis E.S.P. album; and Shorter’s solo on “Invitation” from the album Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Impulse A7; 1961). Pianists John Lewis, Dave Brubeck, and Horace Silver were so gifted and disciplined that many of their improvised solos bear the structure and character of written melodies. Particularly tuneful improvisations by Lewis are in his recordings with The Modern Jazz Quartet. Almost any album by the Dave Brubeck Quartet contains lyrical solos by its pianist, and saxophonist Paul Desmond’s solo preceding Brubeck’s final chorus on “Georgia on My Mind” in his Gone with the Wind album (Columbia 40627; 1959) also stands out. Silver recorded exceedingly melodic improvisations in his albums Cape Verdean Blues (Blue Note 90839; 1963) and In Pursuit of the 27th Man (Blue Note 35738; 1972).

Several musicians created such well-constructed improvisations on familiar tunes that their recorded solos were transcribed and arranged for other combinations of instruments. Saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer’s solo improvisation on his 1927 recording “Singing the Blues” [Okeh 40772; on LP as Columbia CL 845] was harmonized for the entire saxophone section of the Fletcher Henderson band to play [Columbia 2585]. Saxophonist Lester Young’s solo improvisation from Count Basie’s 1939 recording of “Pound Cake” was so melodic that it was scored for the Woody Herman band in 1956 to use as the main theme for their “Blues Groove” track (Capitol T784). Young’s improvisation on “Lady Be Good” from 1936 was so imaginative and well-crafted that it has been memorized by numerous saxophonists. In fact, saxophonist Lee Konitz performed it in unison with his pianist on his Tenor-Lee album (Candid 71019; 1977). Trumpeter Bunny Berigan’s recorded solo improvisation with the Tommy Dorsey band on “Marie” in 1937 [Victor 25523] was so inspired that subsequently it was transcribed and included for the entire trumpet section of the Tommy Dorsey band to play whenever they performed “Marie.” Saxophonist Charlie Parker’s improvised solos were so melodic that an entire band called Supersax was formed in 1972 to play and record harmonized transcriptions of them (Supersax Plays Bird; Capitol 11177). The 1949 recording of saxophonist Wardell Gray’s solo improvisation on his piece “Twisted” [Prestige 817] is so lyrical and well-constructed that singer Annie Ross gave it words, then recorded it in 1952 [in album King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings; Prestige 712] and Joni Mitchell recorded it in 1974 [in album Court and Spark on Asylum Records].

Playing Patterns. An approach that is popular with many jazz musicians is to learn patterns that gracefully flow through favorite chord progressions. Though young players often get the patterns out of books, more often they acquire these patterns by listening to jazz giants who have invented them. For instance, saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Michael Brecker crafted entire vocabularies of patterns that proved quite useful to hundreds of other saxophonists, as did trumpeter Clifford Brown, who is so widely imitated that many listeners might mistake hearing any of his disciples for hearing the originator. Recordings by the bands of Horace Silver and Art Blakey feature Brown-like solos by Donald Byrd [Art Blakey: The Jazz Messengers (Columbia 65265; 1956); Horace Silver: Six Pieces of Silver (Blue Note 25648; 1955)]. Recordings by the bands of Art Blakey illustrate Brown-like solos by Bill Hardman [Art Blakey: Hard Bop (Columbia CL 1040; 1956)]. Lee Morgan’s solos on the John Coltrane album Blue Train (Blue Note 1577; 1957) are remarkably like Brown’s style.

Quoting Classic Solos. Many improvisers use phrases derived intact from solos by such great improvisers as saxophonists Charlie Parker and Lester Young. Jazz players who are just developing their own styles often start with the solos of Parker and Young. Then they devise their own approaches. Many improvisers never get much beyond playing solos in the style of their idol, often using intact phrases from the improvisations that the idols recorded. During the 1950s an entire school of saxophonists developed from the inspiration of Young. It became termed “the cool school.” Young’s nickname was “Pres,” which is short for “President of the Saxophonists.” Paul Quinichette sounded so much like Young that he was given the nickname of “Vice Pres.” A few exemplars are tenor saxophonists Richie Kamuca, Bill Perkins (Tenors Head-On; Liberty 3051; 1956), and Dave Pell (The Dave Pell Octet Plays Rodgers & Hart; Trend 1501; The Dave Pell Octet Plays Irving Berlin; Kapp 1036). They were preceded by Don Lanphere and Allen Eager in the 1940s.

Devising Entirely Original Solos. To devise entirely original improvisations during every performance is a goal that only a tiny number of jazz musicians have achieved. But there are a handful of players who do not tend to rely on patterns and have recorded solo after solo after solo that contains no phrases from any previous solo. In that elite club are saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Paul Desmond.

Free Jazz. There is an eighth category, not as common as the previous seven. This is where the improvisation is free from the harmonies of the accompaniment and its song structure. The improvisation follows its own internal logic no matter where it might take the line. The most famous practitioner of this approach, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, changed keys nine times during one such improvisation [“Dee-Dee” from the album Ornette Coleman at the Golden Circle, Volume One (Blue Note 84224, 1965)]. Saxophonist Albert Ayler was a major figure known for departing not only from repeating cycles of preset chord progressions, but also from reference to melodic motives and steady tempo [“Ghosts: First Variation” from the album Spiritual Unity (ESP DISK 1002. 1964)]. These two saxophonists were designated as adherents of “free jazz” for allowing this extent of freedom from pre-existing structures. Numerous examples for this extent of freedom can be heard in concerts of unaccompanied piano improvisations by Keith Jarrett because they are filled with constructions that have no advance planning. His most famous free improvisations are on an immensely popular album known as The Koln Concert [ECM 1064, 1975].

Aesthetic Goals for Jazz Musicians

Several different aesthetics guide the improvisations and careers of jazz musicians. Some players are content to have mastered a repertory of patterns that allow them to easily navigate most chord progressions and occasionally intersperse newly invented phrases within the execution of the patterns. The field of saxophonists and guitarists associated with “Smooth Jazz” since the 1980s fits this designation, for example, Kenny G, Warren Hill, Kirk Whalum, Dave Koz, and Paul Taylor. Other players are not content unless they continue to take risks and try new approaches each time that they perform jazz. Saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, pianist Herbie Hancock, and bandleader-composer Sun Ra fall into this category.

A few of the most talented musicians devise new styles every few years. For example, saxophonist Sonny Rollins made major changes to his style at least twice within a career of more than sixty years. Trumpeter Miles Davis affiliated himself with key trend setters at pivotal times in the history of modern jazz and is accordingly celebrated as the essential bandleader for four different approaches: cool jazz, modal jazz, quasi-free jazz, and jazz-rock fusion. Saxophonist John Coltrane was continuously striving for fresh ideas, and he attained five distinguishable style periods that included new approaches to composition, not just to improvisation.

Several jazz giants invented original styles and then played within them, including dilutions, throughout their careers. Saxophonist Johnny Hodges and trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie exemplify this trajectory.

Stan Getz and Bill Evans as Case Studies for Several Categories

Freedom of creativity is exemplified by the careers of saxophonist Stan Getz and pianist Bill Evans, who never seemed locked into any one style of presentation and were willing to try different situations while retaining their own identity. Getz began his career playing in swing era style. Then he assimilated the modern style known as bebop and briefly played in a manner resembling that of its first tenor saxophone practitioner Dexter Gordon, as on the Getz recordings of 1946 “Opus de Bop” (Opus de Bop: The Savoy Sessions, Savoy SJL 1105) and “Don’t Worry About Me.” Soon he switched to a style that drew from that of Lester Young, as documented in his recording “Grab Your Axe, Max” (Opus de Bop: The Savoy Sessions, Savoy SJL 1105) However, he was mostly original thereafter, and this originality is exemplified in his solo on “Early Autumn” with the Woody Herman band of 1948 (reissued on Keeper of the Flame; Capitol 98453). At times his original style recalls the classical music of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev more than the flavor of his modern jazz contemporaries. His improvised lines were melodic, logically phrased, easy to follow, and swinging. His vocabulary of ideas did not usually refer to melodic ideas or rhythms common to solos by bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker or bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Getz stuck with this fresh style and forged ahead with it through the 1950s. Then when he discovered the music of Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim in the 1960s he pursued several years of improvising over bossa nova rhythms and chord progressions that were not based on the modern jazz style of bebop. Some of these were contained in his albums Jazz Samba (Verve 8432, 1962) and Getz-Gilberto (Verve 7003, 1963). Thereafter, Getz embraced the unusual and challenging compositions of pianist Chick Corea. These were stylistically far removed from the swing era and bebop bases that Getz had previously mastered. Among Corea’s most challenging compositions were “Litha” and “Windows” on his album Sweet Rain (Verve 8693, 1967) and “La Fiesta” and “Captain Marvel” on his album Captain Marvel (Columbia 32706, 1972).

Before his forays into new music by Jobim and Corea, Getz had risen to the formidable challenge of freely improvising over a series of pieces written for a string group. He was supplied with no chord progression or melody line. He merely scanned the string parts while he invented entirely new phrases and played them spontaneously and simultaneously with the string music. The result was issued on the album Focus (Verve 8412, 1961), and it represents the greatest achievement of his career and one of the most outstanding examples of non-derivative improvisation in jazz history.

Bill Evans assimilated the vocabulary of the bebop master pianist Bud Powell and the melodic thinking of pianist Lennie Tristano’s disciple saxophonist Lee Konitz. Departing from these roots Evans devised an entirely fresh style and applied it to his band work with such leaders as Tony Scott, Art Farmer, Cannonball Adderley, and Miles Davis. With his studies of 20th century European composers he reharmonized popular tunes and jazz classics in ways that suggested the best of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. The primary architect of the renowned Kind of Blue album of Miles Davis (Columbia 64935, 1959), Evans soon became a jazz trio pianist who was the most widely imitated figure on this instrument since Bud Powell. Never content to re-use familiar patterns or harmonies he continued to take risks within his improvisations. For example, during his recorded performance of 1961 on “Solar” at the New York night club The Village Vanguard he not only played the tune’s melody, he voiced several choruses of his solo improvisation in octaves, improvised extensive solo lines in one-note-at-a-time fashion, ended some choruses with sporadic phrases voiced in block chording, and he often displaced entire phrases away from the ground beat without losing coherence or momentum for the overall architecture of the performance. Some of these phrases implied a meter of three beats instead of the basic four beats that anchored the selection (Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Riverside 376).

One of the most celebrated improvisations of Evans began its life as a repeating figure that alternated two chords to introduce a performance of the Leonard Bernstein song “Some Other Time.” On a separate recording, he returned to its accompaniment pattern, and instead of proceeding into the song’s melody, Evans improvised ringing tones and brief new phrases over its repeating accompaniment pattern, almost as Erik Satie had refined in his “Trois Gymnopedie.” The result became known as “Peace Piece,” released on the 1958 album Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside 291).  His improvised phrases were so well-conceived, and the mood was so evenly maintained that the Kronos String Quartet transcribed his work and performed it intact as though it were a formal composition (The Music of Bill Evans, Landmark, 1985). Evans contributed the same accompaniment pattern to the Miles Davis Kind of Blue album of 1959 and added four key changes to become the basis for separate improvisations by trumpet, alto saxophone, and tenor saxophone, titled “Flamenco Sketches.” The selection had no melody. It was based entirely on improvisations over the two-chord repeating figure that Evans had originated for his rendition of “Some Other Time.” The freedom of creativity that was offered to the musicians at that recording session remains remarkable.

To hear recordings cited in this discussion, go to and click on “podcasts.” Then scroll to “Origins of Bebop,” ”Hard Bop,” “Free Jazz,” “Stan Getz 1948-1967 Highlights,” “Levels of Freedom and Creativity in Jazz Improvisation” and “The Best Crafted Solo Improvisations in Jazz.” Then go to Spotify and enter “Jazz Styles by Gridley” and “Concise Guide to Jazz by Gridley.” To examine various definitions of jazz go to and click on “articles,” then scroll to ‘Three Approaches to Defining Jazz.”