The importance of an improvisation mindset

At the heart of great jazz is a great rhythm section and one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time surely has to be the one that Miles Davis put together for a recording session in 1963. Comprising Tony Williams (drums), Ron Carter (bass), Herbie Hancock (piano); together they established an innovative performance aesthetic that remains fundamental to small group improvisation today.

Having become ‘almost too accomplished at playing Miles’s classic repertoire – still the same old ‘Round Midnight, Funny Valentine and So What’ they made what drummer Tony Williams described as anti-music: “Like whatever someone expects you to play, that’s the last thing you play” Mercer, 2004: 108).

Miles’s biographer Ian Carr points out that this rhythm section

  ‘seemed to have an inexhaustible variety of ways of creating and releasing tension, expanding and contracting space. This interaction between the members of the rhythm section was a continual dialogue with who ever was soloing. In fact, there was no longer the idea of a soloist and rhythm section. When a horn was playing it was a quartet functioning on equal terms’ (Carr, 1998: 189).

Their approach to improvisation combined freedom alongside conventional structures. David Toop has commented on the ‘remarkable currents of empathy, (and) almost an extrasensory perception that flowed between these players’ (Toop, 2016: 34).

How did this remarkable transformation come about? In 1963 Miles was booked to play some gigs in Los Angeles where the band played two engagements a night. Ron Carter recalls:

So we were playing there almost seven hours a day as a group and I remember us (Carter, Williams and Hancock) going to one of those all-night cafeterias and just sitting for hours after each gig, just trying to figure out what took place … what happened on this tune and what is this chord, what is this rhythm, what is this note, trying to understand and analyze as best we could what took place and to have a clearer view of it to work on this item for tomorrow night. People think that jazz players just play off the top of their heads all the time, but quality players are aware of what goes on. They catalogue in their mind what doesn’t work and should be discarded temporarily, and what seems like a real gem of an idea to be worked on the next night. And we had hundreds of these conversations. (Carr, 1998: 190)

I have long been fascinated by this anecdote as it says so much about the nature of improvisation that it is not just about ‘playing off the top of your head ‘because’ quality players are aware of what is going on. I am reminded of the distinction Gilbert Ryle (1945) makes between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how to’ and the important relationship that exists between having the practical skills to do something and knowing what you are doing. Ryle not only sees that there is a connection between practice and theory but ‘that knowledge-how is a concept logically prior to knowledge-that (Ryle, 1945: 4). Ron Carter neatly illustrates this point, showing that theory and practice are necessarily interconnected, and that theory feeds off practice. His message to musicians is that if you want to be a quality player your skills (knowing-how to play) need to be matched by knowing what you are doing (knowing-that).

We now have a name for this attribute and it is called having an improvisation mindset. Increasingly the skills and knowledge that we have gained from musicians, theatre practitioners, dancers, comedians and the like are being applied in other social and professional contexts: business, the law, teaching, medicine. The expanding world of applied improvisation is, in the words of Theresa Robbins Dudeck and Caitlin McClure, “profoundly changing how we develop leaders, reimagine communities, and engage youth”.

Their latest book, The Applied Improvisation Mindset: Tools for Transforming Organizations and Communities, London: Methuen / Drama, is an edited collection of stories from eighteen practitioners from five countries who embrace an improvisation mindset to create a more collaborative, equitable, sustainable and joyous world. And in the same way that Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock transformed the way a rhythm section plays and thinks about jazz so these practitioners are bringing about profound changes within their own professional contexts.

I feel particularly privileged to have my work represented within this volume. As a jazz musician and writer I have been practicing and researching improvisation for over forty years. A particular interest has been applying the insights I have gained as a jazz musician to the development of expert teachers. My contribution to this book is called “Of Course We Improvise!”: What the Best Teachers Do and How They Do It and it outlines what an improvisation mindset might look like for teachers. My view is that teaching is fundamentally an improvisational activity and the best teachers are able to make in the moment decisions and adapt their lessons in response to the needs of their students. A teacher with an improvisation mindset gives him or herself permission (and is given permission) to improvise, they are open to continually adapting their practice and they personalize what they do.

In short the improvisation mindset for teachers can be summarized in three words: PERMISSION, ADAPTATION and PERSONALISATION.

The book will tell you much more about this and how the other practitioners view the improvisation mindset. Check out the link below and begin to transform your professional practice and your life!


Carr, I. (1998) Miles Davis: the definitive biography, revised edn. London: Harper Collins.

Mercer, M. (2004) Footprints: The life and work of Wayne Shorter, New York, NY: Tarcher / Penguin.

Ryle, G. (1945). Knowing How and Knowing That: The Presidential Address. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 46, new series, 1-16. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from

Toop, D. (2016) Into The Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom, London: Bloomsbury.

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