CHICAGO — When I was in my 20s, I had the good fortune to play guitar as an opening act for the blues legend B. B. King. This lucky break opened many doors for me, and I soon found myself playing with other great blues musicians — Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy and Bo Diddley, to name a few. During one stretch time, Bo hired me whenever he played in Chicago.
Before my first gig with Bo, I spent a full week of intense preparation, learning and rehearsing his songs. On the opening night, he arrived to the venue five minutes before showtime. As he walked onstage in front of 500 shouting fans, I tried to tell him all the songs I’d prepared. He just looked at me blankly through his Coke-bottle glasses, plugged into his amp and launched into a loud, rhythmic riff on his trademark rectangular guitar. He never bothered to tell me what song we were playing, what chord changes were coming, what key we were in, or anything. But, as every blues and jazz musician knows, that’s how it goes.
After the first tune, he realized that I could follow him, and he cryptically shouted, “This monkey is tied, now let’s skin it!”
Bo and the other greats I played with often worked this way, and it was a hair-raising on-the-job education. These musicians never told me what was coming next, partly because they didn’t know themselves. They were masters of the art of improvisation.
In learning this art, I had to fumble to find the chord we were playing. That usually told me the key signature. Sometimes I could assume a certain chord progression and scale, but not always. Then I had to watch the bandleader like a hawk, for subtle cues — this tilt of the guitar means I solo, that slight bend of the knees means bring the dynamic down, this sudden jerk of the upper body means break. Or stop.
Improvising, in music, is the act of composing and performing simultaneously, and it is difficult to master. But it is also universal, and despite the powerful human impulse to plan and program, integral to nearly every aspect of our lives. No matter who you are — a welder, philosopher, a guitarist or a president — you are in some sense simultaneously making the map of your life and following it. It is not an exaggeration to say life itself is one long improvisation.
Consider seasoned travelers, for instance. They are typically imperfect communicators, but good improvisers. Talking with a stranger in a language not your own requires the interplay of prepared tools and real-time creativity. The process is filled with awkward gestures, incorrect pronunciations and occasional triumphs. We trust our bodies and muscle memory to succeed where intellectual calculation and semantic memory fail.
Improvising is a style of thinking generally. It investigates and helps us come to know the world not by theory but by a method of simulation — observing, listening, acting. I would argue, in fact, that it is the most fundamental form of human cognition, one that must have evolved long before deductive and inductive logic, when the first humans began developing the skills needed for their survival in an untamed environment.
In music, improvising with others requires a language of musical tools and norms. As the great jazz pianist Bill Evans put it, “Intuition has to lead knowledge, but it can’t be out there alone.” Some of the common tools (like scales and chords) and norms (conventions of dynamics, breaks or progressions) are learned on the job. They are acquired in the process of the communication itself. A more open and attentive listener acquires more innovative and nuanced moves, and increases the lexicon of expressive gestures.