Do jazz music composers need to write all notes for the every instrument, do the players write themselves a new suitable extravaganza or do they completely improvise the song?


3 Answers 3


In jazz there are many topologies for improvising or playing together.

regarding orchestration:

  • A) solo;
  • B) chamber music/combo;
  • C) small ensemble;
  • D) large ensemble/big band;

by solo performance we understand: - a single individual with the main orchestration role

by chamber music we understand: - a set of small individuals (usually 2 up to 7-9 people playing together)

by small ensemble we understand: - a medium size set of individuals playing music together - usually 7 up to 24-32 people

by large ensemble we understand: - a set of 24 up to 80-120 musicians playing together

one thing that I’d actually like to make clear, is that these categories can fall into one another. that being said, you can have a chamber music/combo with a soloist. or a large ensemble, with sets of small chamber music/combos, as soloist, and then lead soloists, and believe, you can have very intricate and complex forms of musical orchestration

regarding notation and interaction, you can have a combination of some of those:

  • A) free improvisation (no pre-determined structure, rather then aesthetics)
  • B) structured based improvisation;
  • C) graphical notation;
  • D) indeterminestic rules
  • E) partially notated improvisation (i.e. standard)
  • F) fully notated improvisation (all the music is written)
  • G) conducted improvisation

regarding notation and interaction

free improvisation may be used to relate to two different things: - the act of improvising without any predeceasing formal structure - the act of improvising in a specific set of post-modern jazz, that has its own roots, into serialism.

in terms of music content, although not necessarily following the same form of strict rules. and example of that my be rooted, into the late music of john coltrane, or later on evan parker

by structured based improvisation, we mean: - improvising with a structure

these kinds of structures may provide all the necessary details to guide the musical performance by itself, or may contain rules that walk deeper into open form kind of musical performance

by graphical notation we mean: - the act of improvising with scores, that use self determined symbols to guide the performance. the symbols can consist of basic shapes like squares and triangles, but also more intricate and complex shapes, like hermetic, and cabalistic symbols, stuff pointing to chaos magick, or even more extreme forms of content, not necessarily, but also mystical

by indeterministic rules we mean: - rules that define the way as the material will be generated, not necessarily determining the content of the performance, but giving cues, to generation of material

an example of that may lie within john cage 4’33’’, but also steve reich pendulum music, and also, in the same fashion, john zorn cobra conducted improvisation system, which in my standing point, is one of the most difficult pieces to play within conducted free improvisation

by partially notated improvisation, we mean: - a score where not every single aspect of music is specified

and example of that may be a standard, or a graphic score

by fully notated improvisation, we mean: - a score where every single aspect of music is specified

a typical, but not always the case example where that may happen may lie within big band scores

by conducted improvisation we refer to: - performances where we have a conductor guiding the development of music

that can range from a fully notated score, where the conductor and the musicians know everything that they are going to play in advance, to a performance as the above mentioned cobra pieces of zorn or even conrnelius cardew the great learning

again these categories may fall into one another

in terms of aesthetics you can have things like:

  • blues
  • bluegrass
  • bebop
  • hardbop
  • dixie land
  • free jazz
  • free improvisation
  • fusion jazz
  • electronic jazz
  • electroacoustic free improvisation
  • contemporary improvisation
  • syncretic forms of aesthetics other then the previously listed ones (examples where jazz musicians take references from another genres of music to building their own pieces/vocabulary)

  • I always thought jazz was more..."Giant Steps in C#...2, 3, 4... 4 bars of tune, then sax solo 64 bars..." ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Sep 8, 2017 at 13:16
  • That's not the jazz I was raised with in school jazz bands. Those were invariably "32 or more bars of head, 3-4 solos, then at least 16 bars of head...".
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 8, 2017 at 14:23
  • 1
    @tmm88, could you elaborate in your answer and explain the differences? For example, you might discuss how free improvisation and structure-based improvisation differ in regards to the amount of notation/instruction that the composer provides. I'll remove my -1 if you add this type of text to explain how the items in the list answer the question.
    – jdjazz
    Sep 10, 2017 at 15:10
  • 1
    Answer seems long on verbiage and short on substance. Nor are the musical examples representative of the jazz tradition-not even close. From BB King (not really jazz at all) to Coltrane to some fusion artists of the 80's ... ?! How about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis... vast swaths of fundamental jazz forms and genres have been entirely overlooked in favor of a few not particularly correct or representative examples. They also don't relate at all to the text itself- no context. Compare to Laurence Payne's answer-concise, accurate, illustrative, and on point IMO.
    – Vector
    Sep 11, 2017 at 3:28
  • 1
    Will you please stop using 'predeceased'. I think it's supposed to be preceded, but as no-one has died before anyone else, I'm not sure!
    – Tim
    Sep 13, 2017 at 8:57

As so often, the answer is 'it depends'. Basie, Ellington etc. would fully score most of the piece, then there would be a section where selected players improvised a solo. In bebop and its derivatives all that would be written down is the melody and the chord sequence. And there are many gradations in-between!

Here's what's written down for a Basie number.

Here's what's written down for 'Giant Steps'. Maybe Coltrane's band at the infamous original recording session didn't even get that much! Research the story, it's interesting.

enter image description here

  • 1
    Thank you for clearing the air here. This answer covers it all, in your typically concise and accurate style.
    – Vector
    Sep 13, 2017 at 19:52

All stops from one extreme to the other. Sometimes just a leadsheet ( chord chart and basic dots) to full blown orchestration, particularly when there are a lot of musos involved, who may well get in each others' ways otherwise.

Improv. happens usually after the main theme has been stated - otherwise no-one's going to have a clue what it's all about! Unless it's free jazz, where anything and everything is permissible, but to a lot of listeners this is so random there is no shape, and it's hard going to listen to for some...

For some jazz standards - Summertime for one - there are many different chord sequences available, so it might be that a solo player (pno) could completely take it apart and put it back together in the course of playing it.

Some songs are so complex that they need written scripts to be played by more than 3 or 4 players, others will lend themselves to nothing, as they are well known standards, where everyone has the opportunity to blow their own verse or two, or even share - trade fours, etc.

So, unless you narrow the question down to a particular sort of jazz, any answer will reflect what is said here. Yes and no. All and next to nothing.

  • I like this answer, but I think it underplays the importance of playing by ear in the jazz tradition: knowing the melody and harmony of a song and playing from that knowledge. Most jazz players can play anything they could sing, ergo if you know how a tune goes: you can play it. Obviously that applied more to Satchmo's hot five than duke ellington's orchestra, and I would be fascinated to learn to what extent and in what ways specific jazz players and groups used written notation. Also, I may well be wrong in this, but I think chord symbols as we know them today are a later innovation?
    – Some_Guy
    Sep 13, 2017 at 11:23
  • @Some_Guy - Duke, Count, et al all had the parts written out for a lot of their stuff, so there was something concrete to adhere to, at least till the solos got going, and even then, the others would need to follow particular parts, otherwise mayhem might result.
    – Tim
    Sep 13, 2017 at 11:40

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