The New York Times, APRIL 10, 2017
Bo Diddley performing with Chuck Berry in 1972. Credit Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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.
In music, at least, improvisation sometimes gets a bad rap, usually from the precincts of classical or other formal Western styles that rely on notation. It is sometimes looked down upon with a “my kid could do that” kind of dismissive attitude. But the ability to improvise is not just “winging it.” It is built on foundations of study and practice that prepare the improviser for the moment of action.
“Wu-Wei” is a Chinese word that is often translated as “non-action” but more accurately means “natural action,” or action in accordance with nature. The idea, dominant in Taoism and Zen, is that one should try to find the natural way of doing something and then simulate, or align oneself to it, as opposed to forcing it. For example, the butcher should carve the animal at its joints, not in arbitrary locations. A carpenter should work with the grain of wood, rather than against it. A martial arts master should find the most economic use of his energy, and turn his opponent’s own force to his advantage, and so on. Finding this natural way is not effortless, but requires great practice. Once it has been mastered, however, it is possible to find a unique presence of mind in these activities. The mundane actions are turned into artistic and even spiritual expressions. Playing a musical instrument, boxing in a competition, and even folding your laundry can be Zen-like improvisations.
Zen Buddhism and Taoism focus more on the method of your life rather than the content of your life. It’s not so much who you are, or even what you do in life. Rather, it’s how you do it. Since, in these practices, the present moment is ultimate reality (albeit usually obscured and hidden in regular consciousness), all one needs to do is shut off the babble of discursive thought and sink into one’s present activity. According to this view, the meaning of life is not found in rules, formulas, commandments, categorical imperatives and cultural norms.
The key to successful improvisation is getting your self out of the way. Usually the ego tries to coordinate everything, but good improvisers dial down the ego and let the embodied system act, play and respond with reduced ego supervision. In the lingo of recent cognitive science, improv reduces the brain’s “executive control” function, allowing the more associational mind to take over. This fosters certain kinds of creative expression, but also allows the motor-sensory system to read the outside environment better. Without the loud and constant theorizing of the ego, the embodied mind can more accurately read and respond to the environment. So, improvisation is as adaptive as it is expressive.
The improvisational mind is typically an underappreciated source of wisdom. It can sense subtle unconscious cues in others, and can, in the words of Evans, show a person “a portion of himself that he would not discover otherwise.” Maybe that’s why some of the great blues and jazz improvisers I’ve spent time with seem like roughneck Buddhas. They train first, then create spontaneously. And when they make mistakes, they learn from them. Good improvisation is empathic. It is not just unrehearsed innovation, but apt and fitting contributions to a social or collective project. You cannot improvise well unless you’re a good listener — a fact as true in politics as it is in music.
When we’re collectively composing and performing life — which is usually the case — it’s good to have attentive, empathic partners. I think that’s what Bo Diddley meant, with his earthy Zen koan: “This monkey is tied, now let’s skin it!”
Stephen T. Asma is professor of philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago. His new book is “The Evolution of Imagination.” He is still active in the Chicago blues and jazz scene.