In Jazz and Polyamory, Sometimes You Just Have to Improvise

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Justin and I are sitting down to dinner one night. The food is all laid out. “I want to put on some jazz music while we eat. Any suggestions?” he asks.

I think for a minute. “Miles Davis, Kind of Blue,” I say. “It’s a good album but definitely atmospheric.”

He cues it up. “So What” begins to play. Oh, that bass line. When Miles gets to his solo, I start singing it without realizing I’m doing it. After a few bars, I catch myself. Stop.

“This was one of the first jazz albums I ever listened to,” I say to Justin. I tell him I was always more a fan of Cannonball on alto sax than Coltrane on tenor. Because Cannonball emanated happiness and Coltrane, pain. And when I was 11, happiness won out. Justin smiles.

As I’m eating my soup, I think back to the first time I ever heard it. Sitting in my bedroom. Pausing, rewinding. Pausing, rewinding. Picking out the notes of Miles’ trumpet solo on my keyboard, trial and error style. Writing the correct ones down on composition paper.

Before I knew it, I’d transcribed my first solo. Miles was always easier to transcribe than the two saxophonists because he was a man of fewer notes. For Miles, it was really more about attitude than fast runs.

With my transcription in hand, I wound the recording back to the beginning of his solo, picked up my saxophone, and played along.

I did this with many solos. Miles first, then Cannonball, finally Trane. And once I was done with the Miles Davis Sextet, I moved to Freddie Hubbard. Wayne Shorter. Carefully trying to figure out what they were playing. Writing it down. And playing it back with them on the recording. I was so obsessed with “Fee Fi Fo Fum,” I actually lost weight trying to understand the chord progression.

Later, I picked up books of transcriptions written by other people when my band director let me know such a thing existed. I also bought music theory books. Studied chords, scales, modalism.

I became a huge musical theory nerd. Started to compose my own music.

And improvise.

I Had Skills, But I Wasn’t a Natural

Musically, I was a talented kid. Some people considered me a prodigy. But the truth is that I wasn’t one of those people who are naturals.

I didn’t have perfect pitch — the ability to identify what a note was simply by sound. I was pretty good at identifying intervals (the space between two tones, where they are relative to one another). But no, no perfect pitch.

I couldn’t simply reproduce what a person played on the spot just by hearing it. I couldn’t hear a chord progression and know instantly what key we were in, what the chord changes were.

But if I had a lead sheet, I could manage. And my own improvisations were a mix of what I knew about theory, what I’d played in the past, and risks I took on the spot, not quite knowing how they were going to pan out.

I’d studied obsessively. Self-taught. And somewhere along the way, I came across to other people as being a mess of natural talent. Even though I always knew the truth about how I’d learned.

In Jazz and Polyamory, Sometimes You Just Have to Improvise

Sometimes people will ask me what I wish I knew about polyamory before going in. And depending on the day and whatever’s going on in my present life, I tend to have a different answer. In some ways that’s what this blog is, a different take on what I wish I knew long ago, each and every day.

But as I’m eating dinner with Justin, listening to Kind of Blue, it occurs to me that what looks like natural talent can often be the result of years of study. Of trial and error. That there’s something to be said of people who intentionally learn to do things a different way — whether that’s playing jazz instead of classical music. Or moving your thinking from the idea that you should and only can love one person at a time to the mindset that maybe you really can love multiple people at the same time.

And it also occurs to me that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to know exactly what the right way is to do things. Well before we get to where we’re going to even need those skills. We want to know how to respond in each and every circumstance, before we find ourselves there. But that’s not always how that works.

Sometimes it’s better to study and prepare in a more general way. And once you’ve done that, to get out there and put your theory to use — knowing that you’re always going to take risks that surprise you when you leave the classroom.

Yes, sometimes you’ll make mistakes. But experienced musicians (and lovers) learn how to recover from them. And the best ones know how to turn them to their advantage, how to make them into something that thrills the audience. Or in a relationship, how you handle a mistake can end up being something that doesn’t damage your relationship but brings you closer together.

You can read and study all you want, but at the end of the day, in jazz — and in polyamory — sometimes you just have to improvise.

Featured Image: CC BY – Lynn Allen