Miles Davis: the principles of improvisation

Making mistakes is a mistake. It wastes time and energy. It spoils material and mood. And yet, legendary Jazz musician Miles Davis thrived on mistakes.

Pianist Herbie Hancock tells the story of how once he was playing in a quintet band with Miles Davis. Davis was playing a wonderful solo performance when by mistake, Hancock’s hand slipped and he played the wrong piano key in the middle of the solo. Davis stopped for half a second, and then continued playing like the wrong key was intended! He improvised and created new magic!

“If you hit the wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.” – Miles Davis

But how do you do that? How do you turn mistakes into good notes? According to Hancock, how Miles Davis did it so effortlessly is by not seeing mistakes as mistakes at all.

Davis saw it as something that “just happened”. It was his responsibility as a musician to find something that fit the previous note. If you break it down, its two things that he does:

  1. Listens without bias or strong expectations. Be like a scientist and find wonder in whatever the output of the experiment is.
  2. Adaptability. Davis knows the ins and outs of music, and mastered chords and patterns – without which he would not be able to improvise. He knew the building blocks of good music. And he kept things simple so he could adapt faster.

That’s it. 

The first principle of improv

Go to any improv class and the first thing they do is define improv in two words: “Yes, and…”

  1. Yes does not mean that you have to agree. It just means that you have to accept. Don’t judge the premise, just accept.
  1. And then you add your own spin to move the scene ahead. The better your comedic vocabulary and understanding of what makes things funny, the better you’ll be at improv.

It’s this improv mindset that made Miles Davis the king of improvisation. So much so that when filmmaker Louis Malle asked him to create a score for his movie “Elevator to the gallows” – Davis forged ahead in the most unconventional way.

He gathered a bunch of musicians but gave them no notes or instructions. He just screened the movie and asked the musicians to play as they saw the movie. The whole musical score was created in one night without any rehearsals. The score is now considered legendary!

Davis topped that by forming a sextet and giving loose instructions to all the 5 musicians besides himself: forget complex chord progressions. Just focus on simpler scales. Don’t focus on harmony at all, just focus on melody.

When the other musicians simply accepted this new premise and started playing, they created something very new and magical. In two nights, Davis recorded the album “Kind of Blue.” Which went on to sell more than 5 million copies and became the best selling jazz album!

Action Summary:

  • It’s a mistake not to make mistakes. What you want to do is stop looking at mistakes as mistakes. Simply improvise. Accept and adapt.