Improvise (Jazz) in Times of Disruption

[NOTE: To listen to the podcast version that has musical content, see the links below]
Apple Podcast
Spotify Podcast

Or you can listen to the audio straight from the site:

There is a text in our sacred readings that says,

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Life can be very unpredictable. It can change very quickly. When the rhythm changes, we improvise. Like the text, we can be hard pressed, perplexed, or feel like we’re struck down. In these moments of disruption, we are all improvising.

Jazz is the art of disciplined improvisation: adapting to change and creating on demand. It’s a conversation happening between musicians who are creating on the spot. In jazz improv, there’s no such thing as a bad note or a mistake. We’re using these “mistakes” to adapt and create something new. These mistakes are converted to be part of a string of notes that now makes sense in a new musical context.

Jazz fusion requires technical discipline, as well as heart. It requires the ability to create in the moment, adapting to what other musicians are playing. We call that riffing. The music requires the ability to listen, observe, and lean on others to step into flow. And flow is where the fun stuff happens.

During times of uncertainty, we can feel hard pressed, crushed, or abandoned. These are the moments when we need other jazz musicians to riff with.

Yesterday, I woke up not hearing music. I heard despair in my soul. It was a combination of things that got to me. So I called a band practice…my chaplain colleagues. We got on a Zoom call and I told them I wasn’t feeling the music. I was hitting bad notes and making mistakes. Rafee and Kindra are great spiritual musicians and they started creating jazz with their prayers, wisdom, and listening. Kindra reminded me of our rally cry: to care for employees to respond well during this crisis. Rafee offered wisdom about identifying fears. We all talked about the Crisis Curve….it’s the space of disorientation.

All of a sudden, my feelings of failure and mistakes were converted into essential notes. We came up with some new content and were reminded of our purpose. I could feel the despondency lifting from me. We were able to adapt and create based on the notes I was hitting, even if they were notes of despair and feeling hard pressed.

This current crisis might make us feel like we’re hitting a bunch of wrong notes. We may feel perplexed and struck down. Turn those notes into something new. Adapt and create, just like you’ve been doing your whole life. Let a new piece of music emerge. Improvise. Use the notes handed to you and improvise to make a new song.


For an example of jazz improv, here’s one of my favorite Neo Jazz bands, Snarky Puppy.  Take a listen from the 6 min mark through the 7:15min mark. Look at the musician’s faces.  This section is all improvised. I’ve had a chance to meet a few of these cats. They’re humble and improvise to the 9s!  

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