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The Arts Unit @home Art Bites - James Morrison masterclass

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JAMES MORRISON: Hello. Jazz, improvisation, performance, of course, it's a performing art. And if you look at those two words for a sec, there's all this art involved, but it must be performed. And I often liken it to - standing in front of this art here - to art that hangs on the wall. The person that created that did it presumably on their own somewhere, in their own time, take as long as you want.

And when it's done, when they're ready, they present it. And the real difference with jazz, with music, but particularly jazz, because of that improvisation aspect, is we actually paint it in front of everybody, while they're watching. And so, if you want to rub a bit out, they get to watch you do that, too.

And even music that's all written beforehand, in a way, the composer is like the painter. Now the performers still have to now perform it on the spot. And we all know that you can hand out the same written music to 10 different orchestras, and it will sound 10 different ways. The performance is very, very - a real part of that.

But with jazz, we go even a step further, of course, because it's not even written down. There may be a tune that we're going to play. It may have chord changes that go with it.

But as to what we'll actually play, the notes we'll play, when we'll play them during that performance, most of it will be ... I'm just going to paint something here now and see how that works out. And then improvisation makes this performing art something that's quite different to anything else, I believe. It's about creating on the spot, in front of the people that are supposed to be the beneficiaries of that creation.

[jazz music playing]


Everybody improvises. Otherwise, on your way here today, every conversation you had with your friends, you wrote down last night. That's weird.


Sometimes we do write down a speech, absolutely. But think about it. Most of your meaningful communications, you improvise all the time. You look at the other person. You think about - what do you do when you communicate with someone?

You think, 'What do I want to say?' Usually not, 'How will I say it?' There are times, often not, 'How am I going to say this?' But that's special times. Most of the time, you just think, 'What do I want to say?'

Then you start talking. You don't even know how the sentence is going to end, do you? Think about it. If I said, to any of you here, invite someone to come and see a movie on Saturday night, you wouldn't go, all right.

Um, let me see. I'll need to put Saturday night in there and say that it's a movie. It's an invitation suddenly. You don't do that.

You just go, oh, OK, 'Do you want to come to the movies? I'm going on Saturday night.' You just start talking, and you don't even know how the sentence will finish. But you're fine with that because you know what you want to say. You know what the message is.

Improvising on your instrument is the same. And very much the experience for me is, 'What do I want to say? How do I want this to feel?' Think about it.

You could say, 'I'm going to a movie on Saturday night. Would you like to come?' There's a very different feeling to, 'I'm going to the movies on Saturday night. Do you want to come?'

Same words. What feeling do you want to create? And that's how you speak, the words you use, everything, the phrasing. It's exactly the same.

'What feeling would I like now?' That's how I'll play. And I don't start a phrase knowing how it's going to end or even what the next note is, just as you don't know what the next word is. In fact, you're not even thinking about the words.

'Why are you so good at that?' This is going to be a really easy question. Why are you so good at inviting people to the movies, or just having a conversation? Because you've done it so many times.

You do it all day, every day. Oh, that's right. It's practice. That had to come up at some stage. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

And so the language - if I said to any of you here, and I'm just going to assume because I've done this in a workshop where I've said - what if I asked you to do it in Russian. And I pointed to someone. He started speaking Russian. Blew the whole thing!

Assuming you don't speak Russian, or whatever language I might pick out, and I know I've got a couple of friends here who do speak Russian - if I said, great, now invite me to the movies in Russian, you'd just stand there silent. You know exactly how to invite someone to the movies. You know what you want to say.

You don't know the language. And that can happen when you're playing your instrument, too. You can stand there going - I know what, I know how I want this to feel. I can even hear sounds in my head, but I don't understand this language well enough.

So, what do you do when you want to speak a language? You learn the vocabulary. You learn the grammar. And you know when you hear either a very young person speaking a language you already speak, or if you go to learn a new language, and you know - you're aware when you start speaking it, you might know the words, but you're going to sound a bit funny, like some of the words are going to be around the wrong way, and things like that?

Same on your instrument. I'm going to blow on this tune. I know what I want. And you go, yeah, that's kind of what I meant, but it's a little bit around the other way, or it's not quite flowing. Same, it's very, very much like that.

Of course, you get better by doing it, and by hearing it. If you wanted to learn to speak Russian as quickly as possible, what would you do? Buy a book on Russian? No.

And let's just translate each one of these. Buy a book on jazz? No. I mean, buying a book on Russian's a good idea, don't get me wrong. But it's not the way to learn it quickly, and wouldn't be the only thing you did. Buy a book on jazz, please.

But, no, what would you do if you wanted to learn Russian? You'd go to Russia, exactly, just go to Russia. You'd be surrounded by the sound. No one here said, well, depends if there's a Russian teacher available.

No one thought that. They said, go to Russia. We all know instinctively, just be surrounded by the sound. You want to be a jazz musician? Go to Jazz Land.

[music - James Morrison, Herbie Hancock - Hancock 'Watermelon Man']


SPEAKER 1: Can you speak maybe about how Louis Armstrong has influenced your playing?

JAMES MORRISON: Oh, wow, yes, how Louis Armstrong has influenced my playing, and everybody's playing, and the music itself. The main thing about Louis' playing - I mean, he was - he was, of course, a great trumpeter and a great improviser, and there's all sorts of things we could analyse about his playing. But your question was the - how he's influenced me? Joy.

Just when he played, it was instantly, like, oh. It just always lifted you. It didn't matter what was going on, how you felt. You hear Louis start to play, and you go ...

[inhales deeply]

[exhales loudly]

And it just feels - it feels joyful. And I mean, we all know how he looked. You've seen footage. I mean, most of the time, he's smiling. And he has this beaming face, and there's energy that came from him when he played.

So, the biggest influence on me was - absolutely, when I first heard him play, I didn't go, I want to play the trumpet like that. And this is probably a really, um, uh, succinct answer to your question. I didn't say, I want to play the trumpet like that, or sound like that, or be able to improvise like that. I said, 'I want to walk into a room and make it feel like that.'

He walks into a room, and it feels like that. That's what I'd like to be able to do. And that was the influence, to remember how he made people feel on stage. Wow, imagine if you could make a room feel like that, if you could help people to feel like that.

[music - James Morrison - Williams 'Basin Street Blues']


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