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The Words of The Master Improviser

 Part One

By Dave Fox




        The package arrived in August of 1989.  My uncle “Bill” (William Fox) a wheat farmer from Kansas had died earlier that year.  What got him was intestinal cancer – damn us Foxes and our cursed stomach problems.

        I had not attended his funeral, because it occurred in April.  April is too busy a month for a musician to take off just because a relative you hardly know dies, especially if they live half-way across the country.  From what I had heard about him, he was a hard-working man who occasionally played some jazz piano.  My parents had always wanted me to go out and meet him, since I was a jazz pianist, but I never found the time. 

       So I was surprised when I received the parcel post from Carla, his one remaining daughter, that Friday morning in the mail.  There was a note inside it that said, “I think your Uncle Bill would have liked for you to have this.  Love, Cousin Carla.”  And under the note was a self-bound leather book, with no title on the front.  I opened it up, and on the first page I read the following words, handwritten in large print:

 June, 1938

My Time with the

Master Improviser

         When I read those words, my thoughts flashed back to a memory of a childhood piano lesson with my first jazz piano teacher, an old man with thick white hair known to everyone as Lou.  Lou lived in Siler City, just up the road from our home in Asheboro, North Carolina.  I remembered what he said to me at one particular weekly meeting.  He pulled me aside before my parents came in the door of his small frame-house and told me in his soft but gruff voice, “You should try to find out about someone I’ve heard rumors of, someone called the master improviser.  He was the spiritual influence on the all of the great improvisers of the 20th century.  But, unfortunately, his existence has never been proved.  Nonetheless, there are supposed to be some records of people - young aspiring improvisers who visited with him and took some notes of their encounters with him.  If you could find a copy of these notes, it will answer a lot of your questions about improvisation.”  And then he gave me a pack of chocolate drops like he always did at the end of my lesson, and the next thing I knew my parents had come in, paid him, and we were headed back to Greensboro.  I quickly forgot about what he said, thinking he was a crazy old man who happened to know how to play Satin Doll, but that’s about all he was good for.

         But I remembered him and what he said as I stared at the dusty collection of papers that I held in my hands.  Later that day, gazing at the manuscript, I thought to myself, “Could it be that my teacher, who had taught me how to play a minor seventh chord in the keys of C and D, was right – that there really was a master improviser, and that, my uncle actually met him and, even harder to believe, kept a record of his encounter with him?”  It was too much to take in.  I put the book down and walked outside to think about this in the hot southern summer air.  The pine trees in the distance reflected the setting sun from their tops – an orangey color that you only see when you look at North Carolina pines as they meet a North Carolina sky.  I looked at the wash of brilliant and subdued colors, and poured myself a drink, a cool glass of Pinot Grigio.   

As I tasted the dry liquid, I told myself that there was no way any of the story could be true.  No, I laughed to myself, this was probably some strange co-incidence, and my uncle was probably just as weird as my piano teacher.  I laughed again, this time out loud, as I put the manuscript on the kitchen table.  Then I left for a gig I had that night at the Speakeasy in Winston Salem.  As I drove down Business I-40, I noticed the moon over the horizon.  It was a half-moon, hanging upside down as if it were a cup.  Or was it right-side up?     

When I returned home, around 1:00 the next morning, I poured myself another glass of Pinot and settled down on the back porch.  As the morning air breezed the screen, fresh from the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains fifty miles to the East, I could not contain myself any longer.  I opened up the book and started reading.


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The Book of Improvisation:

Recollections of My Meeting with the Master Improviser

By William Fox




The Master Improviser lived in the clouds high atop a mountain in a distant land, and was accessible only after many days of long and arduous journey.  Several musicians, in the 1920’s and 1930’s undertook the journey to visit and stay with the Master Improviser for a few short weeks during the summer – the only time he was said to entertain strangers.  I was lucky enough to spend two summers with him, 1934 and 1935.  I kept a journal of my time with him.  Years later I have taken on the task of compiling these notes so that I can now present them to the interested reader in this present form. 

The questions are from either myself or one of my colleagues during the adventure.  The answers are the words of the Master Improviser.


I, William Fox of Lucas, Kansas, in this the tenth month of the year 1938, do hereby swear that the following events occurred. 

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             On our first day in the land of our destination ( it was June of 1934) our guide led us up to the top of a high mountain and showed where we could camp.  We were told that the Master Improviser would meet with us the following day.  In the morning, we awoke and, after breakfast we had our first meeting with the Master Improviser.  We introduced ourselves, and then he disappeared.  We spent the rest of the day fixing up our campsite until he returned just before sundown for dinner.  Afterward, we gathered in a circle in a nearby cave, and he encouraged us to ask him questions.  After a time, one of us finally spoke.- 

Student:  Master Improviser, what is improvisation?

Master Improviser: Improvisation is nothing more, and nothing less, than the act of making things up.  

Student:  That’s all?  Don’t I have to know about chords, chord changes, melodic tendencies, and things like that before I can make things up?

Master Improviser:  The more you know about chords, chord changes, and melodic tendencies, then the more things you will be able to make up, especially with regards to chords, chord changes, and melodic tendencies.  But one can still make things up without knowing anything about these.  Remember this - chords, chord changes, and melodic tendencies are not improvisation – they are merely chords, chord changes and melodic tendencies.  If you had asked me, What are some of the things musicians need to know to make music?, then I would have answered, Chords, chord changes, and melodic tendencies are some of the things musicians need to know to make music.  But, you didn’t ask me that – you asked me, What is improvisation?  And, I gave you the answer – Improvisation is making things up. 

Student:  Oh. 

-The Master Improviser then proceeded to build and light a small fire, for it was getting cold as darkness descended on the mountain-top.- 

Student:  Master Improviser, what is the best way for someone to get started improvising?

Master Improviser:  There are many ways, but all of them eventually lead to the mastering of the two irrefutable principles of process.  You see, improvisation is a process, and master improvisers are those who have mastered the art of process. 

Student:  There are two irrefutable rules of process?  I have never heard that before.

Master Improviser:  You have never heard it because most people do not take the time to think about it – but when they do think about it, most agree that it is true – in fact, it is as plain as the nose on your face. 

Student: Oh. 

Master Improviser:  Would you like to know what they are?

Student: Yes I would – what are the two irrefutable rules of process? 

Master Improviser: The first irrefutable rule of process is expressed in the equation a=s.

Student:  a=s?  What does this mean? 


Master Improviser:  It means anything equals something.


Student: Oh. 


Student:  Master improviser, what do you mean when you say anything equals something?

Master Improviser:  The equation a=s simply means that, whenever you do anything, then you have something.    

Student:  You mean that if I want to improvise, all I have to do is …


Master Improviser:  Anything.


Student:  What is anything? 

Master Improviser:  That is a very profound question.  Let me answer with a demonstration.  Here is an instrument called a ruhja.  (He reached behind some rocks and pulled out a small, wooden instrument with various holes at the end of what looked like piano keys.  Sound was produced by blowing on a hole and depressing a key at the same time.)  William, would one of you be so kind as to play a note.?  (With some hesitation I reached over and pressed down one of the keys, the third key from the left, while I gently blew into the hole at the end of the key.  A flute-like sound was emitted - it sounded to me like a Bb.)


Student:  OK – so I played a Bb.  So, this is an anything?

Master Improviser:  Yes, it’s an anything – but, more importantly, it is also a something, because a=s.


Student:  I’m not sure I understand.

Master Improviser: It is simple:  If one wants to improvise, which is defined as making things up, the first thing one has to do is to make something up.  Anything will do, because anything equals something.  In this case, you played a note, the note you call Bb.  Bb is simply an anything.  Since anything equals something, you now have something to work with.  You could have done anything else, ranging from playing any other notes, any combination of notes, or you could have hit the ruhja on the side with your fist.  Or, you could have done nothing, which is a special something called silence.  Any of those acts, those anythings, would have resulted in something.  This is what is meant when I say a=s.    

Since an improvisation is definitely something, then doing anything, which equals something, will always give you an improvisation – all of this is because of the truth contained in that one simple equation, a=s.


Students (at the same time):  Oh. 


Student:  OK – so, I’ve played a note, an anything, and that equals something.  And, that something is an improvisation, right?  Is that where this is leading?

Master Improviser:  Well, if you want your improvisation to consist of that one note you just played, Bb, then I suppose you could say, yes, that anything (the note Bb) is an improvisation (something.) 

But what I said was actually this: That if one wants to improvise, the first thing they have to do is to make something up.  In other words, a=s is used as a method for commencing an improvisation – that alone does not make an improvisation – unless, you want your improvisation to consist of that one note you played, Bb.  Which, by the way, is a perfectly fine thing to do.  As improvisations go, I’d say that your playing of the Bb was probably one of the most flawlessly executed improvisation of all time.  Bravo.


Student:  (drawing closer to the fire to keep warm) Then what else should you do after that?  To make an improvisation I mean?   

Master Improviser:  An improvisation will occur when one follows the first irrefutable law of process with the second irrefutable law of process.

Student:  Oh.

Student:  Master improviser?

Master Improviser:  Yes?

Student:  What is the second irrefutable law of process?

Master Improviser:  I’m not sure you are ready to know that just yet.

-The fire died down as we slept.  The next morning, as we broke camp, and all through the next day as we hiked up and down mountain trails, no-one asked about the second irrefutable law of process.  This went on for three days.  Finally, after the sun set on the fourth day, after we had made a soup from the plants we had picked during the day, the Master Improviser suddenly walked over to a small creek flowing down the mountainside.  Without any beckoning, we knew we were supposed to follow him.-

Master Improviser:  I will now tell you what the second irrefutable law of process is.  This law, when it follows the first law, opens up the door to that realm where all master improvisers live.  It is a dangerous world, and that is why so few are there.  I didn’t think any of you were ready for this, but your silence has convinced me that you are not immature, and can handle this knowledge. 

-We dare not say anything, since he had just complimented us on our silence.  It was as if we knew that our silence was something that was necessary for learning. I remembered the Master Improviser saying something to us about silence a few days before, when he was explaining to us the importance of a=s.   It was years later that I realized the genius of his teaching methods – he had taught us the importance of silence simply by his own silence.-

Master Improviser:  The second irrefutable law of process states that: Everything is followed by Something – or, if you will,  e=s.

Student:  Which means that …

Master Improviser: Whenever you do anything, then you have something.  (a=s.)  That something, and this is true every time, which is why it is called an everything in the second law, is always followed by something else.

Student: But, what is this something that follows everything?

Master Improviser:  Well, referring back to the first law –

Student: I get it!  It could be anything!  It could be another pitch, the same note, another action such as stamping my feet – it could be literally anything.  Even silence!!  Doing Anything gets you Something, and Everything you get (as a result of doing Anything) must be followed by Something else – and that something could be Anything! 

Master Improviser:  And therefore, improvisation is simply doing something and following that with something else – over and over again.

               a=s, and e=s.

And, therefore,

 a, or anything  + e, or everything, = s; and, s = an improvisation, since

                   an improvisation, if it is anything, is definitely something.


Or, if you wish,

             Improvisation is not only something, it is also anything and everything.


            As we sat and contemplated what had just been said, a light but steady rain began to fall.  After a few moments, the Master Improviser stood up and turned his back to us.  He then made himself a bed from some loose grass he found and lay down to sleep.  Just before falling asleep he turned to me and uttered words that sent a cold chill up my back: -


Master Improviser:  And now William, you see why it is that not all are able to improvise.  Some people, many people if truth be known, are afraid of life – they fear finding out about the reality of their being, unless it concerns their possessions or their status in society.  But if you asked them about something besides their possessions or their status, like their soul, eternity, what kinds of things do they dream about, and so on, they have no idea what to say.  And, why should they?  They are afraid of such things.  Why on earth would they bother with something like improvisation, a process that causes you to come face to face with anything and everything?


         I fell asleep contemplating these haunting words.  When I awoke we hiked down the mountain and headed towards a small stand of trees, where the Master Improviser said we would find some more good mushrooms for eating.-

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My neighbor’s dog began to bark, like it always did at 3:00 in the morning.  I looked at my watch – 3:00 in the morning!  Good grief!  I closed the book, finished my wine and headed off to bed.  This was too surreal for me to comprehend.  As I listened to the 60-cycle hum of my room air-conditioner in my modest Piedmont, North Carolina brick house, I replayed the days events:  I had just read some pages from a book, a book that had come in the mail only hours before; a book from some cousin I played with in the wheat fields of Kansas when I was, I don’t know, maybe six years old?  And, this book was supposedly written by an uncle whom I never personally met, and it was about him as a young man on some high mountain in God-knows-where, and he’s talking to some bearded guy (I didn’t know if he had a beard or not, but it sure sounded like he did) about improvisation?  Was this crazy, or what? 

     And, to top it off, as if all of that wasn’t enough to make my mind go haywire, one thought repeatedly came to mind as I tossed and turned myself to sleep.  All I could think to myself was,
“My uncle ate mushrooms?”