The jazz singer’s mind shows us how to improvise through life itself

How do singers such as Betty Carter take command of the present moment, seemingly bending reality to their will? While more romantic notions of creativity might point to Carter, and others like her, being ‘touched by the spirit’, there are less lofty explanations related to the physical dimension of making music with the human body, as well as the singer’s skilful musical interplay with the other musicians and the audience. There are also complex cognitive and psychological processes that drive the ‘real-time’ spontaneous creation of music.

A greater appreciation of these factors has implications beyond jazz, for how we all live our lives, moment to moment. Much of our everyday lives is improvised. For example, aside from stressful situations that require a script in advance, nearly every conversation you have is a spontaneous creation conducted without preparation. …

In their book The Art of Becoming (2020), the Scottish musicians and psychologists Raymond MacDonald and Graeme Wilson place improvisation at the heart of the human experience. They argue that improvising experiences ­– both musical and non-musical – shape our identity and our place in the world. We become who we are by how we improvise moment to moment, day to day, year to year. Our identity is the accumulation of these improvised moments. These experiences are housed, felt, endured and enjoyed in our minds and our bodies. Improvising jazz singers show us that deep embodiment of the present moment can transform the mundane into the transcendent. The ability to improvise, to respond with our whole being to each moment creatively, intuitively and joyfully – just like Betty Carter – is the art of becoming fully human.

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