“[Free improvisation] is about purity of sound, flow, trust, spirit, and the celebration of our humanity — HERE AND NOW.”

My name is Derrick Michaels, and I’m a professional musician based in Baltimore, MD. My work as a saxophonist/improviser explores the nexus between free improvisation and jazz tradition. Presenting fully improvised concerts is my specialty, and I wish to dispel some myths about this music. By redirecting the conversation away from style and toward the importance of the creative process unfolding in the present moment, we can better understand what is happening when musicians improvise together.

Improvised music is unnecessarily controversial, sparking critical debate between jazz fans since the advent of “free jazz,” resulting in innumerable misconceptions about our music. For the novice listener, it can be difficult to discern what to listen FOR! Some common assertions: “Free improvisers don’t know what they’re doing”, “there’s nothing to follow”, “It’s just NOISE!” These unfavorable descriptors are the same complaints that folks have hurled at YOUR favorite jazz artists! No matter how mainstream, swinging, or jubilant their music may sound to YOU, every famous jazz musician elicits grimaces from folks who don’t get it. “Mainstream” jazz might reach a wider audience if the advocates were willing to revamp their outreach…it certainly would reach more people if the general public were more open-minded. Similarly, the improvised music community is driven to connect, developing smarter outreach from the performers, and patiently awaiting open minds and ears within the jazz community.

It would certainly appear that this “free music” is not a style of music with a very wide reach. Perhaps it’s too specialized? Too exclusive? I don’t think so. Free improvisers wholeheartedly express the totality of their musical knowledge and experience in each performance — inclusive of everything they’ve ever heard. Interestingly, I have observed a devout following for free improvisation, representing a gamut of musical interests and influences. It is possible to relate to the music on an intuitive level, but a desire for connection between the performers and listeners is requisite. Open minds, ears, and hearts. Give and take. Flow.

Creating something from nothing involves a great deal of skill. Many free improvisers are also active jazz performers, bringing an architecture to their spontaneous compositions through the mastery of form. By integrating and expressing our cumulative musical experience for you here and now, we make new worlds of experience possible, and the partition between expert and lay person is dissolved. This music is for everyone. With our ears oriented to new worlds of sound, we’re free to celebrate something deeper than mere dazzling technical prowess. Something communal and spiritual. Our music.

Opening the Mind, Letting Go of Preconceptions.

Devout performers and listeners of free improvisation share a radical openness and a reverence for the present moment. Openness has a transformative effect on our lives. It’s also actionable right now. There are no prerequisites to openness. You simply OPEN. Leaving your judgements and comparisons at the door, surrendering to what’s happening now, how does the music make you FEEL? Music feels different when we are open to it, hearing it unfold in real time. Abandoning the word “should”, ask yourself, “What do I hear?”

Focusing our discussion about music on the present moment redirects attention to the creative process, circumventing the tired debates about “tradition” vs. “innovation” — “conservatism” vs. “progressivism.” I am going on record here and now to say that tradition and innovation are both utterly meaningless if the music lacks vitality, depth, emotion, dimension, and PRESENCE. The quality of our attention and delivery in the moment enlivens all music with a timeless quality that transcends genre. Let’s communicate something meaningful!

Free improvisation is therefore not a style of music, but a posture of possibility — a sonic invocation, exalting the present moment through the communal experience of creative flow. This music is about purity of sound, flow, trust, spirit, and the celebration of our humanity — HERE AND NOW. Surrendering into such a creative trust fall requires deep attention and the willingness to take risks, from performer and listener, alike.

More to come on the processes involved in this spontaneous music-making…My own monthly series “Derrick Michaels Presents” at An Die Musik offers concerts of this variety, motivated by a love for human connection and deep empathy — expressed through our instruments with love, courage, conviction, and honesty. Visit Baltimoresaxophone.com for performance dates.


  • Greetings – this is the author of the above article. I want to thank everyone for taking the time to read! My goal in writing this was to pique the interest of any jazz listeners who have yet to develop a relationship with “improvised music” or “free jazz”. As always, there is great risk of oversimplification, and anyone who knows me personally will tell you I LOVE to talk on and on about the complexities and subtleties of music, art, and life…alas, 700-word limits are a great challenge.

    There is so much that can be said about improvised music in technical terms, but my favorite feedback from audiences is always when folks who ask “Who wrote this music?” or “Which one of you wrote that last piece with the beautiful melody and floating rhythm in the drums?” or “How long did it take to memorize these pieces?!” … after listening to a performance that was entirely improvised from start to finish!! Such a reaction indicates to me that this music can be delivered with a compositional integrity, and that listeners can perceive that kind of development on an intuitive level. Incredible!

    I am delighted every time folks can perceive that our music has a compositional structure, and I am so grateful to have opportunities to present music like this to the city of Baltimore with some degree of regularity. Thank you all for your support and attention!

    I’d like to add: years of training and study of the materials involved in musical composition help to empower free improvisers to create “something from nothing”. There is a feeling among our improvising community – as if we are “channeling the music” on stage, maybe getting out of the way of a process that happens while we simply watch along with the audience. In order to achieve this “getting out of the way” of the music, most of us take the practice of our musical craft very seriously. Intimate familiarity with the building blocks of music stems from years of study and practice, and frees us up to express something as deeply personal as it is universal.

    There’s a famous Charlie Parker quote:
    “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

    This is true of the abstract expression of our life experience, and it is also true about our relationship to the development of melody, harmony, rhythm, shape, color, context, etc…If we don’t develop an intimacy with these musical building blocks, we are at a disadvantage to express our music with any sense of freedom.

    Food for thought!


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