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Exploring Performance and Improvisation at the Library of Congress

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This post was written by Kaleena Black of the Library of Congress.

At a recent book event related to the Library’s acquisition of a rare portrait of Harriet Tubman, the illustrator assured the audience that,“If you can make the number ‘1’, you can draw. All you have to do is see the ‘1’ as a shape, and use that shape in your drawing.” That creative insight sparked our thinking about improvisation and the roles it can serve in various artistic disciplines, and it reminded us of the words of American composer Leonard Bernstein who noted, in a 1959 script (transcript available), the importance of “maintaining the skeletonic structure” of a song in an improvisation. That inspired us to seek primary sources from the Library’s online collections to support  improv-related teaching, discussions, and activities.

Exploring improvisation in jazz, for example, may appeal to students of music or dance, and there is a plenty of compelling material on this subject, represented on the Library’s website. This essay describes a jazz song as being “…defined through its use of instrumentation, improvised solos, or the general approach to performance rather than the form or structure of the composition itself.” This explanation may be an interesting starting point for discussion.

The Library’s “Jazz Singers” online exhibition offers another opportunity for students to view and analyze jazz-related material. This exhibition features photographs of artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday by American photographers Carl Van Vechten and William P. Gottlieb (recently added to the Library’s set of content that is “Free to Use and Reuse”). Here are a few examples from the Gottlieb collection:

[Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947]
[Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947]
[Portrait of Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947]

Students who would like to investigate other theories and interpretations of improvisation may also be interested in material related to modern dance choreographer Daniel Nagrin. Nagrin offers another perspective on improvisation in dance in this document, for example, “Improvisatory structure,” advising from the outset, “If failure is not the end of the world you may succeed in this work of improvisation.” Nagrin’s overview (or “mission statement”) of The Workgroup, an improvisational dance group that he founded, may be thought-provoking.

Students might consider:

  • How they define or perceive improvisation. What role(s) does it fill for them? In which ways or contexts do they improvise (both in and out of school)?
  • Which jazz songs they have encountered (either at home or in the classroom). In their view, do these songs include improvised elements? How do they identify these components? What do they listen or watch for when deciding if improvisation is being featured?
  • What improvisation looks like in various artistic disciplines (music, painting, dance, etc.). What are some similarities and differences? What is surprising? Do they notice that improvisation is being defined or used in the same way? Is it always used for the same purposes?
  • How other prominent figures (musicians, artists, orators, etc.) improvised (in presentations or performances).

Let us know how these discussions work in your classroom!


  1. The Main Importance of the Library of Congress it’s Maintenace the Interest of Students and Researchers that Inspired to Support Improve-Related Teaching.
    And other Great Interest is he Free Use and Reuse for Permanent Knowledge.
    Thank you for Sharing your Wonderful Collections!
    ! ALL THE BEST !

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