One of jazz’s most famous creation myths is likely Louis Armstrong’s invention of scat singing: While recording with the Hot Five in 1926, Armstrong reportedly dropped the lyrics to “Heebie Jeebies,” on the floor, thus requiring him to improvise. Though scat had actually been around long before Armstrong’s recording, it was this seeming mistake—dropping the lyrics and not remembering them—around which vocal improvisation was supposedly born.
Art Tatum once declared, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note.” Wrong notes in jazz are often considered to be opportunities for improvisatory exploration; a note is only wrong if the performer does not know what to do with it. The creation myth surrounding Armstrong and scat singing shows the success of a performer who knows what to do with a mistake. Echoing Tatum, pianist Bill Evans reportedly said, “There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions.” The ability to confidently and competently cover one’s “mistakes” is a valued skill in jazz improvisation. But what does it do for the listener to hear mistakes in jazz performances? When and why are mistakes valued in jazz performance? Here, I analyze theories of mistakes from jazz scholarship in order to understand the ways in which mistakes in jazz performance are valued by jazz audiences and jazz performances—and the ways in which they are not. Many theories of mistakes in jazz have focused on Miles Davis, and while I investigate these, I also discuss case studies including Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and Dave Brubeck.
While Miles Davis has said that “There are no wrong notes in jazz: only notes in the wrong places,” music theorist Robert Walser has argued that Davis’s mistakes—fluffed or cracked notes, extended periods of rests—were the result of Davis’s musical risk-taking. In other words, Davis’s wrong notes or technical imperfections were purposeful interjections into his recorded output. Writing in 1993, Walser notes a trend in jazz scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s toward what he calls “classicizing” jazz; Walser argues that many jazz critics and academics were eager to “legitimize” jazz. In their haste to do so, critics approached descriptions of jazz through a modernist lens that has more often been used to describe European classical music history. Walser explains, “For modernists, art had to be autonomous from mass culture and everyday life; it was the expression of a purely individual consciousness, without social content.” To ascribe modernist values to jazz, Walser complains, separates jazz from the meaning it creates within the lives of both musicians and audiences. According to Walser, meaning can be made out of every aspect of jazz performance—including seeming mistakes: “The most obvious failing of the movement to classicize jazz, however, is that it has never been able to do justice to the music; for example, it offers no means of accounting for why Miles Davis misses notes, or even of understanding what he is really doing the rest of the time.”
If classicizing jazz is an attempt to describe jazz at the peak of its technical perfection, Walser argues, “the deliberate efforts of musicians like Davis to take chances are invisible.” In other words, according to Walser, Davis took musical risks that did not always result in the perfect musical performances expected in the European classical music tradition.
For Walser, Miles Davis is at the crux of the issues of “classicizing” jazz. If classicizing jazz is an attempt to describe jazz at the peak of its technical perfection, Walser argues, “the deliberate efforts of musicians like Davis to take chances are invisible.” In other words, according to Walser, Davis took musical risks that did not always result in the perfect musical performances expected in the European classical music tradition. Therefore, aesthetics that define the artistic merits of music in terms of perfection are not true to Davis’s “risk-taking” approach to improvisation.
Indeed, much of Walser’s article makes sense regarding Miles Davis: Davis’s flubbed and cracked notes are as much a part of his aesthetic as his singing, lyrical lines and thoughtful silences. Consider Davis’s March 1956 recording of “In Your Own Sweet Way,” a song written by Dave Brubeck, which was released on the album Collectors’ Items. This was Davis’s first recording of the song, and it featured a notable change from Brubeck’s original composition: Davis performed an F-flat in ms. 8 (the last note of the first full phrase), whereas Brubeck versions feature an F-natural. Though a seemingly small difference, Davis’s F-flat has a powerful harmonic effect: the note is the end of a phrase that occurs three times in the 32-bar form. It also transforms a fairly simply chord progression in the Brubeck version to a more complicated chord based on the whole-tone scale. Davis’s subsequent performances of “In Your Own Sweet Way” also featured the Fb.
Davis’s recording of “In Your Own Sweet Way” on Collectors’ Items demonstrates a mistake in the form of an unprepared performance. Though Davis played the Fb in every phrase, his pianist, Tommy Flanagan, consistently played an F-natural in each of the three phrases. After the first two phrases, Davis seems to have realized that Flanagan was not catching on to the harmonic alteration; Davis then alters his melodic line in the third phrase, making a blundered resolution from the Fb to the F-natural.
To be clear, Davis’s performance of the Fb sounds entirely intentional: the mistake, therefore, is not in Davis’s performance, but rather in his communication (or lack thereof) with Flanagan—or in Flanagan’s failure to pick up on Davis’s alteration. Davis’s musical conflict with Flanagan suggests that Davis had not communicated or rehearsed the change with Flanagan beforehand, which further suggests that Davis’s Fb was an in-the-moment, improvised decision for Davis. According to Walser’s theory, such a flawed performance upholds jazz’s values of improvisation and spontaneity. Importantly, it is Davis’s version with the Fb, not Brubeck’s published version with the F-natural, that most jazz musicians perform; therefore, Davis’s improvised “mistake” became enshrined as part of jazz canon.
Moments like these are difficult to square for analytical frameworks that consider each musical event to have been painstakingly worked out and rehearsed in advance. Like Walser, jazz historian Ted Gioia also sought a method of understanding the meaning of improvisational “mistakes.” In 1988, Gioia wrote that in order to have an accurate conceptual framework by which jazz could be analyzed and evaluated, scholars and critics needed to develop an “aesthetics of imperfection.” Gioia juxtaposes the aesthetics of jazz improvisation with those of western classical music, explaining that the very term “aesthetic” implies a honed method, and “the improviser is anything but methodical.” Such an “aesthetics of imperfection” would consider art in relation to the artist who created it; it asks whether that work is expressive of the artist, whether it reflects his own unique and incommensurable perspective on his art, whether it makes a statement without which the world would be in some small way, a lesser place.
Gioia insists that his framework might be useful for other artistic disciplines seeking to accept the “human element in art.” Indeed, Gioia and Walser’s analytical frameworks are similar in that they seek a method of understanding jazz without treating it like European classical music, and do so by emphasizing human involvement in the music. However, such analyses suggest that European classical music does not have its own “human involvement” to consider—or indeed, its own potential for “aesthetics of imperfection”—and ignores the involvement of the composer, performers, and audience members. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of “methodical” classical musicians with spontaneous improvisers suggests that jazz musicians are not methodical in their approach to improvisation—indeed, that to be methodical is to be untrue to the aesthetics of improvisation.
Walser’s analysis, and Gioia’s concept, also have the side effect of highlighting Davis’s apparent flaws to a degree Davis himself would likely not appreciate. As Walser explains, Davis demonstrated a fairly ambiguous approach to mistakes. When choosing takes after a recording session, Walser writes that Davis “invariably picked the one with the fewest mistakes.” However, Davis is also reported to have valued mistakes, saying, “When they make records with all the mistakes in, as well as the rest, then they’ll really make jazz records. If the mistakes aren’t there, too, it ain’t none of you.”
In his work on Miles Davis’s “Old Folks,” from the 1961 album Someday My Prince Will Come, musicologist David Ake argues that the inclusion of a noticeable creak in a pause during Davis’s solo also may indicate a sense of “being there.” In addition to giving the recording a sense of liveness, “the apparently unrehearsed, unintended wooden groan validates the track’s authenticity… [it] grants the record a subtle aura of spur-of-the-momentness.”
Davis’s approach to mistakes seems to indicate an approach to recorded music ethnomusicologist Gabriel Solis refers to as “being there,” a phrase meant to describe the importance of liveness to jazz recordings. Solis argues that alternate takes and outtakes are included on jazz reissues because they “enhance the impression of presence, by seeming to reduce the distance between recording and playback, and by bringing the listener into the moment at which the music was performed.” In other words, jazz musicians and producers have often attempted to simulate a live experience using recorded music. While, as Solis explains, recordings are still a “thoroughly mediated experience,” they nevertheless “elevate the corporeality of music, even recorded music that is disembodied.” In essence, recordings emphasizing liveness implicitly also highlight the bodies at work in the creation of music. In his work on Miles Davis’s “Old Folks,” from the 1961 album Someday My Prince Will Come, musicologist David Ake argues that the inclusion of a noticeable creak in a pause during Davis’s solo also may indicate a sense of “being there.” In addition to giving the recording a sense of liveness, “the apparently unrehearsed, unintended wooden groan validates the track’s authenticity… [it] grants the record a subtle aura of spur-of-the-momentness.”
Ake compares Davis’s creak to Ella Fitzgerald’s infamous scatting on “Mack the Knife” on her 1960 Ella in Berlin album. Fitzgerald sings three choruses of the lyrics with no trouble, but then, as Ake describes, she “gets stuck,” and begins to sing,
Oh, what’s the next chorus
To this song, now?
This is the one, now
I don’t know.
But it was a swinging tune,
And it’s a hit tune,
So we tried to do “Mack the Knife.”
Ah, Louis Miller,
Oh something about cash
Yeah, Miller, [laughs] he was spending that trash [laughs]
And Macheath dear,
He spends like a sailor
Tell me, tell me, tell me:
Could that boy do, something rash?
Oh Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong
They made a record, oh but they did.
And now Ella, Ella, and her fellas
We’re making a wreck, what a wreck
Of Mack the Knife.
[à la Louis Armstrong]
Oh Snookie Tawdry [scats using nonsense syllables…]
Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear
So you’ve heard it
Yes, we’ve swung it
And we tried to
Yes, we sung it
You won’t recognize it
It’s a surprise hit
This tune called “Mack the Knife.”
For six choruses, Fitzgerald improvises lyrics, even scatting at one point in Louis Armstrong’s characteristic gravely growl (Armstrong and Bobby Darin had each covered “Mack the Knife” to great popularity). Ake suggests that Fitzgerald’s “mistake” in forgetting the lyrics was intentional: in announcing the song to the audience, she mused to the audience, “We hope we remember all the words.” Following the success of Fitzgerald’s version of “Mack the Knife,” she continued to perform the song with similar “slips” in the lyrics. Ake explains that Fitzgerald’s “mistake” on “Mack the Knife” illustrates a similar desire to create a record that is “off-the-cuff” or “real.” For Fitzgerald, this “slip” granted her improvisational authenticity akin to Armstrong’s scatting myth—and, like Armstrong, it thrilled her audience.
Imperfections, then, can be and have been marketed to jazz audiences as proof of spontaneity. However, jazz musicians’ technical skills can be similarly lucrative. In addition to thriving on spontaneity, jazz musicians also develop technical abilities to create more and more virtuosic improvisations. For example, following an embarrassing experience on a Kansas City bandstand, Charlie Parker spent an entire summer “woodshedding,” or practicing intensely, before returning and ultimately finding his place in Jay McShann’s big band. In one radio interview from 1954, Parker explained to saxophonist Paul Desmond and Boston-based radio host John McClellan that he practiced between 11 and 15 hours per day for a period of 3 to 5 years. However, critics, performers, and audiences nearly universally acknowledge Parker as being a uniquely gifted improviser. Parker’s experience suggests that improvisation and technical perfection are not on the opposite ends of an analytical binary, but rather are both necessary for an appealing performance.
Pianist Dave Brubeck also reflected an interest in both technical skill and spontaneity. In public statements, Brubeck frequently emphasized the importance of spontaneity to his music, explaining to a jazz critic that his favorite part about performing was when,
“I get myself involved in a tough spot in improvisation…I don’t know how I’m going to get out of it … probably the audience doesn’t … I can feel the tension in the audience, and the relief, the release at the end when I finally work my way out.” 
While Brubeck publicly expressed a belief in the importance of spontaneity to jazz, he was also dedicated to achieving a good recording. For example, Brubeck recorded take after take of the opening piano run in “Strange Meadow Lark” on his 1959 Time Out album, which suggests that he, like Davis and Parker, held conflicting feelings regarding perfection, spontaneity, and mistakes.
Armstrong’s seeming mistake cemented his position as a gifted and spontaneous jazz performer within broader jazz narratives. However, the moment is now widely considered to be over-exaggerated, and a false representation of the beginning of scat singing. Despite this, the myth hangs on, demonstrating the power of “mistake” narratives in jazz that highlight improvisational gifts over technical mastery.
Let us return to Louis Armstrong’s scat singing. Armstrong’s seeming mistake cemented his position as a gifted and spontaneous jazz performer within broader jazz narratives. However, the moment is now widely considered to be over-exaggerated, and a false representation of the beginning of scat singing. Despite this, the myth hangs on, demonstrating the power of “mistake” narratives in jazz that highlight improvisational gifts over technical mastery. Such stories reflect stereotypes of jazz that describe it as a primarily emotional, rather than intellectual, experience. White jazz critics in the 20th century frequently invoked such stereotypes. As Gioia argues, these stereotypes tend to depict the jazz musician, particularly black jazz musicians, as “the inarticulate and unsophisticated practitioner of an art which he himself scarcely understands.” Such stereotypes often propagate the narrative that black jazz musicians are spontaneous, while white musicians are technically proficient. This explains why Brubeck, a white musician, would work so hard in public to emphasize his abilities in improvisation and spontaneous musical creation, while working just as hard in private to master particular techniques. It also explains why Parker, a black musician valued for his improvisational ability, might, from time to time, publicly note that he practiced for 11-15 hours per day.
Clearly, black jazz musicians like Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Davis, and Parker would, at times, rely on stereotypes linking them to spontaneity, emotional expression, and successful manipulations of “mistakes.” White musicians like Brubeck also were invested in linking themselves to similar narratives. To do so was lucrative: from the early days of cutting contests and jam sessions, jazz audiences often thrived on recognizing jazz musicians’ struggles as much as experiencing musicians’ successes. However, an aesthetic of mistakes, such as Walser and Gioia propose, creates an over-exaggerated binary between mistakes and improvisation on one side, and technical perfection and mastery on the other. Such a binary ultimately belies the reality of jazz performance, which for both black and white musicians relies more on the balance of perfection and spontaneity, rather than a singular focus on one or the other.