13 Ways of Looking at Creativity

Danny Kamins, photo by Tommy LaVergne

As in daily life, improvisation in jazz means the spontaneous invention of something new. To the audience, this think-on-your-feet creativity may sound effortless — a talent channeled from some mysterious source. Think of the dazzling solos of jazz giants like alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, singer Ella Fitzgerald or pianist Thelonious Monk, to name just a few.

At Rice, students learn and practice the art of improvisation as well as arranging and composing from jazz instructor and saxophonist Danny Kamins. A Houston native and graduate of the Houston School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Kamins directs the Rice Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Combo (sometimes called Jazz Lab).

Students of any major can sign up for these band classes. “Just about my whole saxophone section is engineering, computer science and poli-sci majors,” Kamins said, noting one exception. “One of the saxophonists is a Shepherd School of Music pianist.” Like  the MOB, the Rice jazz bands are open to Rice alumni and to community members as well. 

 Improvisation, while wholly original, takes place within a musical context — no matter the musical instrument, the notes build on existing themes and structures. The students steep themselves in jazz tradition by listening to classics, and Kamins introduces them to artists who play the same instrument they do.

“Larry Slezak did that for me,” recalled Kamins, who spent his freshman year at Rice before transferring to Oberlin College. Slezak was an instructor in jazz studies at Rice from 1980 to 2016 and a widely respected musician and teacher.

“I was a baritone sax player, and I knew nothing about bari sax players. He had me listen to Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams and Harry Carney. It educated me and gave me a historical context on how the instrument worked,” said Kamins, who works to pass along the lesson. To develop students’ confidence and skill in improvisation requires practice and practice — playing with the bands, with Kamins or with the help of accompaniment software. 

In the combo band, “everybody has to solo,” he said. Kamins works to create an atmosphere that is a change of pace from their main academic work.