I think there are a couple reasons. The first reason is that historically, bluegrass music comes after jazz, and there is improvisation in jazz. Louis Armstrong’s classic “Hot Five” recordings were made in 1925. Bill Monroe’s classic recordings with Flatt and Scruggs did not come until over over twenty years later, in 1946. Benny Goodman’s band was featuring swing music coast-to-coast on NBC radio in 1934. Jazz and swing were widely featured in early movies that future bluegrass musicians would have seen growing up. In short, it was everywhere.
Jazz music in America was the main form of popular music the years that bluegrass and country music was in its infancy. Jazz musicians brought improvisation to the forefront of American music. I think it’s impossible to understate the importance of jazz on the development of bluegrass music. Bluegrass musicians like Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Vassar Clements, Kenny Baker, David Grisman, Tony Rice, and countless others have either mentioned they looked up or listened to jazz musicians, or performed and recorded jazz songs in the bluegrass style. To my ears, they were seeking to add the energy and freedom of jazz to their own way of playing country and bluegrass music. Some early examples of this are Farewell Blues, Limehouse Blues, and Bugle Call Rag.
Here’s Bugle Call Rag, first by Benny Goodman in 1943, then by Earl Scruggs.
The second reason that improvisation became such a prominent feature of bluegrass music is because jamming became such a huge part of the music and culture of bluegrass music. While people certainly jammed with friends before bluegrass festivals began in the mid-1960’s, the festival scene exploded the concept of jamming with friends on the tunes you had in your record collection back home. After the bands play on stage, amateurs and professionals alike share in the experience of picking and singing songs together. Improvisation becomes a practical way to be able to play along with more songs than you’ve had a chance to fully learn at home.
Jamming and improvising in bluegrass continues today, both on and off stage. The top bluegrass musicians now are equal to their jazz counterparts in their ability to play a solo off the top of their heads.
An improvised melody can be simple or virtuosic. It’s exciting to watch a great musician work in the moment to develop an small musical idea to it’s climax, or trade licks with another member of the band.
In the next article, I’ll talk more about some different ways to approach improvising, for those just getting into it.