• A Festival of Ideas
  • January 24 - 27, 2019
  • Guelph

“What Else Our Society Could Become”

1. In an interview marking the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s profoundly influential “I Have a Dream” speech, Clarence Jones, Dr. King’s speechwriter and attorney, remarked that the celebrated words “I have a dream” “were not written in the text that King prepared” (Bernstein). Instead, Dr. King went off script in response to a prompt from gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and improvised what has arguably become the most famous political speech in world history.

“Tell ’em about the dream, Martin,” Jackson yelled out from the stands. “Tell ’em about the dream!” (Bernstein). In response to Mahalia’s prompt, King, as Jones remembers, abandoned his text and spoke “completely spontaneously and extemporaneously” (Bernstein). It’s telling that such a powerfully important and iconic moment in world history was improvised. Telling that Dr. King’s most famous words emerged in response to an unforeseen prompt from a member of his audience—from a musician, moreover. Telling that the improvised remarks were about a dream.[1]

I’ve chosen to begin my essay with this dream, this improvisation, because it offers so compelling an example of how spontaneous acts of creativity can offer resources for hope and social transformation, because it speaks powerfully to how the social and creative practices associated with aggrieved peoples confronting systems of oppression can be enduring documents of hope, resilience, and determination.

2. We live in troubled times. We live in an era when diverse peoples and communities of interest are struggling to forge historically new forms of affiliation across cultural divides. In such a context, I want to suggest that the participatory and civic virtues of engagement, dialogue, respect, and community-building inculcated through improvisatory practices can take on a particular urgency. Indeed, an interest in how people step up to meet the needs of the moment, how they improvise communities in the here and now, sometimes amidst devastation and disenfranchisement, can, as writer Rebecca Solnit has suggested in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, offer “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become” (9).

3. Let me give you a working definition of what I mean by improvisation. In The Fierce Urgency of Now, a book I’ve co-authored with Daniel Fischlin and George Lipsitz, we suggest that improvisation involves “the creation and development of new, unexpected, and productive cocreative relations among people. It teaches us to make ‘a way’ out of ‘no way’ by cultivating the capacity to discern hidden elements of possibility, hope, and promise in even the most discouraging circumstances. Improvisers work with the tools they have in the arenas that are open to them in order to imbue the world with the possibility of making right things transpire” (xii).

4. The research our team members have done as part of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) makes clear that there is much to be learned about social change from the creative practices of improvisation. Indeed, there’s a long and illustrious history of musicians from aggrieved communities who’ve used improvisation to sound off against structures of oppression. I’m put in mind, for example, of Paul Robeson’s landmark Peace Arch Concert (see Heble, “Take Two”). In May 1952, prevented by the United States government from crossing the US border because of his active participation in worldwide struggles for human rights, singer and activist Paul Robeson stood one foot from the Canadian border on a makeshift stage at the back of a flat-bed truck and delivered the now historic Peace Arch Concert to some 40,000 people. Improvising with the materials at hand—in this case, a makeshift stage on the back of a flat-bed truck located just shy of the border he was not allowed to cross—Robeson created a stunningly original and enduring document of hope out of what might have seemed a hopeless situation. Similarly, his ability to improvise upon the scripted lyrics of “Ol’ Man River” in order to insert a resistant presence into the heart of a popular showtune (for example, instead of the scripted “Git a little drunk an’ you’ll land in jail,” Robeson sang, “You show a little grit and you land in jail,”) reveals a remarkable commitment to creating opportunities for hope and defiance: a song that might otherwise have fostered stereotypical portrayals of African American people is now known to have given rise to one of the most powerful examples of resistant creative practice in the history of music making.

5. Much of my own current research takes its cue from the work I’ve been doing in my role as founder (and for 23 years as Artistic Director) of the Guelph Jazz Festival. For years, as part of the festival, I’ve been bringing together musicians from different parts of the world, musicians who come together onstage in an improvised musical setting. A few years ago, for example, I brought together several musicians from diverse cultural locations (Mali, Ethiopia, Mexico, The Netherlands, USA, Canada). Much of the music that I would program during my time as the artistic director of The Guelph Jazz Festival involved precisely these sorts of real-time interactions. Now, think about what happens in such a context: (when it works) a group of people who may never have met, who, in many cases, know very little, if anything, about one another, who may not even speak the same language, can create wondrous, inspired, and compelling music. And they can do this on the spot with no explicit prearranged musical direction. What does this tell us? How might such musical examples enable us to think about what it means to negotiate differences within a community? What might such improvisation tell us about trust, humility, responsibility, critical listening, and social cooperation? There is, I want to suggest, an important lesson being played out in such real-time face-to-face encounters, a lesson about how best we might learn to get along in a globalized world.

6. If improvised music’s ability to cultivate resources for hope and resilience, to imbue the world with possibility, is evident in these real-time musical encounters, a sense of hope and resilience is also being nurtured in a number of community-based initiatives associated with our Institute. We’ve worked with improvising musicians to develop a number of outreach initiatives in partnership with music festivals and social service organizations in Canadian cities over the last several years. Our research makes clear that these initiatives have played a vital role in helping to foster vibrant, cohesive communities with at-risk urban youth populations, kids with disabilities, patients at mental health/addiction treatment facilities, and residents of some of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods. Our students and team members have documented the events, and conducted follow-up interviews and surveys. These events, we know from the interviews, have genuinely touched people’s lives–reaching populations who rarely get a chance to shine. We’ve seen first-hand how improvisation enables new models of cooperation, adaptation, and listening within at-risk populations, and how it fosters vibrant, cohesive, resilient communities, while increasing self-esteem, self-confidence, leadership, and social skills.

7. Such resources for hope, as Dr. King’s improvisations during his “I Have a Dream” speech should remind us, are in direct contrast to the culture of acquiescence or non-participation which asks us to resign ourselves to the way things are because (or so we are too often told), no other future is possible. Improvisation can teach us otherwise. It encourages us to dream about other possible futures, to enact the possibilities we envision.

Okay, I know this might sound a bit utopian, but I’m not going to apologize for that. Like Robin Kelley, in his extraordinary book, Freedom Dreams, I’m addressing my words today to those of us who are “bold enough still to dream.” Imagine, then, what the future might hold if we were able to translate the resources, the spirit of inquiry and experimentation, the ability to adapt, associated with improvisation into other spheres of influence and action, imagine “what else our society could become” if we were able to do so in the service of sounding new models of social cooperation, imagine the ideals that might be nourished, the relationships that might get fostered, the lessons that might get learned. If struggles for social change often take as one of their most salient manifestations an allegiance to forms of artistic expression that can’t readily be scripted, predicted, or compelled into orthodoxy, then our success is solving some of the most crucial problems we’re facing, now and in the future, may well depend on our ability to break out of conventional, recurrent solution-patterns, may well depend, in short, on our ability to dream, to hope, and to improvise.[2]


[1] I first wrote about the improvisational nature of Dr. King’s famous speech in “Prologue: Spontaneous Acts,” a short piece I co-authored with Rebecca Caines for our co-edited anthology, The Improvisation Studies Reader: Spontaneous Acts (London: Routledge, 2015). This current essay for ArtsEverywhere draws, in part, on material from that earlier piece as well as from two other previous publications: The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation, a book I’ve co-authored with Daniel Fischlin and George Lipsitz, and my essay “Take Two/Rebel Musics.”

[2] Versions of this paper have been presented at the Derry Dialogues (“Improvisation for Social Change”) in Guelph in October 2018 and at the Walrus Talks Resilience at the Art Gallery of Toronto in October 2014.


Works Cited

Bernstein, S., 2013. Famed King speech almost didn’t include ‘I have a dream’: author. Reuters, [online], 26 August. Available at <http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/26/us-usa-dream-speech-idUSBRE97P0EV20130826> [Accessed 18 December 2013].

Fischlin, Daniel, Ajay Heble, and George Lipsitz. The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2013. Print.

Heble, Ajay. “Take Two/Rebel Musics: Human Rights, Resistant Sounds, and the Politics of Music Making.” Rebel Musics: Human Rights, Resistant Sounds, and the Politics of Music Making. Ed. Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2003. 232-48.

Kelley, Robin. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon, 2002. Print.

Solnit, Rebecca. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.


Ajay Heble is the Director of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) at the University of Guelph. IICSI co-presented Tanya Tagaq’s concert at the 2019 Guelph Lecture—On Being.