Creativity and Change

Posted by: Dave Douglas on March 5, 2009 @ 2:34 pm
Filed under: Culture

Wayne Shorter’s contribution to DownBeat in 1968 included this thought:

Does a person create because of recognition by a large body, and, if he is recognized, does he stop creating? I wonder if any artist can grade himself, using himself as his own ruler? Maybe that has to be taught. I’ve rarely had a teacher who said, “I’m going to teach you to grade yourself against yourself, use yourself as your own incentive force.” You can draw power, drive, from yourself, from nature and not necessarily from another person. It’s hard to do, but once you know what it is and you start to reach for it, it’s really something.

Even with as much inspiration as I draw from Wayne Shorter, I think he’s right. And all your thoughts about creativity vs. rote learning expressed in the thread below seem to run in that direction. Thanks for the input, everyone, and feel free to continue here. Any other references to this issue like the one above?


  1. You think Shorter is right? Right to say what exactly?

    Comment by Oran Kelley — March 5, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

  2. “I’m going to teach you to grade yourself against yourself, use yourself as your own incentive force.” You can draw power, drive, from yourself, from nature and not necessarily from another person.

    That whatever it is you are working on, the creativity, the drive, the imagination has to all come from somewhere inside yourself. Ultimately, there is no exterior ruler or grading system separate from your work.

    That’s what I think he meant. Of course, he says it better than I do.

    Comment by Dave — March 5, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

  3. As an actual theory of artistic expression it seems kind of silly and naive. The creativity, drive, imagination, etc. are all fundamentally social, both in their very composition–they’re made up of all kinds of things acquired from others–and in their intent–most people play and compose for the pleasure/enlightenment/benefit of others. Our “selves” are just not all that important or interesting apart from all the external influences, judgments and associations.

    Comment by Oran P. Kelley — March 7, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

  4. A beautiful thought, Oran. Thanks for writing. Though to be fair to Mr. Shorter, I don’t think he was ruling out the social aspect at all, and there is a lot more to this particular essay than I highlighted here.

    Still — through all the influences and interactions that make us who we are (and no doubt we are formed by those influences), we have to go somewhere inside ourselves to create something of value as our own contribution. This thread sprang up around the discussion of what to practice and how to practice. To make practice meaningful, I think you have to take all the ideas and forms of the art and find your own way through them. To imagine a new way to work with the materials is the artist’s job. And in that case the artist is the only one who, at the end of the day, can decide if the final result satisfies.

    Of course others will judge and should judge, and artists don’t live in isolation, so of course they will be exposed to those judgments — hopefully learning from them.

    So I’m not saying that the “self” should be glorified and remain “unsullied” by the outside world. In fact I believe the opposite, that artists live in the world and should have their hands dirty from whatever life is surrounding them. But I also believe that to work one has to turn away, transmuting raw materials into a personal reflection of reality.

    Thanks again, and your comments are always welcome.

    Comment by Dave — March 8, 2009 @ 8:38 am

  5. My thinking is that the first thing every artist should learn is that no one, aside from perhaps your mother, cares about you or your personal reflections.

    FAR too many artist these days seem to assume that their reflections–no matter how badly thought-out, self-congratulatory or disingenuous are the material of art. I, frankly, don’t care what musicians living from grant to grant to institutional commission to cushy university gig think about the world.

    When I wonder, what’s going on in the world, how can we make it better? I don’t immediately think Wayne Shorter has the answers–I mean, this is a guy who thinks Michael Crichton is some kind of cutting edge literary figure!

    And I certainly don’t think some post-adolescent music student has any answers, or that anyone should encourage him/her to think they do. the only way they can make a significant artistic statement is through compromise–through engaging with the world and with the audience and creating a workable modus vivendi.

    Music students should NOT be obsessed with finding their “personal voice.” If that comes their way, fabulous. But if we look at the generations of musicians who have made this a fixation what do we see: arbitrary permutations of techniques that are as individual as your genome (AGAATCCGGAT. . .) and about as personally affecting.

    Music students should be concerned about making music. And what counts as music, what endures, and what someone is willing to support you to do isn’t up to the artist alone. Usually what succeeds is that for which there is an established market. If you are a really good negotiator, you might be able to transform or invent a market, but the art of negotiation is the art of creative compromise, not the art of supposedly personal expression.

    Comment by Oran Kelley — March 10, 2009 @ 9:03 am

  6. Oran, I find it odd to suggest that artists should ignore their “personal reflections.” Truthfully, every artist has to possess a certain degree of self-confidence (that’s putting it politely) in those reflections to believe that their art is worthy of attention. Were it otherwise, they would never go to the effort of playing in public.

    No matter the musical or societal forces that influence an artist, one must ultimately decide the direction and content of new music oneself and find the motivation to realize it. Society cannot do this. I believe that was Shorter’s point. In the quote above, he never said anything about making successful music (in any sense of that phrase). Also, as to whether or not Wayne Shorter has the answers to making this world better or what he thinks about the world… given that he was talking about the creative process specifically, those points seem a little irrelevant. I think a bit more respect for Mr. Shorter would be appreciated. When you consider the fact that he’s been involved in some of the finest music of the last fifty years, I think he speaks with some authority on the creative process.

    I’m surprised, honestly, at how negatively you speak about artists attempting to innovate. If I were to characterize modern music, I would certainly not identify the chief problem as too many musicians being too different.

    Comment by Steve Peterson — March 10, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

  7. Respect for Mr. Shorter: I respect him a great deal as a player and composer. As a theorizer what he says seems to me to be like the shifting sands of competing cliches. Kind of like how portions of talking points would pop up, intermingle and bizarrely combine in the speech of the late President. Whatever insight Shorter has into aesthetics and creativity, he doesn’t express them very well.

    Nor should we expect him to: playing and composing and coming up with coherent theories are different things. Just because he excels at one or two of these things doesn’t mean he has a gift for the third, which is what I should have said when I was talking about making the world a better place.

    Mastering something doesn’t mean you can teach it. And it doesn’t mean you can develop a coherent theory of the thing you’ve mastered. Being able to teach it doesn’t mean you can develop a adequate pedagogical theory of it.

    My thoughts on artistic innovation is that 1) it’s not an imperative–it’s not like finding a cure for AIDS. Art doesn’t progress. it’s not going anywhere. Innovation may bring a pleasing novelty, a new item for the technical trickbag, maybe it will even become associated with a coincident social movement. But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter that much whether a particular musician innovates or not or finds his or her own personal voice. 2) if we established a musical pedagogy that discouraged innovation and personality as sternly as can be imagined in our country, we’d have the same amount of good musical innovation as we have now and a lot less mock innovation, bloviated Coltrane-esque expressionism and make-pretend radicalism that is neither pleasing nor interesting 3) The fact is that most musicians are not going to have a distinct voice that’s more than a tiresome contrivance (distinguishable by experts, yes; distinct, no)

    No the problem isn’t too many musicians who are too different, it’s too many musicians who think that being different is imperative; that they’ve at least got to make a gesture at it. On the one hand, it really isn’t that important. On the other they probably are not capable of it anyway.

    Comment by Oran Kelley — March 10, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  8. Oran, if you are intent upon dissing personal artistic expression, the search for one’s own voice or sound, as a key driving force in jazz I think you must include all of jazz history in your argument and therefore dismiss all of the innovators as misguided. Kind of silly but my point it that we know that the search for a unique expression, something that distinguished one musician from another, was of paramount importance to all the early jazz artists. It was Lester Young who said, “I don’t want to be no repeater pencil,” and that was in the 1930s when what he was playing was considered in the realm of the social, when jazz was “to the benefit of others” to the highest degree in its history (I think). Post adolescent or not, people who think about their own personal approach to the music as imperative are well within the tradition of this music. If you don’t like what they are playing that’s cool but at least in terms of the tradition, they are doing pretty much exactly what they should be doing.

    Comment by Mike Grimaldi — March 11, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

  9. Jazz was young in the 1930s, there weren’t very many styles to be different from. At that point developing viable new stylistic approaches probably WAS a) a significant positive contribution and b) not all that hard.

    Tradition has a context, and ought not be mindlessly pursued. At this point I don’t think either of those things holds anymore, and I don’t think it benefits either listener or student or the future of the music to continue to make “finding your own voice” such a shibboleth.

    Comment by Oran Kelley — March 12, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  10. Oran, your last post is a shibboleth of someone who doesn’t understand the creative process or what actually goes into the making of art or frankly, what an artist does. “Not all that hard to develop viable new approaches”??? You make it sound as if Lester Young just got lucky or something. As if no thought or intellect was involved. As if it were easy. There is too much evidence to the contrary. And I don’t really understand your disassembling of what the tradition is. You’re giving me cheese and bread and telling me that I’ve got everything I need to make a perfectly fine ham and cheese sandwich. You may think it’s a perfectly fine ham and cheese sandwich but if you actually tasted the thing I think you’d notice something was missing. S’all I’m sayin’

    Comment by Mike Grimaldi — March 12, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

  11. Mike:

    In what sense are you using shibboleth there?

    “not all that hard” is obviously a comparative. It doesn’t mean “easy.” It means not as hard as something else I may have talked about, like perhaps developing distinct new approaches when dozens already exist.

    And Young didn’t create his sound because that’s what he was taught to do or because that is what his peers valued. He did it because *he* wanted to and could create a sound that was more “Lester Young.”

    But Lester Young was the exception, not the rule. You don’t set your standard by what someone like Lester Young can do, because the vast majority have nothing like his abilities.

    But in the 1930s, Ben Freeman also had his own sound, as did Ben Webster and others. Developing a new, distinct sound was easier in the early going because there wasn’t 100 years of music and hundreds of musicians already in the can to distinguish yourself from.

    Comment by Oran Kelley — March 14, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

  12. Oran, don’t you think it a bit presumptuous to claim to know what Lester Young was taught or not taught? Were you there? Did you know someone who was there? Is there any evidence that he was not taught the value of finding one’s own voice or that he was oblivious to what was going on around him? I certainly don’t know. But I do know that as early as 1915 in New Orleans there was a school of “syncopated music.” In other words, jazz education is as old as the music. You are correct to say that he did what he did because he wanted to and he was supremely gifted but it is also highly likely that he had someone helping him in some way or another, probably encouraging him to find his own voice, because that’s what he did.

    You mention Bud Freeman and Ben Webster as “exceptions,” those like Lester Young, who had a unique sound. I assume you would put Coleman Hawkins in there as well. We’re talking 1930s tenor saxophone after all. There are others of course. Between the two of us we could easily come up with 25 or so similarly memorable names. Maybe more. If you broaden it to include all saxophonists, we would come up with maybe 100 names. Again, maybe more.

    You’re a fan of context. How about this context. In the 1930s Big Bands were the thing. There were literally thousands of Big Bands, professional and amateur, playing every night throughout the United States. Each one of these Big Bands had at least three saxophonists, I would say, and a lot of them had a full section of five. Throw in small groups, other popular ‘orchestras,’ dance bands, show bands, bar bands, etc. and I think you could safely assume that there were tens of thousands of saxophone players out there doing their thing on a regular basis. And yet, we remember only 100 or so “exceptions.” There are likely a number of reasons for this. Your observation that most were not as talented as Lester Young is undoubtedly true. But in my opinion, one conclusion we can certainly draw is that, in the 1930s, like today, the act itself, finding one’s own voice, being an “exception,” was hard. Then, like now, you had to have talent, guts, determination, intelligence, dedication and you had to be willing to pay a price. You had to be courageous. You had to want to be an artist, not a “repeater pencil.” I don’t think you can make a case otherwise. Further I would say that this is the most worthy of goals, the pursuit of which is diminished at our peril, post adolescent or other.

    As far as my use of “shibboleth,” I could have it wrong. It’s not a word in my everyday vocabulary. Frankly, I had to look it up. What I learned was that shibboleth is like a cultural signpost, a marker. In this cultural context, the world of art, a person who downgrades the significance of a person’s search for his or her own distinct identity in their artistic output is missing something so gigantic that he is telling the rest of us that he doesn’t get it.

    And this is weird in your case because you write so damn well. You express your ideas carefully and thoughtfully, with apparent ease. I agree with little of what you say but I understand it perfectly. I struggle with writing so I know how hard it is to express oneself clearly through the written word.

    Comment by Mike Grimaldi — March 15, 2009 @ 11:42 am

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