Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

Installment 4 – Jazz's High Stakes and Tragic Failures

There is a heroic aspect to a musician who continues to create; creation becomes an act of conquering. But what is he conquering? He is essentially conquering himself, over and over again, conquering his own urge to accept the status quo of his present form of expression. However exalted that means of expression might be compared to another musician – it may tower over all of his peers and most of his predecessors – it is status quo for him because he has mastered it, and once mastered, that means of expression becomes steadily less compelling to him. To accept the status quo then is tantamount to defeat; it is to lie down and die.

Two urges wage a struggle against each other: the difficult, life-affirming urge to create oneself all over again, and the easy, deathlike urge to give into one’s own success. There is a lot of potential drama and pathos in that kind of story, and if we try to apply the three-period model we touched on earlier to musicians and composers at large, there will be mostly unhappy endings because the majority of musicians simply do not manage to perpetuate their initial level of creativity as the years go on.

That has an interesting set of consequences for jazz, which places a premium on improvisation. Improvisation, in the narrative of jazz, is essentially a trope for creativity. When we witness an inspired improvisation, we are witnessing the creative act in real time, in a raw, unbridled form. This is what distinguishes jazz music from the completely written canon of Occidental music that is one of its points of departure. Jazz music at its best has an exalted status among all forms of musical expression because of the way it simultaneously adds to this Western musical canon and transcends it.

It is true that many forms of music around the world are largely improvised; jazz is certainly not unique in that sense. But the profundity of improvisation in jazz is unique, and that profundity arises partially because of jazz’s deep engagement in a tradition that is more Bach than blues: The tradition of 12-tone functional harmony. (I don’t refer to Schoenberg’s 12-tone system! I mean to say: The harmony that comes about from the twelve chromatic, tempered tones that are produced on pitched instruments. I make this distinction because the blues scale, from which jazz and other music draws so much material, was not derived from these 12 pitches of modern temperament. With its diminished key intervals, it shares characteristics with folk scales from other parts of the world.) The principles of voice leading, the perpetual rub of consonance and dissonance – these principles are accounted for in a Lester Young solo as well as the blues. The blues is subsumed within a greater understanding of functional harmony and all of its consequences. This is not to mention the formal complexity of so much jazz, which eclipses that found in folk musical expression. Complexity in itself is nothing, but when that complexity is tied to inspiration, there is the possibility of a deeper level of profundity. Something great can take place. You have the potential for music with those grand-narrative gestures that Beethoven was aiming for, expressed as spontaneous, here-and-now utterances.

This is the greatness of jazz, and to deny the role of a specifically Occidental source in its formation – among other sources – is merely to marginalize jazz. With elements of folk music and classical music, jazz can transcend both: At its best, it will achieve the discursive complexity of classical music while retaining the ritualistic intensity of improvisation. The political implications of this claim to jazz’s transcendence are interesting. The claim implies elitism – the implication is that the experience of jazz will be qualitatively better than other types of music – yet there is more recently a prevalent view of jazz that is more internationalist and populist in its tone. In this viewpoint, the thinking goes, all types of music – not just the original African-based folk elements of American jazz at its inception – are welcome under the big tent of jazz, and that viewpoint manifests itself in the programming we see at jazz festivals, where a DJ will spin a set on one stage, while a klezmer group performs on another. To one observer, this is a fresh change; to another, it is a crisis of identity. Yet this unresolved discourse on the identity of jazz is tangential to the issue of its creative success: That success rests on inspired improvisation that is nevertheless grounded in nuanced understanding of functional harmony; there can be no sidestepping that. And any such inspired improvisation will always be essentially elitist in its nature, because it will eclipse everything else going on in the big tent. (Every major jazz innovator – including Ornette Coleman, in his own completely original way – has engaged deeply in the fundamentals of 12-tone harmony.)

But what an enterprise – it sounds almost impossible to achieve a deeply informed musical statement in the white heat of the moment. The stakes are high: When we witness an uninspired improvisation, we are likewise witnessing raw evidence of creative failure in real time. It is a failure that is perhaps more lucidly felt than hearing the interesting written failure of a composer. When a jazz musician is ostensibly improvising, but actually playing something worked out that he already knows, a potentially tragic component now exists in his personal narrative of creativity: he has failed the specific challenge that jazz poses. Yet this tragedy of creative finitude is one that the great majority of jazz musicians will eventually encounter; we could even say that it is the normal occurrence in jazz. As such, it is not witnessed directly as a failure. It is merely the meek rendering of human limitation, of the ineluctable fact that most of us cannot live in a constant state of inspiration. Because the limits of creativity are so prevalently felt in jazz music, and can be witnessed even among its best practitioners, we must find another account for this drying up of fresh inspiration. Another way to view this phenomenon is that it is evidence of a musician’s humanity – and, to the extent that his narrative corresponds with ours, we who listen – evidence of our own humanity.

* * *

Input and Output

In Rainer Maria Rilke’s Briefe an einen jungen Dichter, he writes, advising the young poet:

Alles ist austragen und dann gebären. Jeden Eindruck und jeden Keim eines Gefühls ganz in sich, im Dunkel, im Unsagbaren, Unbewußten, dem eigenen Verstande Unerreichbaren sich vollenden lassen und mit tiefer Demut und Geduld die Stunde der Niederkunft einer neuen Klarheit abwarten: das allein heißt künstlerisch leben: im Verstehen wie im Schaffen.

(Everything is gestation and then birth. To let every impression and every germ of a feeling complete itself, wholly in itself, in the dark, the unsayable, the unconscious, unreachable by one’s own conscious understanding; and then to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour of deliverance, when a new clarity comes: This alone is the artist’s life: in comprehension as well as in creation.)

Rilke is explaining how a person assimilates the material that he uses to create his own art. This process is one that is not overt and palpable – it takes place “in the dark, in the unsayable” – so we need a metaphor that accounts for its mysterious nature. Rilke finds that metaphor in his austragen – the German verb that is formed from tragen, to carry, and means to carry a child in the womb to full term. The artist is the pregnant mother who carries the child in her womb, and the child that grows there is the unformed work that he will create. When a woman is pregnant, she is growing something inside of her, but the nature of what she is making remains a mystery until the birth. When the child is born, it is a beautiful surprise. When a jazz musician finds his or her own style, the style joyfully announces its own “birth” in a similar manner.

It is possible to illuminate this mysterious gestation period a bit more, by employing another metaphor that I take from a conversation with the musician, composer and producer Jon Brion. Working in recording studios for years, plugging in microphones to pre-amplifiers, running signals to mixing boards, etc.; he was always distinguishing between input, the place where information enters a device; and the output, where the information leaves that device. The terms input and output also refer to the information itself on a device like a computer hard-drive, and specify which direction it is moving – whether it is coming onto the hard-drive as input or leaving as output. The creative musician is a vessel of information as well. The input is all the music he or she listens to, and, more generally, everything he or she takes in – literature and other disciplines, but also emotional experiences and even sensory stimuli. The output is what one will then produce after one takes all of that in.

The first period of a jazz musician’s development is full of input. There is listening, listening and more listening. The young musician might transcribe solos, learn standards, or study a particular set of exercises or system of scales. He or she might study the way a great singer or instrumentalist interprets a standard. Exposure to others is key at this point – old dead masters, living peers, what have you. As the young player immerses himself in a variety of output from other players, he finds that he responds favorably to some music, and negatively to other music. In this way, he develops his own sense of taste, and that taste, which will become increasingly more sharply defined as he grows older, will determine his own style.

This process of collecting and discarding can take place throughout a musician’s lifetime, but is more important in the earlier period, because when a musician is exposed to something for the first time, the shock of discovery is more profoundly felt than it is with subsequent discoveries of music in the same genre. The strength of the positive emotional impression will increase the chances that a musician does not discard what he is exposed to, or to put it more simply: He will retain only the music that he loves unconditionally. The first step in developing your own style as a jazz musician is to fall in love with an existing style, to be an absolute fan, with all of the fan-aticism that word implies: to embrace that style fully and unquestioningly, with no constraint, with no reservations. Criticism of that style will come later if it must. But in this first period, the critical faculty is less important and potentially damaging. The young player must initially view his master with no irony; there must be no distance between him and what inspires him.

In The Anxiety of Influence, referring to a great poet who is absorbing the influence of a predecessor, Harold Bloom writes, “The strong misreading comes first; there must be a profound act of reading that is a kind of falling in love with a literary work.” Bloom’s singular insight was that great poets ironically misread their predecessors, as their predecessors did before them, and as any strong poet will do with their work after they are gone. By “misreading” Bloom does not mean that they make a mistake. On the contrary, this misreading is a precondition to creativity. He summarizes: “Poetic Influence – when it involves two strong, authentic poets, - always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation.

Bloom’s thesis is a great aid when considering the duality of influence and originality in any creative pursuit. This duality is felt strongly in jazz. On the one hand, jazz is seen as a music that thrives on the spirit of originality, manifested in the act of improvisation: I can improvise whatever I want whenever I want; there is no rulebook. On the other hand, the drama of jazz, particularly in recent years, is found in its narrative of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters: Authenticity is cherished, and authenticity is directly determined by how well a player has absorbed the “lessons” of his or her predecessors.

Authenticity and originality are both weak tropes because, on their own, they can only account for weak players. True originality, and thus true creativity, never takes place in a historical vacuum; it is always rooted to something that has gone before. I remember observing the phenomenon of rootless “creativity” in my high school jazz band growing up. There were those of us who were listening to jazz and would go on to try to be musicians. Our fledgling attempts at soloing reflected whatever we had absorbed at that point – a little Bird, McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, what have you. Then there were kids in the band who were not going to pursue jazz for their life, had only a passing interest in playing music, and had hardly listened to jazz at all. They would also get a solo feature now and then.

What did they play? It was sort of like playing scales up and down the horn. What was striking was that they all sounded the same: One would think that with all the freedom that an improvised context could have, they might all play something different. But collectively, the kids who weren’t really listening to jazz actually encompassed a style of sorts, and that style was dictated by their limitation. The limitation was due to the fact that they hadn’t absorbed anything; they hadn’t begun to even mimic like we were. There is a rule here, to gloss on Tolstoy: Rootless players are all alike, but every rooted player is rooted in his or her own way. Yes, there are tons of rooted players who are not original, but as a listener, give me the unoriginal player who has listened to a lot of great music and absorbed it any day to the player who hasn’t absorbed much of anything. This brings us back to the importance of input again: Without input, we have no model for our own style; without learning a language, we have no model to create our own. There is indeed an international style of rootless jazz playing. In the name of creativity, it expresses banality. In its lazy quest for the original, it finds only unoriginality.

The champions of authenticity can take some poetic justice from that phenomenon. All their hard work, all their striving to do justice and pay homage to their forefathers, places them above the lazy, rootless denizens who never engage deeply in the music, who treat jazz like a subsidized vacation and not as a serious discipline. Through their loyal devotion to their influences, the authenticity-seekers have mastered a language; the rootless players merely babble with each other like babies on the bandstand. To be sure, there is justice for someone who devotes himself to the past in jazz: He has the comfort of his craft and the reassurance of deep knowledge. Still, knowledge alone makes him only a craftsman and not a creator.

© Brad Mehldau, All Rights Reserved