A Discussion about Creativity vs Craft

Below is a great conversation I had over Facebook with Denny Monce, a long time friend and trumpet player I have worked with quite a lot over the years. He is also the jazz trumpet professor at the University here, so he has had the opportunity to work with many students.

Ravel: Are you truly improvising if you pre-plan out a solo, or are playing a bunch of licks you learned from some book or worksheet, or even off a recording?

Denny: Maybe a better question — How do you create something out of nothing? Every time I hear these kinds of questions Bill, I’m always left wondering what the real question is. This kind of questioning and thinking permeated my early college experience to the point where I had all of this theoretical knowledge, but no idea what to do with it (how to practice). I was so afraid that I might actually play a “lick” (something that wasn’t original) that I was paralyzed and couldn’t hear or play changes to save my life.

In my world….the music comes first…then the theory. I still view music as a language. At some point though, you have to be able to put a sentence together, play lines that make some sense (grmmar), and learn to play over the structure…providing there is one (harmonic and rhythmic structure….vocabulary). It comes down to a lot of hard grunt work that amounts to extracting vocabulary, learning it in all 12 keys, and playing patterns so that you are so thoroughly familiar with playing these harmonic structures on your instrument that you can quit THINKING while you play and hear what you want to play. Practicing patterns, licks, vocabulary, etc. does not bind you…it frees you. All of the guys who were good musicians (and not hacks) who got into free jazz did the same thing. Just my two cents! Though he might not express it quite the same way, I think Kenny Werner would agree.

Ravel: First, I would like to say that having trouble with how to approach this isn’t your fault. There are a lot of teachers out there that have difficulty explaining what is going on, and the act of improvisation becomes mystified and obscured. This is a travesty. While learning the art is a lot of work, it is usually very clear what you can do to move forward if you have a competent teacher and not just a competent player (they are two different skills). 

There isn’t anything wrong with learning vocab, or doing transcriptions. I have my students do both. There is a lot to be gained from that work, including ear training, learning to navigate your axe in all keys, a connection to the tradition, time feel (when playing transcriptions with recordings, which is a must) and much more. At the same time, I get so tired of hearing people play a bunch of licks one after the other. It is just boring to me. The music never goes anywhere, never tells a story. I understand that student players have to start somewhere, but a lot of people never move on and that is sad to me. At a jam session, I have literally heard one player play a solo and then the next soloist play the same licks in the same places. That is just inexcusable. These people aren’t listening to each other or themselves if that kind of nonsense is going on. Either that, or they just don’t know better.

The point isn’t that working on vocab is bad. The point is that cutting and pasting a bunch of licks isn’t creative at all. It is simply regurgitation. Sometimes creativity isn’t what people are going for, though. And sometimes hearing someone burning through a bunch of licks can be exciting and entertaining. I just find it more of a novelty to be enjoyed in passing than a true love.

Brad Mehldau wrote a great article discussing this topic, and the two opposing schools of thought on improvisation. Mehldau said he always gravitated towards musicians that approached improvisation from a compositional approach, like Monk or Sonny Rollins, rather than musicians like Sonny Stitt that just “blew” without any logic behind what they were playing. There are many that love the “just blow” school, and there is nothing wrong with that. Let’s just not elevate and label it as creative. Being an amazing technician is more of an athletic feat than a creative one. While both are impressive, they are very different pursuits. I have spent my fair share of time in the athletic field and have worked hard for the last several years to embrace the creative.

I would like to point out that some of the players that people consider to be in this school actually have development cleverly hidden. One of the blessings of my graduate degree was getting deep into some of these transcriptions and discovering a lot of hidden gems in some of these bebop players improvisational concepts. It is a lot of work to go through and analyze these transcriptions, but it was very much worth it.

To use your language metaphor, the issue is that players that are stringing together a bunch of licks end up sounding like a crazy homeless person. They are saying words and sentences, but they don’t make any sense because there is no continuity of thought, no development of any ideas.

Denny: I hear you Bill, and I guess I misunderstood the question. I still say, and will stand by my words….something does not come out of nothing. If you are talking in the realm of advanced players such as yourself, you have to move beyond technique and vocabulary. This is why I think it is so important for developing improvisational musician to constantly be listening to all kinds of music and to play a lot. Eventually, if you are playing a lot, you eventually get tired of hearing yourself play the same old crap (part of the struggle). I have read this in interview after interview by great players. So of course, then comes the question of what to do about it. There are a lot of approaches to it. This is where I think the whole concept of “less is more” is a great starting point.

I still think Kenny Werner has the right idea. You have to get the ego out of it. If a person is hung up on trying to sound original (or whatever they are TRYING to do, instead of just letting it happen), or that every phrase that comes out has to be great, it ain’t gonna happen. The best I ever heard myself play was when I quieted all of these thoughts, quit worrying about what I sounded like, tried to listen more and play less, and just enjoy the ride. I know that sounds too simple, but I have been pretty amazed of what I actually played in these situations. For me, this is a VARY RARE situation, because most of the time, I have, and am playing with people who have a job to do, or have too much going on agenda wise. Most of the time, I’m struggling just to play the tunes and hang with tempo or the changes or the form of the tune. Wish I could play six nights a week like Sonny, or Freddie Hubbard, or Bud Powell, and develop as an artist like they have, but life isn’t giving me that opportunity at the moment.

Bill, you have probably already seen this stuff, but Hal Galper has some great things to say about all of this in some clinics that have been uploaded to YouTube. Ultimately, I think we all have to find our own way to what we consider creative, and sometimes it’s a struggle. And I think we also need to remember why we started playing in the first place and not forget to enjoy the music along the way and have fun playing, even if every minute isn’t ground breaking.

Bill, I also hear what you are saying about taking a compositional approach…also, probably a reason that my playing is so boring. I’m not much of a composer, but interested in exploring that side of my musical abilities going forward.

Ravel: “Something doesn’t come from nothing.” There are many ways to address that. Some might say that our creativity is channeled from the divine, and that it is something much greater than any one of us that inspires creativity. 

In a more “nuts and bolts” way, when we are playing standards or jazz tunes, we still have a given framework we are working with, with chord progressions, a melody, a form etc. That is very far from nothing. Even Ornette, or Coltrane with his later “out” stuff imposed structure into music labeled as free. So, really our perceived nothing is really quite a lot of something. In addition, we have the sum of our experiences and studies, plus the input of and interaction with other players. I understand what you mean and where you’re coming from, but I think Kenny would agree that this type of thinking is a roadblock to freedom and is the type of obstacle that should be discarded. Accept this and nothing becomes everything. 

Denny, if you’re ever interested in hanging out and working on your playing I would love for you to come over to my place. I believe that there are many things we could teach each other and would love to take advantage of that opportunity. Plus, with my illness I don’t get out a whole lot and it would be nice to have some company and someone to play with. lol I have been working on some exercises and practice techniques that I would love to share.

Denny: Let’s do it Bill!

Just to 180 on your comment about roadblocks, I also think a lot of young players, particularly college aged students of the art, get roadblocked by teachers and other more advanced musicians who get overly philosophical. I kid who can barely wipe his behind in terms of both understanding of music, playing their instrument, etc. has no business getting concerned about how original or creative they are. As a jazz educator, this is really of concern to me. I have seen so many of my friends when I was in school basically become paralyzed by the idea that they need to be original, when they haven’t even learned how to play their instrument, and really don’t have much life experience to draw on in order to be creative or original. I guess when I hear questions like the one you posed Bill, this is something that concerns me, and moves me in the direction of caution. What you described above under “nuts and bolts” helps me understand better where you are coming from. Talk to you soon Bill!

Ravel: That is so true Denny. There are so many distractions to the work at hand. It isn’t just being original, creative, etc., it is also the shiny object syndrome that gets people. I work very hard to create a foundation with students so that they can function in a working situation. For example, they should be learning a basic set of voicings that will allow them to function on a gig, but they are dying to learn reharmonization. 

To the pie in the sky kid, worried about “being creative” my advice is to be specific with your goals and instruction, to ensure they stay on the path you have set. I have some specific curriculum I have developed and work through based off of how each student responds to assessment, and that offers the benefit of not being side tracked by bullshit like that.

I hope to see you soon, my friend!


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