A Creative Life

“A jazz musician is not a jazz musician when he or she is eating dinner or when he or she is with his parents or spouse or neighbors. He’s above all a human being . . . the true art form is being a human being.”

– Herbie Hancock

A number of people have graciously linked to this blog since Vikram and I started writing it over the summer. Some of those linkers have expressed a little confusion, or perhaps just curiosity, over the scattershot subject matter of our posts. One week, it’s a music blog, the next week political commentary, and then the occasional bacon recipe.

This is intentional.

We are both musicians, and we went to school to study jazz music. But we’re also poker players, and bemused political observers, and voracious readers, and gourmet dessert fans. We have interests besides music, and this blog is an attempt to put everything together in a pot to see what bubbles up.

During our graduate studies, we each had the opportunity to take a few lessons, play a few tunes, and enjoy a few sandwiches with a brilliant musician named Adam Benjamin.  For those of you who don’t know him, Adam is a co-leader of the band Kneebody and keyboardist in Dave Douglas’s Keystone.  He’s also an avid baseball card collector and mall enthusiast. Take the time to check out Adam’s bloggy-thing here.


One of the major themes of our work with Adam was our personal relationships with music, or more specifically, how music related to all the other interests in our lives.

One week, for “homework,” Adam had us write down three things that we were interested in besides music, and what we liked about those things. Then we went out for a beer and tried to figure out what the connecting threads were – how could we take our love of poker, or politics, or classic film, or contemporary poetry, or bacon, and tie it to something we loved about music? It’s a more challenging exercise than it appears. Though it seemed like a game at first, it deeply changed my way of thinking about making music. Too often, my musical choices were guided only by other people’s music. When I took the time to trace how my non-musical interests were connected to my musical ones, I began the process of developing a personal style, a way of allowing more aspects of my personality to be expressed through my playing and composing.

There’s a famous Charlie Parker quote, “if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” That’s certainly true. But two negatives do not make a positive. There is no guarantee that if you DO live it, it WILL come out of your horn. My lesson with Adam showed me is that I have to work for it. Maybe some lucky musicians come by their unique and personal voice by accident, but its helpful for me to put some thought into it, to embrace the non-musical parts of my life, and to figure out on what level they are informing my music. For me, creativity takes practice.


One book that has been very important to me in this regard is The Creative Habit, by the world-famous choreographer Twyla Tharp. Her premise is that doing creative work requires routine and ritual.  Lightning might strike out of the blue, but you have a much better chance of catching the lightning in a bottle if you’ve been preparing to do so on a daily basis.  She writes,

“In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.  No one can give you your subject matter, your creative content; if they could, it would be their creation and not yours. But there’s a process that generates creativity – and you can learn it.  And you can make it habitual.”

That’s an encouraging insight, but the greatness of the book lies in the thirty-some exercises she includes to develop these habits. She guides you through the creation of a short creative autobiography, where you answer questions about your earliest memories of art, your best and worst ideas, your inspirations. She tells you to take a childhood photograph and mine it for memories.  She teaches you some games to help jump-start the creative process through randomly chosen words or patterns.  And she uses examples from her life, discussing her own successes and failures, as well as examples from the lives of great artists she admires, to illustrate these ideas.

On top of all this, the book is a joy to read.  Her voice comes through clearly – it’s warm, engaging, and funny.  And the book itself is something of an art object, with creatively staggered page layouts, unusual text shading, and a stark three-color palette. I really can’t say enough good things about this book; I think that anyone whose work requires creative thought can find something useful in it, whether dancer, musician, doctor, lawyer, or business executive.

Ms. Tharp is giving a free lecture on The Creative Habit at the University of Southern California’s Bing Theatre this Tuesday, October 13, at 7:00 pm. There is also a workshop earlier in the day. Details are available here. I hope to see some of you there!

Until then, enjoy some of Twyla Tharp’s choreography: the first part of In the Upper Room, music by Philip Glass.

Published in: on October 8, 2009 at 3:44 am  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Twarp’s idea of performing creativity-preparation exercises is fascinating, and I’ll definitely check out the book. Whatever one ends up doing to get the next level, though, I think the key is what Quincy Jones called “ass power”—staying planted in your seat long after the work has ceased to feel particularly inspired or creative. From our first words onward, we learn by mimicking, experimenting, and, with some luck, mastering. Finding a “voice” in any pursuit is often just a matter of practicing so much that you’re almost forced into originality, whether it’s through a unique synthesis of other people’s material or an expression of your inner life. (That said, not everyone with “ass power” becomes a bold, original artist, so Twarp’s exercises might help fill the gap. They also might prove wrong a literary editor friend of mine who once quipped, “there’s no cure for an uninteresting mind.”)

  2. I have always been interested in many things beyond music and I try to let those other interests inform and inspire my music. That aspect of talking about and being involved with things other than music is one of the reasons I find your blog musings compelling and I keep coming back. I have heard of the Creative Habit although I’ve never read it, it sounds much like The Artist’s Way. Both seem to say you must be ever vigilant with your creative life and keep feeding it. Having started a backyard garden a few years ago (after previous no experience growing things), I’m finding that like the garden creativity has to be tended and cared for constantly (although sometimes, counterintuitively, by not over managing so it can do its own thing under the surface without me) in order to produce the best results.

  3. Dude, I never realized we had so much in common – love of poker, bacon, trumpet, jazz, etc. Not to mention relatives from Chicago. We should hang out sometime when I’m back in the country…

  4. Great post! Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Jazz is the best music to relax too and ease your mind. Nice post

  6. hey matt:
    how did you get to be so wise?
    I mean, really!

    Incredible posts. Thank you. I luv twyla tharp.
    And i just got so much out of reading your experience and wisdom about ‘creative process’ in your music. I will apply it all to the dance.


  7. Thanks for that post, Matt. That video is one of the most incredible things I’ve seen recently. In the first minute or so it went from absurd (just the thought of people dancing to Philip Glass) to engaging to really powerful and moving somehow. Good stuff.

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