“An artist’s warehouse, full of experience, is not a store of successful phrases ready for use, but is a store of raw material. The successful phrases are there, but they have been broken down to be made over into new form. Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases. There is a great pleasure in the effort to invent the exact thing which is needed. Use it. Break it down. Begin again.” –Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” —Miles Davis
These days I wear three hats. I mean that both metaphorically and literally. I love hats and have several along with a hot pink hat rack to hold them. I particularly rely on my hats on bad hair days which happen often when the Santa Ana winds churn themselves up.
Metaphorically, I wear my artist hat (beret?), my jazz hat, and my poetry hat. I’m so attuned to these three that I’m billing my upcoming solo show as “The Colors of Jazz,” celebrating the connections among poetry, jazz and visual art.
I work in abstract expressionism because it combines pieces of both jazz and writing along with my love of color. Abstract expressionism is improvisational – like jazz – and lyrical – like poetry. This may not be anyone else’s definition of abstract expressionism, but it’s mine.
And it’s actually not far from the truth for many of the abstract expressionists who made the scene just as modern jazz, cool bop, wildly improvisational music were also making the scene. It’s no coincidence.
In Listen, the jazz novel I wrote a few years back, one of the musicians says, “You play the first note, baby, and see what happens. Then you play the next note. If you know all the notes before you start, that might be something. That might be music. But it ain’t jazz.”
Henri’s words resonate whether they’re describing a work of art (or the process), a jazz improvisation or a new piece of writing: Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases. There is a great pleasure in the effort to invent the exact thing which is needed. Use it. Break it down. Begin again.”
If I know how a poem or a painting will turn out before I start – well, they might be something. They might even be music (or words that rhyme or a picture). But they will definitely not be jazz. Or poetry. Or abstract expressionism.
Miles spoke wise words, indeed, about learning to sound like yourself (or paint or compose). These things happen only when a writer or musician or artist is willing to let go of the need to know the outcome until the process has ended. Risk and a certain bravery will be required for the ride.
For my money, it’s the only trip worth taking.