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Posts Tagged ‘creativity

“Playing bop is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing”*…

Jazz as a form of wit…

Jazz, like wit, can be broadly defined as surprising creativity. So does it follow that jazz musicians are a witty bunch?

I’ve wondered about this for longer than Kenny G has held an E-flat (45 minutes, for the record) but lacked a way to prove it. 

There was some promising neuroscience research on the subject back in 2014 that linked conversation to trading fours. Both jawing and jamming involve “an exchange of ideas that is unpredictable, collaborative, and emergent,” the paper hypothesized. In other words, a riff is a riff.

That said, all the actual data was pretty flat. The researchers brought the musicians into the lab, wired them up, and let them noodle around while they watched the blood slosh through their brains via a functional MRI machine. It went to the same spots it would go in a conversation, they found, which was interesting as far as it went but didn’t go all that far.

So when I came across the book Jazz Anecdotes at Sellers & Newel, I knew this was what I was looking for. I immediately flipped my fMRI machine on Kijiji and grabbed a copy.

Jazz anecdotes, like jazz itself, aren’t usually transcribed. In the words of drummer Shelley Manne, “We never play anything the same way once.” 

But bassist, writer, and editor Bill Crow combed through hundreds of interviews and biographies to pick just the juiciest bits, and the best display a virtuosic level of verbal dexterity. The book really slaps, as they say. There’s a whole chapter on pranks, and in said chapter there’s a whole section on Limburger cheese. (You can flip through a digitized version over at the invaluable archive.org here.)

Start with the nicknames, which alone are worth the price of admission. Fats, Shorty, and Slim were all physical descriptors. Cannonball Adderley was originally called Cannibal because of his voracious appetite — but one problem took care of the other as he rounded out.

William Randolph Cole was known as Colesy, which evolved into Cozy. Cozy, in turn, couldn’t remember names so he called everyone “Face” if they looked familiar, and then added the name of the instrument they played for Bass Face, Sax Face, and so on. Bassist George Mraz was called Bounce because he was a baaaad Czech. And bassist John Simmons got a rise out of trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page by announcing at the bandstand, “Lady there at the door sent this letter to Mr. Warm Jaws.”

The greats get a chapter each, and they’re at their best when they’re playing off one another. Once John Coltrane started playing a solo, he’d just play and play —which irritated those who shared the bandstand. “I get involved in this thing and I don’t know how to stop,” he told Miles Davis, to which Davis suggested, “Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth.” Why did he play so long, Davis asked? “It took that long to get it all in.”

The pianist Errol Garner had a similar issue at a recording session in 1969. The red light in the booth flickered off, but he kept right on playing. “I couldn’t stop,” he said. “I wanted to find out how it would come out.”

The difference between live wit and recorded repartee is like the difference between fresh squeezed orange juice and the frozen concentrate. So leave the last words to Louis Armstrong, who refused to describe exactly what he did so well.

How did he define jazz, exactly? “Jazz is what I play for a living.”

Would you describe it as folk music? “Man, all music is folk music. You ain’t ever heard no horse sing a song, have you?”

Making it along as you go up: “The wit of jazz, and vice versa,” from Benjamin Errett (@benjaminerrett)

* Duke Ellington

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As we improvise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that Sarah Bernhardt became the first woman to portray Hamlet on film…

The French actress was certainly a force to be reckoned with. In 1899, she took over the Théâtre de Ville in Paris and renamed it the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, which is, as one Lit Hub editor once put it, “basically cell phone providers in the early ’00s levels of confidence.” That same year, she premiered a new production of Hamlet, with herself in the title role—a production that she would eventually also take on tour. Critics were divided—not only was she a woman, but she was a woman in her mid-fifties!—but audiences were largely enthralled, and if nothing else, the performance is now legendary.

Bernhardt may not have been the first female Hamlet—that was probably 18th-century actor Charlotte Charke—but she was the very first to play the Prince of Denmark (a bro who didn’t even like sex, mind you) on screen. On October 1, 1900, the audience of the Paris Exposition (also known as the Exposition Universelle) was treated to Le Duel d’Hamlet, the very first known film adaptation of Hamlet—albeit one that is only a minute and a half long, comprising a single scene: the Act V duel between Hamlet and Laertes. The short was filmed only a year after Bernhardt first played the role; in it, she is 56. “She’s somber, quick, natural—easily expert with her sword and clearly used to dueling,” Robert Gottlieb wrote in a biography of the actress. “There’s nothing campy or feminine about her; she’s manly and she’s coolly resolved. This isn’t an exhibition of virtuoso acting—it’s modest, in fact. But it’s certainly a vindication of her right to perform the greatest of male roles, and a welcome clue as to how she pulled it off.” Indeed. Luckily, we have even more female Hamlets in our future

LitHub

“There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and Sarah Bernhardt.”  – Mark Twain

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October 1, 2021 at 1:00 am

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it”*…

In the early 1950s, James Baldwin moved to a Swiss village in the Alps with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter under his arm. It was there that he finished his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), which he largely attributes to Smith’s bluesy intonations: “It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken…and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep,” Baldwin wrote in an essay.

For the eminent American novelist and essayist, music was generative, unearthing inspiration that may otherwise remain concealed. Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, a curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, hopes to rouse a new generation of writers with “Chez Baldwin,” a 478-track, 32-hour-long Spotify playlist based on Baldwin’s vinyl record collection.

“The playlist is a balm of sorts when one is writing,” Onyewuenyi told Hyperallergic. “Baldwin referred to his office as a ‘torture chamber.’ We’ve all encountered those moments of writers’ block, where the process of putting pen to paper feels like bloodletting. That process of torture for Baldwin was negotiated with these records.”…

Listening to the Joy in James Baldwin’s Record Collection“: “Chez Baldwin,” a 32-hour-long Spotify playlist based on Baldwin’s vinyl record collection.

* “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.” – James Baldwin

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As we listen, we might recall that it was on this date in 1575 that Queen Elizabeth granted choral composer Thomas Tallis and his student William Byrd a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music and a patent to print and publish “set songe or songes in parts,” one of the first arrangements of its kind in England. Tallis had exclusive rights to print any music in any language, and he and Byrd had sole use of the paper used in printing music.

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January 22, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The heart and soul of the company is creativity”*…

Creativity doesn’t have a deep history. The Oxford English Dictionary records just a single usage of the word in the 17th century, and it’s religious: ‘In Creation, we have God and his Creativity.’ Then, scarcely anything until the 1920s – quasi-religious invocations by the philosopher A N Whitehead. So creativity, considered as a power belonging to an individual – divine or mortal – doesn’t go back forever. Neither does the adjective ‘creative’ – being inventive, imaginative, having original ideas – though this word appears much more frequently than the noun in the early modern period. God is the Creator and, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the creative power, like the rarely used ‘creativity’, was understood as divine. The notion of a secular creative ability in the imaginative arts scarcely appears until the Romantic Era, as when the poet William Wordsworth addressed the painter and critic Benjamin Haydon: ‘Creative Art … Demands the service of a mind and heart.’

This all changes in the mid-20th century, and especially after the end of the Second World War, when a secularised notion of creativity explodes into prominence. The Google Ngram chart bends sharply upwards from the 1950s and continues its ascent to the present day. But as late as 1970, practically oriented writers, accepting that creativity was valuable and in need of encouragement, nevertheless reflected on the newness of the concept, noting its absence from some standard dictionaries even a few decades before.

Before the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, the history of creativity might seem to lack its object – the word was not much in circulation. The point needn’t be pedantic. You might say that what we came to mean by the capacity of creativity was then robustly picked out by other notions, say genius, or originality, or productivity, or even intelligence or whatever capacity it was believed enabled people to think thoughts considered new and valuable. And in the postwar period, a number of commentators did wonder about the supposed difference between emergent creativity and such other long-recognised mental capacities. The creativity of the mid-20th century was entangled in these pre-existing notions, but the circumstances of its definition and application were new…

Once seen as the work of genius, how did creativity become an engine of economic growth and a corporate imperative? (Hint: the Manhattan Project and the Cold War played important roles.): “The rise and rise of creativity.”

(Image above: source)

* Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company

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As we lionize the latest, we might recall that it was on this date in 1726 that Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships— much better known as Gulliver’s Travels— was first published.  A satire both of human nature and of the “travelers’ tales” literary subgenre popular at the time, it was an immediate hit (John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”).  It has, of course, become a classic.

From the first edition

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October 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness – to save oneself trouble”*…

 

Lion-man-angles-Vergleich-drei-Ganzkörper-Ansichten

 

Like all other animals, our species evolved by gradual processes of natural selection that equipped us to survive and reproduce within a certain environmental niche. Unlike other animals, however, our species managed to escape its inherited biological role and take control of its own destiny. It began to innovate, actively reshaping its way of life, its environment and, eventually, the planet itself. How did we do it? What set our species, Homo sapiens, apart from the rest?

Searching for just one event, a decisive change in culture or brain structure, would probably be a mistake. For more than 1.5 million years, archaic humans (earlier Homo species, such as Homo erectus) had been slowly diverging from the other great apes, developing a way of life marked by increased collaboration. They made simple stone tools, hunted together, might have cooked their food, and probably engaged in communal parenting.

Still, their lifestyle remained largely static over vast periods of time, with few, if any, signs of artistic activity or technical innovation. Things started to change only in the past 300,000 years, with the emergence of our own species and our cousins the Neanderthals, and even then the pace of change didn’t quicken much until 40-60,000 years ago.

What caused our species to break out of the pattern set by archaic humans? Again, there were probably many factors. But from my perspective as someone who studies the human mind, one development stands out as of special importance. There is a mental ability we possess today that must have emerged at some point in our history, and whose emergence would have vastly enhanced our ancestors’ creative powers.

The ability I mean is that of hypothetical thinking – the ability to detach one’s mind from the here and now, and consciously think about other possibilities. This is the key to sustained innovation and creativity, and to the development of art, science and technology. Archaic humans, in all probability, didn’t possess it. The static nature of their lifestyle suggests that they lived in the present, their attention locked on to the world, and their behaviour driven by habit and environmental stimuli. In the course of their daily activities, they might accidentally hit on a better way of doing something, and so gradually acquire new habits and skills, but they didn’t actively think up innovations for themselves…

The story at “Our greatest invention was the invention of invention itself.”

* Agatha Christie (who would surely have agreed that invention is also, sometimes, aimed at explaining ourselves to our selves… and sometimes simply at delivering delight)

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As we contemplate creativity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that the trial of John T. Scopes in Scopes vs. The State of Tennessee (aka “the Scopes Monkey Trial”) began.

The State of Tennessee had responded to the urging of William Bell Riley, head of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, by passing a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution– the Butler Act.  In response, The American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend anyone accused of violating the Act.  George Rappleyea, who managed several local mines, convinced a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, a town of 1,756, that the controversy of such a trial would give Dayton some much needed publicity.  With their agreement, he called in his friend, the 24-year-old Scopes, who taught High School biology in the local school– and who agreed to be the test case.

The rest is celebrity-filled history, and star-studded drama.

Scopes in 1925

 

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July 10, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The chief enemy of creativity is good sense”*…

 

* Pablo Picasso

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As we ideate up a storm, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Thomas Pynchon agreed to allow his complete works to be published digitally for the first time; they were made available as e-books the following day.  Pynchon, typically, declined to comment on the move.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 14, 2016 at 1:01 am

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