Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

30 OCTOBER, 2014

Jazz Legend Bill Evans on the Creative Process, Self-Teaching, and Balancing Clarity with Spontaneity in Problem-Solving

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“The person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time.”

In a 1915 letter to his young son, Albert Einstein advised that the best way to learn anything is “when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.” Many decades later, psychologists would give a name to this distinctive, exhilarating state of immersive, self-initiated learning and creative growth: flow. Again and again, artists, writers, scientists, and other creators have described this state as the key to the “spiritual electricity” of creative work.

In 1966, legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans (August 16, 1929–September 15, 1980) sat down with his composer brother, Harry Evans, for an intense and deeply insightful conversation later released as Universal Mind of Bill Evans: The Creative Process and Self-Teaching. From filmmaker William Meier comes this gorgeous cinematic adaptation of Evans’s thoughts on the autodidactic quality of creativity and the value of working at the intersection of clarity, complexity, and spontaneity.

Here is a longer excerpt from the documentary, where Evans discusses the step-by-step process of creative problem-solving:

The whole process of learning the facility of being able to play jazz is to take these problems from the outer level in, one by one, and to stay with it at a very intense, conscious-concentration level until that process becomes secondary and subconscious. Now, when that becomes subconscious, then you can begin concentrating on that next problem, which will allow you to do a little bit more.

I don’t consider myself as talented as many people but in some ways that was an advantage because I didn’t have a great facility immediately so I had to be more analytical and in a way — that forced me to build something.

Most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem and, either because they can’t conquer it immediately, think that they haven’t got the ability, or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through. If you do understand the problem then you can enjoy your whole trip through.

People tend to approximate the product rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way at any elementary level — regardless of how elementary — but it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate. They would rather approximate the entire problem than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it. To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives you a feeling that you’ve more or less touched the thing, but in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.

It is true of any subject that the person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time and that he has to enjoy the step-by-step learning procedure. They’re trying to do a thing in a way that is so general [that] they can’t possibly build on that. If they build on that, they’re building on top of confusion and vagueness and they can’t possibly progress. If you try to approximate something that is very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t advance.

Universal Mind of Bill Evans is revelatory in its entirety. Complement it with the great composer Aaron Copland on the conditions of creativity and Julia Cameron on how to get out of your own way and unblock creative flow.

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30 AUGUST, 2013

William Faulkner’s Little-Known Jazz Age Drawings, with a Side of Literary Derision

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From the sartorial to the satiric, or how the award-winning author’s youthful pretensions earned him a helping of high-brow mockery.

The latest addition to luminaries’ secret talents in a surprising discipline — including Richard Feynman’s sketches, Dr. Seuss’s wartime propaganda, and Marilyn Monroe’s poetry — comes from none other than William Faulkner. As if it weren’t already pleasantly disorienting to learn that he penned a little-known children’s book with a kooky inception, it turns out the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning author also had a deftness for drawing.

In 1916, as he was about to turn twenty, Faulkner began contributing poems and sketches to the Mississippian, the literary magazine at Ole Miss — the University of Mississippi, in which he would enroll three years later for a brief three-semester stint before dropping out in 1920. But Faulkner continued to draw for the magazine until 1925 — shortly before he penned the aforementioned little-known children’s book while courting his future wife — even earning small commissions for his drawings, largely inspired by Aubrey Beardsley, bearing that distinct Jazz Age swanky sensibility and reminiscent of Henry Clarke’s sensual 1919 illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, with a twinge of Goreyana. The drawings were published only once, in William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry (public library; public domain), an out-of-print anthology released months after Faulkner’s death in 1962 by The Atlantic Monthly’s imprint.

But in Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner (public library), Philip Weinstein argues that the drawings were merely part of Faulkner’s budding pretensions — which included claims to have served in the British Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, which he never actually did:

During the postwar years … Faulkner remained in aggressively role-playing mode. Following the initial season of sporting his unearned war uniform — worn not only on ceremonial occasions but at dances and on golf courses as well — he settled into an equally self-conscious role as a special student at the university. He took courses in English, Spanish, and French, but he was better-remembered for his cultural and sartorial pretensions. Earlier, his expensive tailored suits had earned him the title “The Count.” Now his more elaborate costuming — replete with cane, limp, and swagger — elicited from his university peers the derisive term “Count No ’Count.” Seemingly descent from Parnassus and returned from war-torn France, Faulkner maintained his façade of imperturbability. He published poems in the university literary magazine, the Mississippian, as well as contributed elegant, Beardsley-inspired drawings.

Indeed, his drawings pushed his already irked peers over the edge and an orchestrated high-brow mockery ensued:

Annoyed classmates eventually refused to take his cultural pretensions lying down. The title of one his poems — a translation of Paul Verlaine’s “Fantoches” — was misprinted in the Mississippian as “Fantouches.” That title and the poem’s most famous line — “la lune ne garde aucune rancune” — soon generated a satiric response. There appeared in the same magazine a counter-poem — “Whotouches,” described as “Just a Parody on Count’s ‘Fantouches’ by Count Jr.” — and it ended thus: “how long the old aucune raccoon.” Journalistic ripple effects continued, and a month later the Mississippian published “Cane de Looney” written by one “Peruney Prune.”

And yet the drawings, taken in and of themselves, are undeniably lovely.

Should you be so lucky, you might be able to snag one of the few surviving copies of William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry still floating around. Else, there’s always a voyeuristic look back at Faulkner’s other secret talent.

Open Culture Lit Hitchhiker

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06 JUNE, 2013

Taschen’s Jazz: An Illustrated Portrait of New York in the Roaring Twenties

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Band battles, brass classics, Cotton Club etiquette, and how to do the “double roll” like a pro.

“Jazz is the music of the body,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary, “…and the mystery of the withheld theme, known to jazz musicians alone, is like the mystery of our secret life.” From the fine folks of Taschen () — who have given us such visual gems as the world’s best infographics, the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm, Harry Benson’s luminous photos of The Beatles, and the history of menu design — comes Jazz. New York in the Roaring Twenties (public library), a remarkable time-capsule of Gotham’s swinging golden age by music journalist Hans-Jürgen Schaal, edited and gloriously illustrated by German graphic designer, illustrator, and book artist Robert Nippoldt. The lavish large-format volume, which comes with a CD compilation of the era’s most celebrated songs, covers iconic venues like the Cotton Club and the Roseland Ballroom, legendary recording sessions, and the epic “band battles” that dominated the club scene, among other curious and lesser-known facets of the Roaring Twenties.

Also included are illustrated micro-biographies of twenty-four of the era’s greatest icons, alongside little-known and often amusing anecdotes.

But perhaps most delightful of all are the infographic-inspired maps and morphologies of the jazz scene and its geography, technology, and human topography:

Complement Jazz. New York in the Roaring Twenties with Herman Leonard’s rare portraits of jazz icons, W. Eugene Smith’s ambitious Jazz Loft Project, and William Gottlieb’s magnificent photos of jazz greats.

Images courtesy Taschen

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