Miles Davis, So What, and being in accord no matter the chord

This story that opens jazz great Herbie Hancock’s memoir, Possibilities, is profound:

I’m onstage at a concert hall in Stockholm, Sweden, in the mid-1960s playing piano with the Miles Davis Quintet. We’re on tour, and this show is really heating up. The band is tight—we’re all in sync, all on the same wavelength. The music is flowing, we’re connecting with the audience, and everything feels magical, like we’re weaving a spell.

Tony Williams, the drumming prodigy who joined Miles as a teenager, is on fire. Ron Carter’s fingers are flying up and down the neck of his bass, and Wayne Shorter’s saxophone is just screaming. The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music. We’re playing one of Miles’s classics, “So What,” and as we hurtle toward Miles’s solo, it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats.

Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, “Oh, shit.” It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.

Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.

I was in my early twenties and had already been with Miles for a couple of years by this time. But he always was capable of surprising me, and that night, when he somehow turned my chord from a wrong to a right, he definitely did. In the dressing room after the show I asked Miles about it. I felt a little sheepish, but Miles just winked at me, a hint of a smile on his chiseled face. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Miles wasn’t one to talk a whole lot about things when he could show us something instead.

It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage. As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it—he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of “How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re dong?” And because he didn’t judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing.

Miles Davis was the greatest jazz musician of his time. (Of all time, many would say.) And he was a famously difficult, contrarian personality. I was cringing with Hancock as I read this story, fearing the reaction from Miles.

But Miles merely heard Hancock’s “wrong” chord “as a sound that had happened” and did something excellent with it. And that the iconic jazz song they were playing is entitled “So What” makes this story perfect.

What has happened has already happened. Just say, “So what?” There’s no going back, and there’s no value in resisting reality or fretting about something you have no control over.

Miles didn’t judge that chord as bad or wrong. He used it, instead, to push him and his band into a new direction and to make something wonderful out of it. The obstacle is the way.

By being in accord with reality, by not resisting what is, you can take on whatever may come and use it as fuel to continue moving forward.

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel.” –Marcus Aurelius

Louis CK, the Carlin strategy, and inviting the awful

Plateaus happen. Regularly.

Years ago, in the midst of what was at that point an unremarkable career in stand-up comedy, Louis CK was frustrated with the creative rut he found himself in.

And then he learned the Carlin strategy, and everything changed.

It turns out that George Carlin would record a comedy special every year and then, the next day, throw out that material and start over from scratch.

Louis was stunned by that approach. He had worked long and hard to come up with the material for his show, and he had never imagined throwing it out and starting over.

But he was discontent with his work and the arc of his career, so he gave the Carlin strategy a try.

It was hard. Awful and hard at first.

But that void summoned better work eventually. And he kept doing it every year—scrapping his tried and true material and forcing himself to begin with a blank page once again.

And, in the process, Louis CK became Louis CK.

I do a version of the Carlin strategy with the presentations I give every year. I start over with new themes and slide designs and new ideas and stories.

It’s frustrating and a bit unsettling at first. I love the security of doing what I’m confident will work.

You have to sit with the awful for a while. Trick yourself if you have to by saying “I’m going to start by intentionally making this as awful as I can.”

Any action, even atrociously bad work, will at least propel you forward. You likely will surprise yourself, though, if you persist, and find that your awful starts getting better.

New ideas will appear that you would have never imagined if you had stuck to your old material.

Some of my best work came only after letting go of the good stuff I had been clinging to.

If you need a jolt in your creative life, consider the Carlin strategy. What if you started from scratch and created something completely new?

HT: Cal Newport — How Louis C.K. Became Funny and Why It Matters

 

Billy Collins on finding your voice

The poet Billy Collins was speaking at a White House poetry student workshop and was asked about “finding your voice”. Here’s a portion of his response as shared by Austin Kleon:

Your voice has an external source. It is not lying within you. It is lying in other people’s poetry. It is lying on the shelves of the library. To find your voice, you need to read deeply. You need to look inside yourself, of course, for material, because poetry is something that honors subjectivity. It honors your interiority. It honors what’s inside. But to find a way to express that, you have to look outside yourself.

Read widely, read all the poetry you can get your hands on. And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous. Professors of writing call this “literary influence.” It’s jealousy. And it’s with every art, whether you play the saxophone, or do charcoal drawings. You’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous.

Read widely. Find poets that make you envious. And then copy them. Try to get like them.

This is so good and rings true for me, not just for poetry but for any creative endeavor.

Consume everything you can about what grabs you. Be voracious. Read and explore and scour every curiosity.

Find the very best people in the field you want to be in and soak up their insight and their style. Follow them on Twitter. Read what influenced them. Act as if you were a peer of your creative heroes.

And don’t wait to get busy making your own stuff, even if at first it seems like a derivative copy of those you’re aspiring to emulate.

Your voice will come only from using it.

Consume good stuff to make good stuff

Austin Kleon on what he does if he’s feeling blocked creatively:

“When I stall out, it’s time to start taking things in again: read more, re-read, watch movies, listen to music, go to art museums, travel, take people to lunch, etc. Just being open and alert and on the lookout for That Thing that will get me going again. Getting out the jumper cables and hunting down a battery.”

When I’m in a creative lull, I usually find I’m in a reading lull as well.

I need to consume good stuff in order to make good stuff.

Don’t wait

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True.

The best way to know something is to try to express it.

I’ve heard people say they don’t want to pursue a relationship until they figure themselves out first. There’s nothing like being in a relationship, though, to reveal yourself to yourself.

And don’t wait till you feel inspired to start creating. It’s the starting and the doing that summons the inspiration.

Have a bias for action, for doing and making, even when—especially when—you don’t think you know enough or feel it enough to get started. 

Just start. 

Conan O’Brien on creativity and perspective

After listening to the Brian Cox episode of the Nerdist podcast, I came across an older episode featuring a long conversation with Conan O’Brien. So good.

I’ve come to think that most really good comedians also are some of our most insightful philosophers. They actively explore the absurdity of life. Imagine being on a constant search for “What’s funny about this?” And then to regularly stand in front of audiences and try to express those absurdities in an effective way, that must lead to a unique perspective on life.

In this podcast episode, Conan reflects on his experiences creating for a daily television show and how most things miss the mark. But sometimes, it just works. I transcribed this from around the 54:00 mark of the episode:

The really great stuff has to be rare… It’s not just back to back to back…

My only hope is that you’re judged for your best work. If you’re judged by your best work, I’ll be okay.

Someone explained to me once that your creative life is laying down little tiles. And you can’t see what it’s all making, and sometimes it’s a slightly darker tile than the other. Sometimes it’s a really brightly colored tile. Sometimes you’ll lay down seven grey tiles in a row. But you’re making a much bigger piece which when seen when it’s completed, when it’s done, could be quite fantastic, you know, but you’re doing it tile by tile, day by day and you can’t know.

You can’t know. At least not from the zoomed in perspective of this moment. But keep laying down tiles. Then, hopefully, you can zoom out eventually and see a body of work that might be more fantastic than you could have planned in advance.

 

“Talent is not stopping.”

This interview with Everything Is A Remix creator Kirby Ferguson is solid. Love his advice for those just getting started:

What would your advice be to the 20-year-old version of you, who’s just starting their career?

I wish I had Everything Is A Remix when I was younger. I wish I knew that you can just start copying other people’s stuff and fiddling with it, and putting stuff into it, and just sort of build from there. It’s okay to be primitive. That’s a perfectly fine way to start making things.

I wish the earlier me understood work and practice more. Just the repeated concerted effort to get better at things. I wish I didn’t have the notions of talent and genius I had back then. I thought, “Oh, these other people, they just have something that I don’t have.” When really, they are just people who work more.

I wish I understood work. Work is the key to anything you want to do. If you want to play the guitar—anybody can learn to play the fucking guitar—you can be good at it. Maybe you won’t get to be a genius but you could be good.

You can be good enough to write good songs or make a good film or whatever. There’s no such thing as not having enough talent to get to that level. I mean, persistence is talent, really. Just sticking with it. Talent is not stopping.

I keep coming across this simultaneously reassuring and frightening notion that genuine talent is not based on innate ability. We’ve got no excuse for not being great. It’s all about effort and persistence and thoughtful, incremental improvement. Sure, some people have genetic advantages, but the hard work and clear focus of someone of average ability can overtake the half-hearted efforts of a genius slacker.

Do the work. Be awesome.