Jazz – and Other – Lessons

finished talk about you
“I Want to Talk About You”
from the Colors of Jazz Collection
© 2019, Molly Larson Cook


I don’t just read books or blogs or news articles about art and neither should you.  Like people in any working field, we want to keep up with what’s new or useful in our own but we also need to bring out whole selves into our work.  This is not just true for the arts.  One of my favorite books is The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, one I ran onto back in another lifetime when I was working with engineers most of the time.  The Existential Pleasures of Engineering is one part engineering and two parts philosophy.

As a born to the manor jazz lover, one of the subjects I read about is jazz, and I subscribe to a fine site called, simply, Jazz Advice which is true to its name, offering advice to jazz musicians new and seasoned.

Not too long ago, they published Seven Free Jazz Lessons and as I read, I could have sworn they were writing for me, an artist.  Good things are meant to be shared, so here are the Seven Free Jazz Lessons, annotated (by me) for you and any other visual artists who happen to be tuning in.

1) Connect with your audience in a meaningful way

This can mean many things for an artist from meeting people who enjoy your work to creating a piece of art with which others can connect. My talented sculpture professor Gary Ambrose (Maine College of Art) advised us to create pieces that are “rich and complex, not complicated and confusing.”  I’ve tried to apply his wisdom not only in my art, but in my life.  (Life’s a little more challenging.)  As one who walks the path of abstract expressionism, I understand that it’s not for everybody and that every viewer who does like it will have his or her personal take on my work, on what they see.  I encourage them to create their own narratives about it as I did when I saw a painting years ago and could not explain why I loved it so much except that the colors were exactly those in a pair of lounging pajamas my late and lovely Mom wore often when I was a child.  When viewers tell me what they see, I welcome the comments and I listen and always learn.

2) Embrace the human element of your art

This includes our abstract work.  We don’t have to paint families on vacation, dogs, cute kids, lovely landscapes, nudes or anything traditionally “human” at all, but we do want to find a place for humans to connect and respond. For me, it’s color and I like hearing viewers respond to the color in my work.  See above – Mom’s pajamas.

3) Learn the tradition and build upon it

Notice the two parts of this one.

Every artist needs a foundation for the work, and if you’re self-taught, you don’t get a pass on this.  Many of the best jazz and rock musicians have classical backgrounds, others picked it up by ear, but they all paid attention to those who went before.  Artists, like musicians, need to “learn the scales” like color theory and design whether we take the classes, read, visit museums or study the basics whatever and wherever they are, and then (part two)

Build on them.  Don’t just sit there.  Make the work your own.  My grandfather, a retired railroad engineer had one profound expression when sitting in traffic:  “Expedite! Expedite, goddamn it, expedite!”  For artists, jazz musicians, or anybody else creating things, I’d change it to “Improvise! Improvise, goddamn it, improvise!”

P.S. If you’re self-taught, school ain’t out yet! 

4) Welcome the unknown

Jazz musicians are advised not to throw any baby out with the bath water but to listen more than once to something unfamiliar or unpleasing.  The same goes for those of us who paint or paste or sculpt or…(fill in the blank).  Let’s not just look away from something we don’t immediately like or understand and shout like Kramer on Seinfield, “Hideous, hideous!”  Look again.  Something about the work, something unknown might inspire you…a color, a texture, the adventurous use of space.  Or not.  But, as I used to say to my kids when I’d tried some new recipe, “At least taste it.  One bite won’t kill you.” And it might change your work forever.  My work changed when I discovered that I could paint with tools and not brushes.  It took a step into the unknown via YouTube for me to learn it was possible, but once I tried one bite, I never went back.  People smile when I tell them I buy my art tools at the hardware store.   

5) Study topics beyond your area of expertise

One of the best things about the artists I know and love is that they have open minds.  They read all kinds of things and study and observe it all.  An old friend once told me as I walked through a rundown part of the City in Which We Lived that he listens to everybody.  “You never know who might have the answer.”  Go for a walk in the woods and learn to identify the trees.  Read about the lives of the saints. Study philosophy. Cook like Julia Child.  Listen to the old guy at the end of the bar. Expand yourself and your repertoire by finding new things all around you.  Every day.  This is an old trick of creative problem-solving, and what is art but solving one problem after another?  Whether it’s color or shape or texture…Try this:  How does fly fishing relate to the painting you’re working on right now?  Go ahead, give it a try.

6) It takes time and dedication to realize your vision

Read that one again.  I feel good about my work at this point, but I also realize that as the late bloomer I apparently always am, I’m way behind everybody else in realizing my vision.  I’ve been doing this pretty much full time for the last four years.  Before that I was doing other things and played with art when there was time.  I took classes, began to work more steadily and had my first couple of small shows which morphed into my first real gallery appearance.  And all of it took time.  You just cannot rush the process.  Every overnight success has been working long and hard to make this happen unless, of course, he or she has an uncle with a gallery or wins the lottery (connections do happen and so does luck).  Otherwise, patience is not only a virtue, it’s absolutely necessary if you have a vision.  We live in a fast-paced world, but art has its own timeline and woe betide those who want to push it.

Writer John Gardner wrote, “Good luck is nothing but being in shape to act with the Universe, when the Universe says “Now!” ‘…Work hard. Be ready.

7) Be different

By all means.  I don’t mean wearing combat boots with a prom dress.  I mean with your work.  Look, listen, learn, and then bust a move with your own art.  As Pablo once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them as an artist.”  If it was good enough for Picasso, it’s good enough for us. And for pianist Victor Borge, a truly wonderful classical pianist who also likes to have fun and raise a little hell.  Here’s a short clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8R0ZwYvXpg.

Your turn.  Be great. Have fun. Raise a little hell.











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