Painting the Miles Davis Playbook

“Bitches Brew”
from the Colors of Jazz Collection

©2020, Molly Larson Cook
Acrylic on gallery-wrapped canvas
30 x 24

Miles Davis was more than a musician and I don’t mean a musician with problems.  He was that, but I mean a musician who understood the creative process for the rest of us, too.  Anyone who’s in the creative world can benefit from the Miles Davis play book (no pun intended).

For instance, about the process of learning and never stopping.  The process of finding your voice whether it’s through a trumpet, as a writer, or with the paint and canvas.  Copying someone else or even kind of copying someone else just isn’t going to cut it in the Miles Davis world. You can learn from others, of course, but the result had better be your own.  There might be 50 great trumpet players, but they’ll have 50 different sounds and yours should be 51, and that’s going to take some time and practice.  Or as Miles said,

Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself. 

I think about this every day in the studio.  I’ve been through my painting-like-somebody-else days. I learned a lot, but they were not me.  I still hit a day like that now and then usually with an uncluttered painting that happens quickly and feels nice, pretty, something I might find in a classy upscale interior design store.  After a day or so just looking at it and not wanting to mess it up, I start laughing, reach for the paints and the tools and get to work.  That pretty upscale interior design look is nice – for somebody.  It isn’t me.  And you can’t sing the song if you don’t have your voice.

Last week I hit a place with the painting above, Bitches Brew – a Miles Davis classic that clicked with another Miles Davis statementI wasn’t sure I should even mention this until I saw the quote:

Do not fear mistakes. There are none.

So here’s what happened.  I thought the painting was finished, then decided to add one more thing (almost always a mistake).  I did and hated it, so I grabbed a damp towel to make a fix and instead messed up what was there before.  I was about to wipe it away and – true story – I heard Miles laughing and then I heard (felt?) him say, “Leave it.  This is a jazz painting and you’re improvising.”  So I did.

A bit of background about my relationship to Miles.  A few years back I studied jazz vocal in Seattle with singer Jay Clayton.  In the studio, Jay had a poster of Miles on the wall behind her.  It was one of the intense photos of Miles staring out at the camera – and by extension at the student standing in front of Jay.  I found it truly intimidating. Every week I’d go in and have to sing to Miles staring hard at me.  And he has a damn powerful stare, believe me.  I did fine and Jay wanted me to start performing, but I didn’t have the confidence a singer needs so I wrote about a jazz singer instead.

But even though I did not grow up to be a professional vocalist, the lessons linger along with the stare.  My work as an abstract expressionist artist has come directly from my days in the jazz world, spending time with the musicians, listening to live jazz whenever I could on both coasts, writing and publishing a jazz novel, all of it.  And now, it comes out in the paintings.  Which leads me to the last bit of wisdom from Miles.

When I paint, I paint.  I title the paintings with the names of jazz tunes, but I don’t do that until I’m finished.  So when I saw this line from the wisdom of Miles Davis, I had to smile and say, “Oh yeah.”

I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.

An abstract expressionist painter may be inspired by a particular object or particular landscape but more likely he or she is inspired by something internal.  I hesitate to say spiritual and yet that’s about as close as it gets for many of us, and if we were Maori artists, we’d understand that every single thing has spirit.  John Steinbeck wrote about the great connectedness in his book about the journey to the Sea of Cortez, “It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

In my own work, I find inspiration and connectedness in the work of other creative artists, and most of them are not painters.  Many are poets or singers or dancers or writers.

But most of them play jazz.





4 thoughts on “Painting the Miles Davis Playbook

  1. Pick up that oboe! The world needs all the beauty and music we can find right now. As my mom would have said, “It’ll do you good besides helpin’ ya.” (Is there some oboe jazz?) Moll

  2. Thanks Molly. There’s wisdom in what you conveyed and you might have just motivated me, by quoting Miles Davis, to pick up my oboe again. I kind of “abandoned” it a year ago after I had taken lessons since I retired in late 2011 after about a fifty-year hiatus from junior high orchestra.

  3. I think if you add a dozen balloons to the confetti or birdseed, he’d love it! Hard to be a kid these days and miss out on all the fun. Where’s Graybill’s when we need it? Stay safe and congratulations to the graduate. Things will get better. Really! Love, Moll

  4. Hey, Molly—-Hope you and Michael are staying safe and well….at least those fish don’t seem to be able to spread the current plague, so M should be happy about that! We’re trying to get somehow creative about my grandson’s graduation (he lives with us) and the drive-thru thing the high school is doing. He’s looking askance at my suggestion to stand in the sunroof and toss confetti or birdseed or something. Oh well. We try.
    Take glad you’re staying productive and fun. xo Marcia

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