Learning to Play Like Myself

Little Jazz Bird
copyright, 2021 Molly Larson Cook
20″ x 16″ on illustration board
Mixed media, paint and tissue

Miles Davis had it right: “Sometimes it takes a long time to learn how to play like yourself.”

And with that, I’m right back in the jazz world. But Miles Davis knew whereof he spoke. And it applies to any creative work. Even to the woodcarvers who put their talent to work carving pumpkins for Halloween.

I’m back but I’ve learned some things in the last few weeks. One of them is that I’m a painter and not a collage maker, at least not in the usual sense. After gathering all kinds of books and pictures and trying to put the pictures together with new ideas, I got stuck in the ditch of “not playing like myself.”

In my abstract expressionist world, color is still the animal that wags its own tail.

My never-met-them friends, David Bayles and Ted Orland, artists and authors of Art and Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking say it a different way:

“When things go haywire, your best opening strategy might be to return — very carefully and consciously — to the habits and practices in play the last time you felt good about the work.”

I’ve read this passage many times, but this time I read it wrong and I got myself in a lot of trouble. I tried to return to the “habits and practices in play” when I was just beginning. Period. Yes, I felt good about that work, but that’s not what Bayles and Orland were suggesting.

Starting again from the beginning. Returning to full-out collages was not the answer.

I turned to collages to suit my new studio space at home. The space works, but I feel a little closed and cautious here in ways I didn’t in the studio. I miss the painting, although paint is messy, no matter how careful an artist might be.

One pundit said that artists get paint on everything they own. I’m a walking talking example. And despite the painting apron I wear, now covered and stiff with paint, I still manage to do it.

My phone. The furniture. My coffee mug. My books. My face. Nearly every article of clothing. Everything within reach is fair game.

Collage was a good idea and I’m not sorry I made the choice or tried it out. But after several valiant efforts, the old collages with pictures from books or magazines were flat out disappointing. I do collages like that for family and friends sometimes, special occasions and all. As fun and personal it was fine, but as my art it was not going to work.

The “Little Jazz Bird” above was almost a happy accident. I had created quite a mess on my first try at a 20″x16″ piece. On a canvas, I’d likely have gessoed over it. Instead, I brushed it all with a thinned out pale yellow mostly to get the mess out of my sight. Then I left it for a couple of days and continued to clip and cut pictures.

Finally, I grabbed my tube of Payne’s Gray, a favorite color and painted the “horizon.” Left that for a day or so to dry, tried a couple of the pictures and knew without a second thought that I was in the wrong lane.

I don’t know quite how to describe it in sensible terms, so I’ll give it a shot in non-sensible terms. The best I can do is to say that the creative life is kind of like the rodeo. And anybody who understands the rodeo knows it’s important for cowboys to know good ridin’ from bad. And people in the stands who understand rodeo know this, too.

Bad ridin’ can get you thrown in a heartbeat, sometimes injured and sometimes just knowing you did not do a good job. But good ridin’ — learning to ride (or paint or dance or play a tune) like yourself — will take you where you want to go.

You can’t fake these things.

Your own creative intuition will kick in and you’d better be listening. Paying attention. It’s not about doing what you love and the money will follow. It’s about doing the work you’re meant to do and not getting sidetracked.

Speaking of cowboys, Bayles & Orland have these words:

“We modestly offer this bit of cowboy wisdom: When your horse dies, get off.”

My collage-making horse died. I got off. I was good at it back in the day, and it was fun before I started painting, but it was not my art or the work I was meant to do. For now, until I can freely paint again, I’ll work with the tissue and paint. And I’ll remember the words of someone else who loved jazz. I didn’t know him, but I read his words years ago in Jazz Times. An older fellow who still loved the clubs.

“Jazz never lets you down.”

No, it does not.

And just for fun…give a listen to “Little Jazz Bird,” by the Gershwins, recorded in 1959 by Blossom Dearie, a little jazz bird herself who sang cool jazz with the best. Enjoy.

3 thoughts on “Learning to Play Like Myself

  1. A little late in catching up with your posts, but they are always timely, no matter what…it’s great to find out we all have limitations. You are always an inspiration, no matter what…

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