Tag Archives: Creativity

Three Heroes: Miles Davis

I was recently challenged by a friend to embark on this exercise. They’d been working on it as part of an identity statement they were developing for a class. Quite simply, you pick three people who are “heroes” or individuals you greatly admire. It can be almost anyone, but should be someone famous and someone you don’t know personally. For those who happen to be followers of Jesus, it was requested that He be excluded from this particular exercise.

I figured this lends itself to a good blogging challenge. There were a handful of finalists but I finally narrowed it down to three. As it happens, I have had photos of these three gentlemen taped on the front of my old, worn, paperback Bible for many years. [see featured image of this post]

The first hero I blogged about was Winston Churchill.
Today… it’s Miles Davis

Those who have followed my blog for any length of time may not be surprised to see Miles Davis’ name on my list. I reference the famous jazz trumpeter on a fairly regular basis and I even posted a review of his biography a number of years ago. Nevertheless, it seems a bit incongruent for this Iowa white boy with little musical ability and strong spiritual priorities to find the heroic in a gifted, conflicted black musician whose demons and appetites led to tragic places. It may not seem an obvious choice.

My exposure to Miles began with a Christmas gift. In fourth grade I began taking drum lessons at Woodlawn elementary school. That year my brothers gave me a couple of record albums to inspire my budding, percussive aspirations. One album was Buddy Rich. The other was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. For those who are not familiar with jazz, it is perhaps the best known jazz album of all time, and for good reason. It sparked a love affair with jazz.

In high school I continued to love jazz music. While my friends at Hoover High School were listening to Def Leppard, The Police, and Journey I was home listening to a wide selection of jazz from Weather Report to Grover Washington Jr. to Chuck Mangione. But, while many of my jazz favorites were flirtations and brief love affairs, I began to realize that Kind of Blue somehow became the true love that always hearkened me back. There was something about Miles that sunk deep in my soul.

Through my post-college years and into my 30s I lost my way creatively in many ways. When I lost my way creatively I unknowingly wandered from the person God created me to be. Unfulfilled, confused, and life-less, the disconnect led me to chase after passions into dark places. By grace, I found the artist’s way back. I began to reclaim my birthright as a child of the Creator.

It was during that journey that I hearkened back, once again, to my true love – Kind of Blue. It was then that he began to emerge as an artistic hero. I began to listen to more of Miles’ music. We were now on a journey together. Miles Ahead and Birth of the Cool were added to the list and I began to hear his own artistry evolving through the chronology of recordings. I loved the way he both honored the genius of a classic like Porgy and Bess while layering it with his own artistry. Sketches of Spain made all sorts of artistic connections for me to Picasso and Hemingway and I began to appreciate Miles’ own artistic journeys and explorations. He seemed to fill the well of his soul and music with input from such a broad, rich diversity of sources. I got that. I identified with that. It stoked my creativity and inspired me. Miles Davis, through his music, became a pied piper, a mentor, and a muse for my own creative journey.

As I learned more about Miles the man, I was fascinated. Like many artistic geniuses, he seems to have been a complex person. I don’t think he was particularly easy to be around. Unlike Winston Churchill, I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed his company over dinner. Yet, even in his frailties, struggles, and failures I found myself identifying with that basic struggle those of us with artistic temperament have to create something beautiful amidst the ugliness of your own humanity .

Miles was a man of intense passions that he struggled to control. He faced and fought his own personal demons. Temporary victories gave way to repeated defeat. His soul carried scars. He hurt those he loved most. I get that, too.

Perhaps the greatest reason that Miles has become a creative hero to me is the fearless way he opened himself creatively to everything. I have twice posted on his theme “there are no wrong notes.” He was fearless in attempting new things, pushing the envelope, absorbing what others were doing and then weaving it into his own work. He wasn’t afraid to re-invent himself, push into places no one expected him to go, and where few seemed to understand. He was willing to try, to dare, and to explore new horizons. And, as he got older it seems that he never stopped. I hope that I might reflect even a small fraction of that spirit of creation.

 

Three Heroes: Winston Churchill

I was recently challenged by a friend to embark on this exercise that they’d been working on as part of an identity statement they were developing for a class. Quite simply, you pick three people who are “heroes” or individuals you greatly admire. It can be almost anyone, but should be someone famous and someone you don’t know personally. For those who happen to be followers of Jesus, it was asked that He be excluded from this particular exercise.

I’ve been thinking about it for a few weeks, and it lends itself to a a good blogging challenge. There were a handful of finalists but I finally narrowed it down to three. As it happens, I have photos of these gentlemen taped on the front of my old, worn, paperback Bible (see the featured image of this post).

Today… it’s Winston Churchill.

The more I’ve learned about Churchill over the years, the more I’ve come to appreciate and admire him. Here are a few of the reasons off the top of my head:

Churchill steadfastly held to what he believed to be right. After World War I, when the nations were high on the notion that it was “the war to end all wars,” a young Churchill believed that greatest deterrent to another war was Britain’s strong defense. When the Chamberlain administration was bent on appeasing Hitler and holding that the upstart German dictator didn’t pose a threat to Britain, it was Churchill who was willing to be the loudest, loneliest voice of warning. Churchill reminds me of the strength and character required to stand firm for what you know is right.

Churchill understood, perhaps better than any 20th statesman, the power of words and oratory. He was a master at crafting a speech and delivering it for powerful and memorable effect. During the dark days of World War II when frightened Britons huddled in the dark of night as German bombers rained terror from the skies, it was Churchill’s words that shored up their resolve and inspired their courageous defiance. I am sometimes complimented for my speaking abilities, but Churchill reminds me how much I have yet to learn (and the inspiration to keep working at it).

Churchill was an artist. When he wasn’t changing the course of human history and saving the free world from tyranny, he was outside in nature, in front of a canvas, with a brush in his hand. He reminds me that one can make a living at business or politics while still making a life with art.

churchill painting bw

Churchill struggled. He didn’t have a particularly happy childhood or home life. He had financial struggles. He had major, public failures. He was the object of ridicule and scorn. And, he never let it stop him.

Churchill enjoyed life. The biographies I’ve read of the statesman make it clear that he enjoyed  good company, good cigars, good Scotch, and good discourse. I would love to have enjoyed a long meal, good drink, and an after dinner stogie with the man as we discussed a plethora of topics.

In the person of Winston Churchill I find a cocktail of character, conviction, creativity, leadership, communication, and life. It is a mix that I would love to emulate in my own journey.

The Benefits of Insomnia

source: stefanoricci via Flickr
source: stefanoricci via Flickr

In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep.

During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision.
Daniel 2:1,19 (NIV)

I’ve never been a great sleeper. I’ve blogged about this in other posts over the years. I have an active brain that spins and mulls on all sorts of things in life at all times. So, after a couple of hours of REM sleep I will regularly wake and begin thinking about all sorts of things. At that point, getting back to sleep is out of the question. It is frustrating, and it has its ill-favored consequences.

I will admit, however, that along the journey I’ve come to recognize that my insomnia is not without it’s benefits. It will often happen in the nights before I’m scheduled to teach a class or give a Sunday morning message. In those watches of the night when every thing is quiet and my brain spins in the no man’s land between deep sleep and clear consciousness, I often find the words, themes and illustrations coming to me. Solutions to perplexing questions strike me. New creative ways of looking at things are revealed.

Throughout time great inventors, thinkers, and creatives have kept paper and pencil near their bed to capture thoughts, dreams, and revelations that come to them in the night. It is a fascinating and mysterious thing which I believe God can and does use if we learn to tap into it. In fact, my most fruitful period of spiritual growth came when I applied a disciplined approach to writing my early morning thoughts. My local gathering of Jesus followers is exploring the idea of hearing the voice of God, and this Sunday morning (1/25/2015) I’m going to be sharing the morning message about my lessons and experiences with early morning journaling.

Which likely means I’ll have a sleepless night or two later this week.

I need a nap.

Be Strong and Courageous, and DO THE WORK

Picasso's studio
Picasso’s studio

David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.
1 Chronicles 28:20 (NIV)

Pablo Picasso created more schlocky crap than any artist in history. Picasso, however, was always at work. His life was a non-stop stream of artistic output. His home and studio were packed to the gils with his work. It was his manic output, it can be argued, that took him in directions no one imagined. Amidst the steady stream of creative work, a masterpiece would occasionally emerge that would forever change the direction of art and history.

 

Most artists I know (whether it be visual artists, writers, musicians, craftsman, artisans, or playwrights) are afraid to do the work. Afraid of criticism, afraid of producing bad art, afraid of the voices in their head, afraid of revealing their heart, afraid of what the parents will say, afraid of being successful, afraid of being a failure, etc., etc., and etc.

“Inspiration will come,” Picasso said, “but it must find you working.”

Several years ago I memorized the above verse from this morning’s chapter. One of the things that I love about God’s Message is that I will occasionally find layers of personal meaning unintended in the original context. David, the warrior, poet, and song writer, was encouraging his son Solomon, the young philosopher, poet, and song writer, to be diligent in accomplishing the work of building the temple. Solomon’s temple, built from his father’s inspiration, plans, blueprints, would become one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

In my writing, acting, and artistic output, I desire to follow Picasso’s example: fearlessly cranking out the work so that inspiration (literally meaning “Spirit breathing into”) will find me at work and will once in a while produce through me something worthwhile. Yet I am susceptible to fear, anxiety, timidity and sloth like almost every other child of the Creator I know. I need encouragement. And so, years ago, I memorized and internalized David’s message to Solomon. By repeating it in my head, my heart hears my Creator, Father God speaking directly to me:

“Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the Lord is finished.”

The Gift of Music

itunes captureThese are the men David put in charge of the music in the house of the Lord after the ark came to rest there. They ministered with music before the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, until Solomon built the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. They performed their duties according to the regulations laid down for them. 1 Chronicles 6:31-32 (NIV)

I have studied and taught on the subject of creativity for many years. I’m a huge fan of the arts across the entire of breadth of ways people choose to express themselves. God’s Message says that through Jesus all things were made, and that we were made in the image of the creator. To create and express oneself creatively is to be Christ-like.

I have explored a host of creative mediums over the years. I like trying new things when they strike my fancy. Acting, singing, song writing, play writing, fiction writing, poetry, painting, pottery, writing, guitar, bass, piano, and drums just to name a few. I may not be particularly gifted or good at most of them, but I find it interesting how each one works and how one medium of creative expression differs from other mediums.

I do find it interesting, however, that music clearly holds a special place in God’s heart. Today as we read through the family tree of the tribe of Levi, who were responsible for the temple and worship, we find that there is an entire branch of that tribe whose sole responsibility was music in temple worship.

Music has a special way of affecting our thoughts, our moods, and our emotions. When King Saul was having some sort of mental health episode, it was David and his harp that had a medicinal effect. My iTunes and Spotify playlists are largely broken down by the types of music for different situations and moods. I have quiet music for my morning conversations with God. I have hard driving, intense music for working out. I have feel good music for lifting my spirit in the drab hours of the afternoon. I have cool jazz for rainy days. I have baroque music for when I need to concentrate at work or study. I have hours of easy listening music for the background of dinner conversations.

Today, I’m simply thankful for music and appreciative of our Creator for this gift of expression that is such an integral part of both life and worship.

wayfarer chapter index banner

Original Works Night

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. Revelation 14:3 (NIV)

One of the cooler things my local church does is a semi-annual event called Original Works Night (O.W.N.). The idea is rather simple. Creative types are encouraged to bring their original songs, dance, poems, scripts, paintings, photographs and etc. Our church’s auditorium is transformed into a relaxing coffeehouse atmosphere complete with free food and drink. People gather and for a couple of hours to take in the artistic expressions.

O.W.N. happened to be this past Saturday night. While the artists were all over the map in terms of their own personal faith journeys, there were two themes that emerged. First, there those who, upon placing their faith in Jesus and experiencing salvation, felt compelled to write songs to express their gratitude and wonder. Second, like many of the psalms we’ve read together in recent months, there was a lot of creative expression that came out of pain.

Earlier in John’s vision, we encountered angels and creatures who continually utter the same praise over and over and over again. I found it fascinating that in today’s chapter there is a new song brought into heaven’s throne room. As it happens, it is sung only by those 144,000 who had experienced the pain of the great tribulation and were saved from it by the blood of the Lamb.

I am jazzed by being made in the likeness of the Creator of all things. I love to see and hear the creation of others as they express themselves, their thoughts, emotions, and experiences in artistic ways. I love that in a vision of the end times, we find Creator God in heaven’s throne room having His very own Original Works Night.

Enhanced by Zemanta

“There Are No Wrong Notes”

When teaching my course on creativity I have discovered an almost universal truth: My students all have an intense desire to create and express themselves through their chosen art medium(s) but they almost all don’t do it. As we journey through the course we attempt to excavate the reasons for their artistic timidity, and without fail I discover that most are plagued fear.

  • Fear of doing it wrong
  • Fear of not being good enough
  • Fear of failing at it
  • Fear of what’s deep inside of me, fear it might come out
  • Fear of looking silly
  • Fear of what my parents would say
  • Fear of what my friends might think
  • Fear that it will be bad
Circle in the Round
Circle in the Round (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout the course, as I talk about expressing yourself creatively or artistically, I incessantly quote jazz great Miles Davis:

“There are no wrong notes.”

I was reminded of this yesterday in a Wall Street Journal interview I read with another jazz great, Herbie Hancock, who recently gave a lecture about the wisdom of Miles Davis at Harvard:

Mr. Hancock recounted, for example, one extraordinary moment in Stockholm in 1967, during a performance by the [Miles Davis] quintet. “This night was magical,” he remembered. “We were communicating almost telepathically, playing ‘So What'”—one of the group’s signature pieces. “Wayne [Shorter] had taken his solo. Miles was playing and building and building, and then I played the wrong chord. It was so, so wrong. In an instant, time stood still and I felt totally shattered. Miles took a breath. And then he played this phrase that made my chord right. It didn’t seem possible. I still don’t know how he did it. But Miles hadn’t heard it as a wrong chord—he took it as an unexpected chord. He didn’t judge what I played. To use a Buddhist turn of phrase, he turned poison into medicine.”

Wendy and I talked about this story over breakfast and she reminded me that Davis was simply applying to music a concept that she and I know well from the stage. It’s the concept of “Yes And.” Like a song, a stage performance is usually meticulously orchestrated. Lines and movement are carefully prescribed to deliver the intended effect to the audience. Sometimes, however, something happens on stage which you didn’t expect:

In the moment of performance when you stand on that stage with the audience watching  you can’t stop the performance to shout “No, but wait! That’s wrong. Let’s go back and try it again.” When the unexpected happens, actors are taught to say “Yes, and I’ll go along with it. I will respond to what just happened so as to make it work into the scene. The concept of “Yes And” is particularly critical for actors who learn improvisational theatre in which there is no script or blocking to follow. You must say “Yes And” to whatever the other person on stage is doing and respond.

When Herbie Hancock played the “wrong” chord Miles Davis said “Yes, and I’m going to change the notes I’m playing to envelope that chord and redeem it. I’m going to make it right. There are no wrong notes.”

I have learned that the concept  of “Yes And” goes much deeper than jazz and stage. God, the master artist and Creator, has exemplified “Yes And” in my entire life journey. When I have totally screwed up time and time again God has responded with “Yes, and I’m going to let you learn the hard lessons that come from your choices.” When I have wandered from the path into dark places God has responded with “Yes, and I’m going to ultimately use your experiences to teach you wisdom.” When I make foolish choices God has responded “Yes, and you will find maturity in the dissonance your decisions create.”

“Yes And” applies to the art of daily life. When the fourteen year old says, out of the blue, “I want to go to Thailand next summer” I don’t say “No!” I say, “Yes, and I’m going to help you figure out if you’re really supposed to go.” When friends, spouses, children, or co-workers do the unexpected, there is wisdom in learning to say “Yes, and I’m going to give up my misguided notion that I can somehow control you, make you do my will, or know God’s prescribed path for your life.”

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. Obviously, parents have responsibility to teach our young children well and to protect them with appropriate rules and boundaries. Relationships, like the flow of music or the blocking of a scene, require a give and take between those involved. I have found, however, that when it comes to relationships we are often tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit. We are deceived into thinking that we are the god of our children, our spouses, our friends, and our co-workers.

  • “No, but I AM the only one who knows what’s best for  her.”
  • “No, but I AM the one who will choose the path for him.”
  • “No, but I AM the one who has judged correctly.”
  • “No, but I AM to be obeyed.”
  • “No, but I AM right.”

I love Herbie Hancock’s story and the wisdom of Miles Davis. When we are raised and enmeshed in the rigidity of a black and white “No But” world we quickly learn to stuff the creative impulses that Creator God knit into our souls when He sculpted us in His own image. We learn to fear the “No, but” which we have been taught will inevitably follow when we play “wrong” notes, paint the “wrong” way, draw outside the lines, or miss an entrance.

When I was younger I thought that the sad result of the Garden of Eden was that we all choose to do “wrong” and “bad” things. The further I get in the journey, the more I’ve come to realize that the true tragedy of The Fall is not the bad things that we do, but our failure to fully realize all that is good and pure and powerful and possible as children of the Creator who said “Yes and let us make man and woman in our image, in our likeness.”

Enhanced by Zemanta