Lessons in Creativity from a Brazilian Jazz Master, Part I

Creativity is not a gift from the Gods; it is a reward we must earn.”
Frank Peter, Pianist and creator of the web site, Piano-ology

Eliane Elias at piano w. red glovesLast March, my wife and I heard the Eliane Elias Trio at the Outpost Performance Space here in Albuquerque. The Outpost is one of the jewels of Albuquerque’s music scene, and is itself an example of consistent innovation through its support for jazz, roots & world music, youth performance, and other exploratory musical forms. This was the second time we had heard Ms. Elias, a gifted pianist and vocalist, and it was even better than the first: a unique blending of Brazilian and American jazz traditions, performed with uncompromising musicianship, emotional intimacy, risk, joy, and nearly telepathic communication among the musicians. Drummer Rafael Barata moved effortlessly between the complex rhythms and emotional nuances of Brazilian music and the swing and improvisation of North American jazz. Marc Johnson reached beyond the bassist’s usual role of grounding a song’s harmony to conduct extended conversations with the piano and drums. He also produced one of the most gorgeous bass sounds I have ever heard. The concert left us with a feeling of joy that lasted for days, but in the weeks following the performance, as the visceral experience settled into something more reflective, I was taken with another dimension of Ms. Elias’ work. Like so many great performers, she is an example of what it takes to be consistently creative, whether in art, engineering, business, or simply in realizing the limitless potential for discovery inherent in our daily lives.

I was trained as a computer scientist, and spent most of my professional life in interaction design, user interface design, and other fields where – like Ms. Elias and other performing artists – I was required to be creative on a daily basis. I am also an amateur guitarist, and have had the privilege of playing with more experienced, talented musicians. These experiences have de-mystified the creative process. I have come to recognize that creativity is not the product of divine inspiration, God-given talent, or the turbulence of an artistic soul, but is the result of consistent, focused effort and specific, learnable skills. Essentially, creativity is a job.

Although certain people are blessed with unique talents (Ms. Elias was recognized as musically gifted at a very young age), I believe that any one of us can become consistently creative in our chosen disciplines if we work hard at the right practices. Perhaps only a few of us can achieve genius, but we all can experience the thrill of creating something beautiful, true, and uniquely our own, and we all can enjoy the rewards of innovating in business, career, or education.

Perhaps it is the familiarity that comes with a daily routine, the tendency of long practice to reduce complex acts to habit, but reflecting on Ms. Elias’ example has helped me to see many of my own creative practices in a new light. A unique aspect of jazz – and one of the reasons I love it – is that jazz is improvisational. The recordings and live performances of a jazz artist are more than the end products of study and preparation. They document the creative process itself: the risks, explorations, detours, successes, near misses, and moments when it all comes together in something strange, inevitable, and exhilarating. This essay is an effort to share those creative practices that I have relied upon in my own design work, and re-discovered through the example of Ms. Elias’s performance and career. (If you are not familiar with her music, you have something to look forward to. Visit her web site, purchase a few of her CDs, or best of all, and if possible, treat yourself to one of her concerts.)

Lesson #1: Specialize. We tend to think of creativity as an attribute in and of itself, as in “she is such a creative person,” or, in a truly dreadful turn of phrase, “he is an out of the box thinker.” In my college psychology class, we spent a day on creativity exercises, as if the way we connected dots or arranged toothpicks in various puzzles actually meant something. Although there are general attributes that creative people share (that’s what this essay is about), putting them into practice requires a specific focus. It is easy to talk about innovation in the abstract, in isolation from the problems faced daily by musicians, writers, engineers, designers, and other creative people. It is easy, but ultimately unproductive. My goal is to experience the joy of creativity in my writing, my music, and my life.

Benefiting from the ideas listed below, such as the importance of mastering the technical dimension and history of your discipline, requires putting them into practice. Every discipline  has a unique structure, a unique set of problems, unique media for expressing our ideas. Although theories of creativity can help us to find our way within a discipline, it is the discipline itself that provides the materials of invention.

Eliane Elias started playing the piano at age seven. She transcribed solos by jazz masters when she was twelve, played professionally at seventeen, and has devoted her life to music. Her creativity grows from the deep understanding of harmony, rhythm, technique, improvisation, and musical expression that is unique to working musicians. In my own career, I was in my forties and had decades of experience before I did my best work. When I led design teams, I did not coach them on creativity, but pushed them to focus on the specific problems of bending technology to our customers’ needs. Innovation invariably followed.

It is in the effort to master our chosen specialty that we find the greatest creative freedom.

Lesson #2: Master the technical.

Donald Schön has called design a “reflective conversation with materials.” I believe this applies to creativity in general. The conversation he speaks about is an iterative process of trying to express our ideas using the materials at hand, discovering the problems and opportunities that arise in this effort, and changing our thinking in response. The possibilities and limitations of our materials challenge our preconceptions and drive us into the explorations that foster invention. It makes no difference whether these are physical materials like wood, clay, paint, or metal, more abstract materials like computer code, or harmony, melody, rhythm, and the expressive abilities of a musical instrument.

The greatest frustrations of my engineering career came from people who had superficially interesting ideas, but did not understand their technical implications. This usually meant that their idea had been tried already, was not feasible given the available funding or technology, or that it solved some toy problem that had little to do with people’s real needs. Interesting ideas are fairly easy to come by; interesting ideas that can actually be turned into useful, engaging products are rare.

Returning to the example of Ms. Elias career, much of her creativity has grown from her mastery of both North American and Brazilian musical styles. The harmonic ideas underlying jazz music carry limitless possibility for musical expression. Brazilian rhythms and expressive idioms are among the most complex and subtle there are. This complexity is what drives musicians to explore new harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic forms, but unlocking these ideas requires strong technique. A master musician, Ms. Elias can play just about anything she can imagine; in turn, this potential found in these technical possibilities is what feeds her imagination.

She achieved this mastery through hard work. Not only did she start her studies at the age of seven, and attended one of Brazil’s finest conservatories, but also when she moved to New York to pursue her career, she continued to study technique with a Julliard professor. Although some of the best musicians of the last sixty years have tried to combine North American jazz with the rich rhythmic and expressive forms of Brazilian music, most are more comfortable with one over the other. Few can match Ms. Elias in moving effortlessly between these traditions and in developing the possibilities that lie at their intersection.

Lesson #3: Understand the past. Most creative people I know are fluent in the history of their discipline. This is not simply a matter of knowing what has been done so they can build on the best and avoid past mistakes. It is important to understand the larger trajectories of a discipline: how the past has shaped the present, and how both determine the possibilities of the future. Although we think of Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus as challenging traditional forms of jazz, all of them had either worked with Duke Ellington or performed his music extensively. This is not coincidence: the seeds of be-bop and later styles all can be found in Duke’s musical conception; you cannot ignore it without the risk of becoming trivial or irrelevant.

In my own career, I have found that many of computing’s “new ideas” such as adaptive systems, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, hypertext, and graphics user interfaces have their roots in the thinking of pioneers such as John Von Neumann, Alan Turing, Vannevar Bush, Alan Kay, and Douglas Englebart. Understanding these roots has given me a deeper understanding of “new” developments in my field, one that has helped me to absorb these ideas and understand their implications for software design. Although we would like to believe that creative people produce wonderful ideas from nothing, the best creative work is a careful extension of all that has gone before.

Elias and Bill EvansMs Elias has not only mastered her instrument, but also is a deep student of all forms of music. She has studied the music of Bill Evans, the great jazz pianist of the mid 20th century, and recorded an album of his compositions. She has reached even farther into musical history, recording compositions by Bach, Chopin, Villa Lobos and other classical composers. She has become one of the finest contemporary interpreters of Antonio Carlos Jobim, recording several albums of his music. Her most recent work not only builds on this heritage, but also incorporates more contemporary material from musicians like Stevie Wonder and the Doors. Each of these conversations with the past has resulted in something unique, compelling, and creative.

As Winston Churchill once said, “The more distant we look into the past, the farther we can see into the future.”

Lesson #4: Work on real problems. These first three ideas lead to the central theme of Part I of this essay: the importance of focusing on “real” problems. It is perhaps easier to define a real problem in engineering than in art: In engineering and design, a real problem is one that actually matters to people in their work or daily lives.

The importance of these real problems is that they force us to move away from the familiar, away from problems we know how to solve, away from well understood technologies and comfortable situations into novel contexts that force us to think differently. When I finished my work in graduate school and went to work at Sandia Laboratories, I was given a job developing software tools for mechanical designers and manufacturing engineers. This was very different from my graduate research, which focused on logical problems in Artificial Intelligence. Unlike logic, mechanical design must deal with the limits and variability of real materials and manufacturing processes: raw materials seldom match their specifications exactly, machines start to move out of calibration and tools start to wear as soon as they are used. Even changes in temperature, humidity, pollution, and other climatic factors can affect manufacturing. This was not the neat logical world I was used to as a computer scientist, but it was in developing tools for mechanical design and manufacturing that I did my most creative work. The problems that were forced upon me by these realities led me to discover techniques and solutions I could not have imagined if had remained within the comfort of my own interests.

Real problems keep us honest. We can easily fool ourselves into thinking we are some kind of creative genius, but we cannot fool a hard-nosed manufacturing engineer whose production line has started to behave in unexplainable ways. The other benefit of solving real problems is that it encourages our customers to give us more real problems. This may not be a comfortable cycle, and it does encourage creativity and growth.

This is underscored by the example of Ms. Elias’ career. North American and Brazilian jazz are musical forms that have been developed for over a century. Both have produced the kind of music that makes people dance, celebrate, grieve, relax, fall in love, and dream. By working in these two traditions, Ms. Elias inherits more than a rich set of musical problems that will lead to interesting music. She also can be confident that her solutions to these problems will engage her listeners. Some of the “real” problems she has solved include combining her vocal and piano styles into a unified, expressive idiom; integrating ideas from bebop and similar styles with Brazilian rhythms; and adapting her musical ideas to solo playing, trios, larger jazz combos, and big bands. A particularly interesting aspect of her trio playing is a rethinking of the rhythmic roles of piano, bass, and drums in which the pianist takes a stronger responsibility for maintaining the rhythmic pulse with her left hand, freeing the bass, drums, and her own right hand playing to explore improvisational ideas. What is most important is that, because of the rich emotional resonance of these musical traditions, these are not just academic musical exercises. As everyone who heard her play will agree, they produce music that is both uniquely creative, and that produces a profound experience of joy.

 

Wallace Stevens, the great American poet, once said, “the imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” In a sense, that has been a theme of this essay so far. The ideas of specialization, and mastery of the technique and history of our disciplines foster creativity precisely because they force our imaginations to adhere to what is real. Conventional wisdom often holds that the constraints of technique, history, customers, audiences, and other aspects of a discipline are the enemies of creativity. Stevens’ aphorism, my own experience, and Ms. Elias’ remarkable body of work tell a much different story, that the truest route to invention is through the mastery of a rich discipline and the traditions that have shaped it, and the effort to apply that mastery to the problems and desires of real people.

This essay has grown beyond my original intentions, and since these four lessons are so closely related, it is a good place to pause. Whereas this posting has dealt primarily with the grounding of creativity in mastery of a discipline’s technique and history, Part 2 of this essay will look at the process of creativity, including the importance of looking at problems from multiple perspectives, working with the best people we can find, embracing the risks that come with creative work, and the essential role of joy in all our endeavors. And of course, it will continue to draw on the example of Eliane Elias, her music, her bands, and her remarkable career.

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