What does “creative” in “creative music” or “creative musicians” mean? This question being just as much about creativity in music itself, naturally, than about the understanding, based on their experiences as improvisers, and on their works on open or extended compositions as well, they develop of what creativity means in art and in life.
Ramon Lopez: I see life and art in the same way. There is a time for everything. When you start playing jazz – and the full range of preoccupations that associated with it – you can choose whatever pleases you the most. The more you practice, the stronger you feel the sensation of freedom, exchange and sharing. It is time that takes us there – I speak from my own experience in the field of plastic arts – as you progress, as you play, as you multiply experiences, you end up having a better understanding of what you feel, how to create, and how to improvise. How to respect one another, and give the other a voice, how you find inspiration in what they have to give. Improvisation becomes life. We just met this morning and have spent the day together as if we had known each other for a long time… We don’t prepare, we are simply there. Improvisation has become a way of communicating amongst musicians.
Harrison Bankhead: When I was a child, I started to play with a rubber band, using it as a string. As children we’re so uninhibited, we’re so creative, we’re so open… Then we get to learn all the technical skills. I feel personally that there is a collective consciousness in creativity. Sometimes we feel like “this is my brain, this is my life”. But, at least in my opinion, our brain is like the brain of humanity. Each one of us is the world in the way you express yourself, the way we listen. As musicians initially we started all playing by hear. I started playing with other young children like myself. You really can’t express yourself by yourself. You can practice in isolation but you can’t express yourself. You always need to relate to other people, to feel other people. It’s like the birds in the sky. You wake up in the morning, you hear these birds. They relate one to another. It’s never the same thing. Every morning is different. If you listen really carefully you can hear the traffic, you can hear the sound of of nature. It’s not written or anything. It’s not atonal either. Like now, do you hear that huh? You may play a note below, or play a note above (He sings a note). I just started playing as a kid. My father died when I was seven. My mother just let me do it as a child. I learned how to play records. I couldn’t read the sleeves because I was too young so there was a color relationship with the vinyls. My mother let me play the records: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin… until my father came home one day and he got mad. He had spent a lot of money on this stereo. So he came home one day early and caught me playing his records. Because he didn’t want me to break the stereo! I think we all listen to each other, collectively. No set person has a handle on being creative. It’s hard to be creative by yourself. It’s like having a conversation without other people. If you talk to yourself and answer yourself, they say you’re crazy.
Hamid Drake: I think we come into with a gift of creativity, because the most creative thing we ever experience is probably birth itself. Both for the being that is born and for the mother who is giving birth. There isn’t good or bad creativity – only creativity. Asking how one can develop their creativity is a trick question, because it’s almost like asking how one can develop life. Because everything, in nature and in life, is gifted in some way with this process that we call creativity. From the mineral world, to aquatic life forms, to all different types of insects. If you look how they live their life, it’s quite amazing. And then, there are all the microbes we can’t see with the naked eyes, not without those high-powered microscopes. When it comes to music or any creative art form, that might be a very special process, even if music is something natural to our life as human being, it’s also kind of a luxury. As I was growing up, in order for me to pursue music, it took a certain form of sacrifice on the part of my parents. They didn’t have a lot of money but they offered me a drum kit so I could learn. They had to do certain things that might have been out of their normal everyday life, in order for me to have the luxury to pursue music. They have to be very creative in figuring how to do that because there were still all the bills off to pay… I like the Chinese martial arts. In order to do those arts, the first thing you have to develop in a creative process is confidence in yourself and trust in our own self. Let alone having confidence and trust in someone else. You learn to feel your body, you learn to relax, which is very difficult to do. (Laughs). And learning how to relax is very creative. You are trying to let go all the tensions you might carry; you try to still your mind. You have to learn some very creative tools or even tricks or gimmicks to convince your mind to become still. To enter an attitude where you can now focus on the movement. After a while of doing that you realize “I’ve learned some tools which can help me being creative with myself”. I agree with what Harrison said about talking to yourself is said you’re crazy. But I consider that what we call insanity is a form of creativity. I don’t think we completely know about creativity, because while it might have certain ground rules, they’re always changing, because our life is always changing. Doing things spontaneously is very difficult to do. I also agree with what brother Ramon said that in this process there are things we develop as we go along. The idea of listening, trusting, a certain type of letting go, being willing to take a chance to step forward and not be so concerned about what the consequence might be. A wise was asked the question: “What is the best way to serve other human being?” And he said: “You should serve other beings while not expecting anything from your action”. When we do this music together, I have to be in a certain mental place where if I do something, I can’t expect Harrison to respond to me in a way I think he should respond to me. Because I’m not them and they are not me, they live in their own world. We have all these orbiting worlds and sometimes they cross. Being creative is like living. I think there are five, six different answers to that question. Creativity is a very evolved and simple process.
Benjamin Duboc: If we talk about creativity and how it relates to life, it begins before birth. Our first moments of ecstasy happen in our intrauterine period. I’ve spent my life trying to experience this ecstasy again. There are different paths: love, drugs, music… I try to use music the best I can. I play the double bass, but my earliest memory of instruments and sounds was the first time I banged on drums that my father used to play along with the trumpet. This moment created within me an extremely revealing mental image. I still remember those first moments of sonic expression. It is extraordinary: I never experienced this expressive power since and I have never felt such a strong connection between the outside and my inner world… Day after day, I ask myself: why am I making music? It is not a given. In terms of creative music, I do not know if there exists non-creative music. For me, music is what gives me a strong connection between the inside and outside. We play, and spend a lifetime – which I enjoy – meeting musicians, other artists, and to share moments of life. Obviously, we need to experience some autonomy from one another. It is difficult to speak with a musician with whom we would not feel autonomy. It’s like talking to someone who always says yes…
Improvisation, especially the kind of improvisation that you practice, is often thought of as a space of freedom, hence the labels “free jazz” and “free improvisation”. Yet we know that this freedom is never complete or absolute. How do you conceive of your practices of freedom in contexts of improvisation? And how do you conceive of the relation between individual freedom and responsibility to the group?
Benjamin Duboc: I do not believe in this kind of freedom at all. With my father, I started playing New Orleans style, some bebop. I entered the world of music through family. I’ve always had the need to push the boundaries that defined this context. By pushing these limits, I started playing free jazz, music with constraints that I thought looser. But this is something that I no longer believe in. The constraints are not looser, they are different. Our goal is to make our way through this forest of constraints. In improvised music, there are social constraints, the constraints of our culture, our instruments, what one hears, the physical, the existing global musical material, etc. The term “absolute” has to do with these limits that place us in a human context. The absolute term refers to what is relative to nothing. As human beings, we can only think in a closed setting. We are unable to go beyond the human frame of perception. We have ideas of infinity, but they are only human thoughts.
Ramon Lopez: In my family, nobody played music. I am self-taught. I just had a drum shock to my brain when I was a dozen years old, some forty years ago. No reflection or family history, something just happened diretly. I see a relationship between free jazz and the instrument. Drums were born with the century of jazz. Perhaps I would have a different perspective if I were playing the harpsichord which has a totally different story. With the drums, I am necessarily connected to the history of jazz and free jazz – a time in the history of jazz. At some point, people started to do things differently and find new things around form, rhythms and sounds. This is an incredible revolution. I have no words to describe what I felt when I heard the great musicians of free jazz. Life made sense. Freedom is never complete or absolute. “Absolute” is not a term that suits jazz, improvisation, and creativity. As for the relationship between individual freedom and collective responsibility, I must say that I never listen to myself playing. I hear listen to my three comrades who are in the process of creating music with me. I do not know what I play but I know and feel what they play . There is only group responsability.
Harrison Bankhead: I really don’t know what it is to be free. I don’t know if I can tell you how to be free. For the inside and the outside are always connected. There’s no separate thing. And thought, over the millennium, has become so mechanical; our thought process in itself is mechanical. But it’s not something that I’m teaching you. It is something that we must investigate together. Can you really be free from within? Now, in music, we relate to each other with notes and stuff. With music itself, in my opinion – and we always need opinions, not conclusions, because with conclusions we are not free anymore. There’s no freedom in conclusion, because it’s already set. But I don’t know if “freedom” is the right word for this whole thing. I’m not really sure. But thought, we need thought, because we need the technology. We need thought to go from one place to another but actually this is what I’m asking, I’m not telling: Can thought be a part of a real creativity? And what is thought? How did thought come about? Its experiences that we have go to our subconscious, its conclusion that we have is all the fear in the soul, the happiness, all these things that we have cumulated over millennium. All the religious dogmas we have developed, all the beliefs system… I mean, I have asked you “is this something that you can really be free of?” Or is there something beyond that? Is there such thing as really being quiet? I feel that creativity is something that can be pursued, that comes to you in its clarity. It’s like truth, I fell the truth is not something that can be pursued; it’s something that appears. And that’s the only thing I have… We relate to each other, sonically. Free jazz has been defined by our forefathers; it’s something outside of chord changes, outside the standard chord changes, outside the standard harmony. It’s expressed how we’ve been taught tradition. That’s another thing because tradition has been developed over so long. People have told us how to be traditional. This is the way to play, even from childhood this is the way we should do. So I think that it’s a different way of relating to chord structures, to rhythm. I found in myself that when I started to study chi gong, I realized how bound up I was, how I was trying to meet force with force instead of letting force be what it is but to have a different relationship with force. I think that through chi gong I’ve learn how to manipulate, if that’s the right word, force or to let force be, let things be what’s gonna be and maybe use somebody else’s intelligence. Now I had a past experience in the Poznan festival in Poland. I was faced with music that was so difficult. What I ended up doing was to use somebody else’s intelligence (laugh). I had to humble myself to the point in order to use a person’s intelligence who I knew had a photographic memory or I know that he can use, he can obtain just volumes of information and I had to humble myself in order to use this individual’s expertise and yet be relaxed enough where I can do it. If I was so set my ways to say “this is going to be my way” and you start getting very mechanical, you start imposing yourself on this, it becomes a forceful thing, it doesn’t flow like water. I’m kind jumping around but even if you have water that have obstacles, if you see a stream and there’s this big boat over there and instead of trying to crash through that boat water has the tendency to go around this boat and there’s a flow, that intelligence, without thought being involved, that water has a way it flows. And that’s just a little tape. I’m not sure within myself being mechanical and I don’t feel that my thought is my thought. I have some of my insecurity, some of my anxieties, my happiness, my belief system… It’s all part of everybody and everybody in this room has this same thing when it comes inside. And everything without, all the books, the libraries and society is a product of how we feel inside. Everything that structured outside is the result of how we are inside, as human. That has been developed over thousands and thousands and thousands years. And it’s very difficult to be free of them, in my opinion.
If creativity comes from your birth, how does it affect your art? A child’s creativity has a certain part of innocence to it, how do you reach this innocence?
Hamid Drake: Some of what Harrison said would answer your question because he was speaking of this process of letting go and how we keep bumping into these different things in our life. It’s like when we’re in relationship with someone and then we breakup. We have known maybe for a long time that this relationship wasn’t really going to last much longer, but we had this fear about ending the relationship itself. Then something dramatic or catastrophic might happen in our life, which brings us face to face with the reality we’re dealing with. This has to end maybe for my, and the other person’s, well-being. I think that life itself kind of forces those things upon us but the question is “how much in tune are we listening and seeing what’s really going on around us?” I feel that’s something that naturally happen on its own if our eyes are open and if we allow ourselves to submit to that process of change because it’s really going to happen anyway.
Michael Dawson: You were talking before about the passing of Amiri Baraka, the fabulous play writer and poet. He started off, to some degree, as a beat poet in the Village and in San Francisco. As there was racial tension in the United States in the 1960’s, he used that creative tension of what he thought and felt, he used the obstacle he saw to have a creative vision of something different. He used this big boat in the water as a source of creativity. So it wasn’t innocence. It was a vision of something new or he wanted to live differently, that fits his art, his creativity and of course it creates quiet controversies also, that were profound as well
Ramon Lopez: The innocence of childhood is amazing but there is one important thing: you have to be in tune with who you really are. I am 52 years old. I am of Spanish origin. I arrived in France thirty years go. You should play what you are, when you play. For music to work, it must not mislead or lie to others.
Benjamin Duboc: To be what we are, we must accept our share of childhood. An adult is also a child who has memorized his experience. We retais a part of our childhood. Then we exchange a moment in improvisation. What pleases us is the fact that we are able to exchange. This is a very political exchange: we create micro-societies in which we voluntarily play and exchange using sound, which has a far more poetic scope than just words. Politics is this question: How do we live together? There is a fairly clear awareness that we are very different human beings, each an individual. I cannot bear the critics of individualism; the acceptance of the individual is the basis of everything.
Harrison Bankhead: It’s so much fun! It is so much fun to be in front of people and to see them having a great time. They come to the show and they want to take a load off. It’s just so much fun. You wake up in the morning and you want to touch your instrument. For me, it’s so much joy that it drives my playing. It’s a truly enjoyment. I worked a job, which I’m thankful I did, for 37 years but this music thing for me is just… I just have a ball from doing this and a lot of times I really don’t mind what people like, I think they like this. (he sings). You got this reaction… To me it’s just fun. When I was younger, people were dancing, my mother used to tell me: “you’re all losing the people’s step when you’re been playing (laughs)”. So I started looking at the steps, when people are dancing. It’s just fun. Personally, I won’t be doing if… you see musicians up on stage and you are smiling at each other. You get to that point where you can forget about everything, you’re just having fun. People are grinning. You look at the audience and they see you having fun so they’re having fun. And for me that’s the whole thing. I just have a ball doing all that. That’s the bottom line.