What Jazz Taught Me About Creativity, Writing, and Life

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Paul Martin. Paul is a youth pastor in Alabama, a creative, and one of my new favorite people.

I learned more about creativity in college than in any time since. As a Jazz major, there was an implied sense of creativity expected among the Jazz community. I studied with Robert “Bob” Richardson, who turned out to be a modern day Mr Miyagi.

You remember Mr. Miyagi — from The Karate Kid movies with Ralph Macchio — right? Well, Bob was like that. He tricked me into learning without my realizing it.

Man playing jazz music on guitar
Photo credit: Giacomo Rafaelli

My first lessons were filled with seemingly pointless exercises that bored me to tears. Literally, I cried late one night in the practice rooms wondering if I would ever be able to learn to play Jazz.

One day I walked into Bob’s little office studio, and he put a chart in front of me. He never said word. He just put the music in front of me, walked to the other piano in the room and started playing.

Now Bob was short, so when he looked over the piano with eyes intent on me, I knew he was waiting for me to play. So I did. I mean, I really played Jazz. It wasn’t Nat Cole or Wes Montgomery, but it was Jazz.

For the first time in my life, I could play Jazz, and it all happened because I was tricked into it.

Bob died seven months later. I was crushed to have lost my new found teacher so soon after discovering him. It was an awful time. The school was canceling the Jazz major. I was going to have to move or change to some other music major. I was having to make some life-altering decisions quickly. In all of that craziness, I started studying with another teacher, realizing all the things I had learned from Bob without knowing it.

Creativity is self-limiting

Most people think creativity is about freedom. Freedom paralyzes. Too much freedom in Jazz, provided too many options, too many variables, too many solutions. I would start to solo, but if I was thinking about too many ideas, I would freeze.

So, I learned to self-limit my freedom. Instead of a whole key signature or scale, I would limit myself to just three notes.

That limitation actually spawned amazing creativity, because it centered on rhythms and three notes instead of so many other variables. I was freed by my own self-imposed limits.

Creativity thrives in safety

By the time I actually played that first tune with Bob, he had heard me play some awful music. He never said a negative word about anyone. Never.

So, when it came time to play in front Bob, I wasn’t nervous. I knew he would hear what I was doing and have some great ideas to help me. That safety allowed me to try new licks and riffs without feeling bad about them.

Often, an artist censors themselves for no other reason than safety. This kills creativity more than cancer. To be creative and enjoy freedom, I need to feel safe.

Creativity is simple

When I was learning with Bob, doing those exercises I thought so pointless, what I really learned was simplicity.

Very few people can think about all the notes in each chord and the variables that go along with them. Add to that the countless variations with substitutions, and Jazz gets too complex for the human brain to process.

Bob always simplified Jazz. He taught the most basic progressions and built off of them. My first “pointless lesson” with Bob was the ii-V-I chord progression. Bob had me play them over and over and over until I had them mastered in every key.

After learning these, there was never a time when I didn’t hear them as one unit instead of three chords. It simplified my thinking and reduced three variables into one.

Often, I wouldn’t even think of chords while I played. Instead, I was thinking about tonal centers and what sounds I wanted to hear.

Life lessons from Jazz

I learned a lot in about seven months of studying Jazz. The most creative tools I learned then I still use today, even though I don’t get to play Jazz that often:

  • When I write, I need to limit myself, find a safe place and keep it simple.
  • When I speak, I use the same techniques.

Now, whenever I look back on these Jazz lessons, I am reminded that Bob taught me so much more than Jazz.

Here, I impose my own perspective over what happened. Bob discipled me. He saw me as someone wanting to learn, and, after discovering some of my gifts, invested himself in me through a series of lessons that changed me forever.

Teaching a creative means giving them structure that frees them to be more creative. So, what I really learned, though taught implicitly, was to disciple people in a way that made them more like themselves.

Thanks, Bob! I will never forget your lesson.

What have you learned about creativity from jazz (or other unlikely places)? Share in the comments.