The Creative Secret of Jazz Musicians

Jazz legends like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker are known for their stunning solos, which appear to be individual acts of artistry. The Picassos of their craft, we envision the creative process to be a lonely one. Yet even the greatest jazz musicians develop their ideas in a collaborative process, co-creating their works of art with their musical colleagues.

Having studied and performed jazz for over 40 years, I can tell you that this inventive sport is more akin to a conversation than a soliloquy. It begins with a loose structure of chords and scales, rhythms and harmonies that are widely open to interpretation. When it comes time to improvise, solos emerge as the fusion of the performer’s own ideas combine with inspiration from others.

Imagine a pianist playfully exploring a novel rhythmic expression and he tickles the ivories. Hearing the idea, the bass player takes the idea, modifies it a bit, and adds it into her groove. Next, the drummer borrows the phrase while building on it further with his own expressive vibe. Finally, the sax player rips an arresting solo, taking the initial idea one step further by adding in her own interpretation. The crowd goes wild, but who’s idea was it?

Jazz cats know that the best creativity is generated through the back-and-forth exchange of ideas. A simple phrase builds into complex mastery as it is passed from one artist to the next in a musical game of telephone whereby the message is enriched rather than hampered with each handoff. One idea morphs into another, culminating in musical flourishes that appear otherworldly.

The takeaway for those without a trumpet or guitar is that our creative quality is directly correlated to the inputs we ingest. Locked away in a windowless room, your work product is likely to be as bland as your surroundings. It’s only when we open ourselves to receive inspiration from others that we create our most inspired work. When we surround ourselves with other creative people – especially diverse minds playing their own proverbial instruments – our creative outputs become transcendent.

Saxophonist John Coltrane made Dizzy Gillespie a better trumpet player, just as bassist Charles Mingus boosted the piano mastery of Thelonious Monk. Similarly, creative collaboration is our best path to pushing our own imagination to new heights in order to innovate at our best. Simply put, your solos will improve when you fully embrace the input of others.