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David Liebman /Jim Ridl: The Creative Process in Jazz

By Published: February 25, 2008
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The Individual and Collective Unconscious: Freud Versus Jung

AAJ: Dave, you have an interesting idea that you've stated in different ways, namely that creativity evolves over time. For example, modern abstract art is so very different from what realist painters did. Yet there are continuities as well. Now let's look at the depth psychological angle. Freud and Jung had two different theories of creativity and the arts. Freud held that creativity was a higher expression or sublimation of the basic instincts, say hunger and sex. Civilization, he said, causes us to channel our instincts for social and artistic purposes. For example, Freud attributed some of Leonardo DaVinci's work to his being a latent homosexual. He had another theory that art is the expression of an unconscious wish to give birth, have a baby.

DL: Primal stuff.

AAJ: Primal stuff—birth, hunger, sexuality. Jung felt that creativity comes from the racial unconscious.

DL: Archetypes.

AAJ: Yes. So that there are inherent symbols and forms from our ancestry that are innately present in our unconscious and that when we tap into them, we become creative.

DL: Would that be in the DNA?

AAJ: Yes, Jung would say that somewhere in the DNA is the archetype—not in a specific gene necessarily, but somewhere in the double helix, in the chemical structure. But the key point here is that for Freud, the creative process stems from gut level instincts and personal conflicts, while for Jung, the inspiration comes from an inner source that represents collective experience across many generations of humans on the planet, and even perhaps going back to our animal inheritance.

DL: So for Jung, our need to be creative is based on our need to acknowledge the past?

David LiebmanAAJ: For Jung, it's the need to be whole, to be complete, that makes us creative. We want to get in touch with our unconscious. It's integrative.

DL: For Freud, it was more temporal, based on personal history.

AAJ: More Darwinian perhaps as well---it's about survival, wanting to be fed, nurtured, procreate, reach orgasm, etc. So, I don't know if it's a fair question to ask musicians as opposed to scientists, but do you have some intuitive feeling about whether Freud or Jung speak more to your own creative process?

DL: Well, I can only tell you about an experience I had. I always felt that my attraction to the soprano saxophone in particular comes from the fact that it's a straight horn, and that somewhere in my past lives—whether figuratively or literally—that I once lived somewhere in deep heat and sunlight and sand in a desert environment. At one time, in the late seventies, I went to the Psychic Institute in Berkeley, California. I asked them, "Do you see anything in my aura that has to do with music?" They said, "You are in white robes, people are in a circle dancing, you are in blazing sun, you have something in your hand, and it's definitely white all around."

It later turned out that, just last March, I went to the Sahara Desert in Mauritania, as a treat for my sixtieth birthday with two friends. I tell you man, I felt home! As I developed my intense interest in the soprano saxophone, I wondered, why that instrument? That straight horn, and playing in that Middle Eastern vibe, it's Bedouin or Arab or something.

So to answer your question, I feel that both Jung and Freud are right, I know that Jung's Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (Vintage, 1961) is an important book in my life. I feel strongly that the artist has a responsibility to look back. To get back to the roots. On the other hand, there's no question that the need to play is based, say, on a difficult childhood. In my case I had a bad leg from polio. This is human—and Freud is saying that the human need to deal with frustration is there. But part of what the artist is responsible for is to dig out the archetypes and make them apparent to the world.

AAJ: The personal unconscious comes from childhood, and the collective unconscious comes from the evolution of the species. Jim, you must think this is intellectual bullshit. [Laughter.]

JR: No, no, it's not. I think there's a lot of truth in this psychological stuff, but for me I've never really studied Freud or Jung as to how it affects what I'm doing musically. I do think there is something very primal about what we do. I do feel that the places I've gone to with my music is such a privilege, I can't explain it, but my mind goes all over the place with it. Like Dave's experience with the soprano sax, that's amazing, but for me, I've been with the piano my whole life, it's real, it's my duty, and it's also very earthy for me.

AAJ: In your rendition of "Tennessee Waltz." on Your Cheatin' Heart, you play a child's mini-piano (Happyland baby piano) with it's unusual tinkling sound. I think that in a way, the serendipitous use of that instrument is a primal expression of something universal about the child in all of us. But what you're saying is that you're not as self-analytical as Dave.

David LiebmanJR: Well, I think I do analyze, but not in that way. Sometimes I wish I didn't analyze myself so damn much! [Laughter.]

AAJ: I think of you, Jim, as a very earthy guy, very practical, homespun. I'm surprised to hear you say that you obsess a lot!

JR: Well, the obsessive part never ends. I think you have to be obsessive to be an artist. It's like, "I'm afraid of this because I don't know when I can stop." But the culture is going to say, "You can only go so far." Yet with jazz, you can go deep, but as a musical community, we keep each other safe, we provide checks and balances. So that's very earthy, I mean I'm very aware of that, I feel very tribal, very ancient with this music, but I can't quite explain it all.

AAJ: You relate to the primal nature, the instinctual and emotional nature of what you do.

DL: And also the communal aspect of the jazz group. It is the vibe of the clan and the club and the party. The feeling of the group. Music is clean and pure. We're involved together in something clean and pure, and I might not even know the guy's name I'm playing with. I'm going to London soon, and I'll be playing with three guys I never met! This need to be in family, to be with others, to be connected. This is primal.

AAJ: And music facilitates that communal feeling.

DL: The clan, so to speak, invites others "the audience" to join them.

AAJ: Those are the African roots—the tribe gathers together, and the music generates this feeling of merger, of oneness.

DL: Inclusive rather than exclusive. It's not just me on that mountaintop; it's my brothers with me. There's that communal thing that drives us—it's a very strong force.

AAJ: Some noted authors, poets, and philosophers have touted this awesome "fellow feeling." I think of Schiller's "Ode to Joy," which Beethoven employed in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. The words are very much about fellow-feeling, about mankind united. What you seem to be saying is that somehow the music itself emerges from that fellow-feeling and also reinforces it.

JR: That's deep, man.

DL: The music is the perfection, the beauty, that all of us are trying to obtain.

AAJ: That's great praise for jazz. Paradoxically, in the fifties and sixties, jazz was thought of as a way to resist cultural conformity, to be hip, to be an individual. But you're saying that the other aspect is the communal aspect.

DL: Look at New Orleans—the funerals, the clubs, etc. The music was the way the community came together. People came there from all over—the Carribean, South America, Europe, they came to trade—and they were looking for ways to connect.

AAJ: Jazz has never been a "museum" art form, rather it's part of all our lives. Now, could each of you give us a sense about what it's like to go from the initial inspiration to the performance or recording? For instance, Jim's piece, "Five Minutes to Madness and Joy," based on the Walt Whitman poem. Or Dave looking for something new in the Jerome Kern tunes. You're trying to pull something out of an initial inspiration and "make it new," as the poet Ezra Pound said.

JR: Well, for me, my stuff comes from improvising at the piano. With the Whitman poem, the music actually came first for me, something way back from when I was in college. It played very well and felt very natural for me to play. Then I got a commission to write some music for a church that had a project about the history of Trenton, New Jersey. I checked out some poetry, and when I was reading Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), I found his poem "One Hour to Madness and Joy." It tied into what I was playing, and it made sense to relate the two. The poem is very exciting and passionate, very similar in tone and meaning to the musical idea I had. For me, it's very intuitive—it's a confident moment when an idea comes and I develop it.

AAJ: I read the poem several times as a result of listening to your piece, and the match is indeed very striking.

JR: It was successful in that way. It's conveying a certain story, not just an emotion. Like I've played angry. I've played all my emotions on the piano. It doesn't talk back to me! It does center me. But with that poem, there's a message and a story.

DL: Apropos, I've always envied songwriters—Cole Porter, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, let's say. They don't have any problem telling you what they're thinking. The music supports the words. As instrumentalists, we have more ambiguous situation, communicating without words. But I need words for inspiration—like the word "Blue" became the title of a tune I wrote—I went right to the piano to hear it. It's fantastic for me. As soon as I have one element, the rest comes out in the composition.

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