David Liebman /Jim Ridl: The Creative Process in Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.


Practical Matters, Goals, and Advice to Young Musicians

AAJ: A few more things before we close. First of all, does the music business inhibit your creativity? Like the club owner who says, "I only want you to play such and such." Or the record label which only wants to produce what sells. From what I hear, the music business is getting more and more difficult. Do you have some ideas about what could be done to create a better climate for the creative musician'

David LiebmanDL: This is about life in the real world. It's way past what we can do as musicians. We need support. The purpose of government is, say, to support homeland security, health, education, and culture. Our current government does very little for the latter purposes. It just does war! Although Europe does a little better, it's still a bad situation. It's almost a caste system. I was chosen to be a musician—I should be supported in my endeavor.

AAJ: You're saying that the powers that be should really value culture.

DL: We musicians exist below the radar these days, unlike the sixties and seventies when there was a mecca of culture and music here.

JR: I'm bewildered about this whole thing, about the business and trying to make it better. In that sense, I've gone much more inside, and I'm just trying to be successful about doing my own music. I wanna make music in an important and compelling way that has a meaning behind it. But in terms of how to connect all of that into the music business, I'm part of the whole mechanism, but I don't know what to make of it all.

DL: No one ever promised us a rose garden. No one ever said it's going to be easy. There's no free pass.

AAJ: To turn to an unrelated question: Do you ever feel a need to re-invent yourself or your music at a fundamental level?

DL: All the time.

JR: I feel a pressure sometimes to get a new thing together, but I always come back to feeling that I should stay with the art, stay with likeminded people who stretch you.

AAJ: So for you, its an ongoing evolution, not a self-conscious moment of changing your direction. Coltrane, on the other hand, seems to have re-invented himself a few times.

DL: He did, but he did it in a very fast fifteen years. It's another thing over the longer haul. Sometimes you've just got to keep going with what you're doing. You've got a certain responsibility to go on.

AAJ: Wouldn't you like to do that "one great thing"?

DL: I wish that would happen.

AAJ: I just read where Richard Strauss' last song cycle was the greatest music he ever wrote.

JR: But that's what's cool about jazz. It's a lifetime art form. Like the Rolling Stones are still performing, but they're not creating anything new. Their window is really small.

DL: Because their language is more limited than jazz.

JR: I just want to go on playing jazz until I die. Hopefully I'll live a long time, because I know that my jazz community will allow me and give me a duty to invent and create. One of my heroes, Leonard Bernstein, was creating until the end.

DL: We're lucky. Like I'm sixty-one. Roy Haynes is eighty-three. We're up there doing it. We have a living art form here. And we have another blessing—as we get older we get more respect and we get better. I'm better now than I was.

AAJ: You have to give your creative impulse some credit for that, because of your desire to push the envelope. There are jazz musicians who get lost in the shuffle as they get older, partly because they don't create something new. Finally, what advice would you give to a budding young jazz musician who wants to break the sound barrier creatively and doesn't just want to be a clone or imitator'

DL: He's got to look outside the box. But first he's got to know the box. He's got to get the basics, but then I'll say to him, "Now's the time to drop everything you've ever learned. Look beyond the music you love—seek other avenues. Understand culture. If you have the will and the desire and the talent, you will be transformed. You have to want to be heavy, you have to want to be an individual, you have to want it more than anything else in the world."

Jim RidlJR: I'll just add that a young musician has to be aware, make it a part of their being to discern what's happening at the moment. For example, Coltrane is one of my heroes. His solos are unbelievable. Recently I read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (1862). It took me a year to read that. Hugo has paragraphs that are three pages long. This is also Coltrane. Like there's this stream of consciousness, this flow, and I'm not gonna let an indentation get in my way, much less a period.

Now that's cool, and that inspires me, and what that says to me as a musician is that it's OK! It's OK to say what you say. All the heavy cats, they step out and they say, "I'm here, I have something to say." You gotta step out. When I play with Dave, he steps out. When I play with Pat Martino, he steps out. You can tell it in their playing. Bill Evans was personally very shy, but he always stepped out in his music. You've gotta take the risks.

AAJ: It's what Jung called individuation. You have to slay your dragon. You have to meet that challenge. Well, guys, this has been terrific. Thank you both for stepping out and sharing your views with us today.

Selected Discography

David Liebman Group, Blues All Ways (OmniTone, 2007)
David Liebman/Roberto Taranzi/Paolo Benedettini/Tony Arco, Dream of Nite (Verve, 2007)
David Liebman/Richie Beirach/Ron McClure/Billy Hart, Redemption - Quest Live in Europe (HatOLOGY, 2007)
David Liebman, Back on the Corner (Tone Center, 2006)
David Liebman/Phil Markowitz, Manhattan Dialogues (Zoho, 2005)
David Liebman, The Distance Runner (HatOLOGY, 2005)
Jim Ridl, Pianadelphia (Soulsearch, 2006)
Jim Ridl, Your Cheatin' Heart and Other Works (Dreambox Media, 2005)
David Liebman Group, In a Mellow Tone (Zoho, 2004)
David Liebman/Richie Beirach, Mosaic Select 12 (Mosaic, 2004)
Jim Ridl, Door in a Field (Dreambox Media, 2003)
David Liebman Group,
Conversation (Sunnyside, 2003)
Jim Ridl Trio, Live (Dreambox Media, 2001)
David Liebman, The Elements: Water (Arkadia, 1999)
Jim Ridl, Blues Liberations (Dreambox Media, 2001)
Jim Ridl, Five Minutes to Madness & Joy (Synergy, 1999)

Visit David Liebman and Jim Ridl on the web.

Photo Credits
Photo of Liebman and Ridl Together: Caris Visentin
David Liebman Photo: Ben Johnson
Jim Ridl Photo: Courtesy of Jim Ridl

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