The Creative Mind
- By Thomas James Weaver
While teaching a fundamental lesson of jazz, trumpet player and senior lecturer in music Ray Vega will say, "Let's have a conversation." Then, the instant his student talks, Vega interrupts, jabbering incoherently. Looking confused, maybe insulted, the student asks the professor what he's doing. "I'm not listening," Vega replies. "And that's exactly what is happening as we're playing right now. You gotta be in there and you've got to be in... the... moment."
Vega hammers that truth as he discusses the art of musical improvisation. "You have to be ready to respond to changes at any given moment. The whole thing with jazz is that it is an interactive, completely democratic art form. Everybody's gotta negotiate and everybody's gotta be having that conversation and listening."
A native of the Bronx and longtime New Yorker, Vega speaks with the rapid-fire inflections of his city. He shares a memory from his teens: Fourth of July 1977, a house party/jam session at a friend's apartment in Brooklyn, with the windows wide open. "I knew stuff about tunes and I had good ears, but I just remember sitting there and playing with all of these older, black musicians. All old enough to be my father. Working things out, checking out what they were doing. It was amazing. It was an epiphany."
Today, when Vega takes a solo, the insights of that long-ago July afternoon are still in his mind. Likewise, his lessons as a young journeyman horn player with the humility to learn from veteran musicians who built their own chops playing with greats such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or Stan Kenton.
"The music jazz, as we know it under that name, has been in constant morph since 1917," Vega says. "Audacity is an amazing thcreating, because all of the great innovators were audacious. But all of the great innovators were well schooled about what they were being audacious about, what they were stepping away from."
That sort of schooling is going to keep a musician safe from the temptation to merely "get house" — applause and shouts from the audience for the cheap thrill of a piercing high note or a showy run. Vega warns his students about the siren song of getting house.
But if not house, then what? Something deeper. Vega makes a game attempt to explain the perhaps unexplainable — the intellectual and emotional forces that drive one of his horn solos. "It all depends on what is happening at that moment in my life. If there is melancholy going on, those things may come out. If there are joyful moments, that will come out," he says. "You cannot depend on what worked yesterday. You cannot depend on what worked five minutes ago."
Ghosts of jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, and countless musicians Vega has shared the stage with are in the back of his mind. "I've got my own voice, but I'm grabbing things. Artists are funnels," he says. "I'm grabbing elements of this and that, throwing them in. Whatever comes out, that is who we are. But we need to tap out of a river of water with a lot of depth."
The need to see
Wannabe. Has been. This dismissive shorthand of fevered aspiration and faded achievement intrigues artist Nancy Dwyer. She's drawn to the meaning and cultural context of the words. On a visual level, she finds interest in the sheer forms of the letters and commonalities of the words. Wannabe. Has been. Seven letters each. In terms of meaning, she talks about the idea that the often-neglected concept of "now" perches on the thin cusp between wannabe and has been, and that a work of art can be a subversive way to communicate a message that might otherwise be ignored. She assumes a mock sanctimonious tone and says, "You know, you never really are in the present!" followed by a roll of her eyes. "That's not fun. That doesn't catch me."
So might begin a sculptural work for Dwyer as she considers how words relate to one another and how that relationship might find expression in a piece. "The ideas often just come from the zeitgeist," the UVM professor of art says. "They usually come from a phrase or a word that seems to resonate. A lot of times it is a sense of irony or something that is all around us. But then when I look at it again, it has much deeper resonance."
Dwyer has pursued this sort of visual word play since the mid-1980s. Her work is manifested in multiple ways — sculptural objects and installations, videos, printed wallpaper, and public art. If you are a Cleveland sports fan, you might have sat on her red granite sculptures, which spell out "MEET ME HERE" outside of Quicken Loans Arena and "WHO'S ON FIRST" at a Jacob's Field entrance. A member of "The Pictures Generation" of the mid-1970s, Dwyer's work was included in a New York Metropolitan Museum retrospective exhibit of these artists' work in 2009. More recently, the Fisher Landau Center for Art in New York City hosted a solo retrospective of Dwyer's work, "Painting & Sculpture, 1982–2012," in 2013.
Dwyer's ideas take form in her studio in a ramshackle old industrial space on Pine Street. Depending on her current focus, the space might look like a papier-mache factory, a carpenter's wood shop, or a print studio. Most likely music will be on, classic Motown or the funk she came of age with in seventies NYC. "It depends on where I am in a project. If I'm really in the jam, it's quiet and I'm figuring things out, and I don't even notice that I'm not listening to music. But as soon as there is any movement, it's physical, I need music," she says.
Posed with a naïve question about whether these long nights in the studio are "fun," Dwyer offers a deadpan stare. "Sometimes, it is not not fun. It is not horrible," she says. "I get motivated by wanting to see it; that's the big motivation. I want to see this thing that I have planned. And the only way to see it is to do it."
Texts, photos, playlists, and all of those apps to distract from and navigate daily life are the usual stuff gobbling the gigabytes on our phones. Major Jackson, poet and University Distinguished Professor of English, adds another file to the mix, the seeds of poems. Sitting in a booth in the Waterman Building's café, he scrolls through his screen to "Ideas for Poems," a long list captured on the go to be explored later at the quiet of his desk.
"I have not disappeared." That simple declarative sentence echoed in Jackson's mind and held a place on his list for several years before it began to take form as a poem, "On Disappearing," which appears in his 2015 collection Roll Deep.
"It hooks into your soul at some point like a rhythm or a song that you know well. It becomes the engine behind the poem," Jackson says of these beginnings. "If I reach a lull in my thinking, I'll return to those words. Then it will push me a little bit further. As the sentences are coming to me, I recite them out loud, and I'm listening. I'm trying to hear what is in the universe as it relates to whatever word or phrase that generates it."
When he was a younger man, Jackson says it was his habit to write at the end of the day, when "my brain had absorbed all of this experience, I'm exhausted, and I'm going into that space where consciousness starts to stretch thin and reveal that which is most salient." But as a professor, husband, father, and poet with a national profile, who travels often for readings and lectures, he finds that writing has to happen when and where it can.
The scraps in the "Ideas for Poems" file on Jackson's phone might be called inspiration, but the poet himself would likely give that word a skeptical glance. Jackson emphasizes the simple truth that writing poems is work as he begins with that "engine" and drafts multiple revisions. "As I write I'm transcribing the associative and linear leaps that my mind makes with the hopes that a reader will simply enjoy that experience, as well as the stops along the way, the metaphors, the images, the pacing of the poem as it unfolds."
When his creative process stalls, Jackson walks to his office bookshelf and opens a volume of another poet's work. He reboots with lyricism he admires or finds a certain comfort in a kindred spirit — "I need to hear their voice a little bit in my head."
A writer's group with fellow poets in Vermont is also an essential part of his process. Jackson reads aloud from works-in-progress, eager to gauge the immediate reaction, which he feels is the most genuine and valuable. A good deal of the feedback he receives from his peers will find its way into the work the next time Jackson returns to his desk.
"I tell my students a good poem arrives as a result of how much the author is willing to destroy their early drafts," Jackson says. "Experiment with what is on the page rather than believing that those first words are some kind of sanctified speech."