Until 1980 when he died, Bill Evans was one of the most important and influential jazz musicians of the modal style. I used to pretend to be into jazz in college but only recently (and I’ve been out of college a long time) have I really been able to appreciate the improvisational styles of the 1960’s and early 70’s. There were a couple of styles from that period that competed for attention and they are referred to as free jazz and modal style. Evans’ influence is still felt among young composers in the modal style. Evans seemed really interested in teaching young musicians as well as allowing them to discover their styles independently. He also had some things to say about self-teaching after he graduated from college with a teaching degree in 1950. In a 1966 interview with his brother Harry Evans from the television program, “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”, he described his growth as a musician, “I don’t consider myself as talented as many people, but in some ways that was an advantage… I didn’t have a great facility immediately and in a way it forced me to build something.”
Compare Evans’ statement to the fantastic story of the sudden savant, Derek Amato who suffered a brain injury after diving into a swimming pool to catch a football. Derek recently visited the Mayo Clinic to film a Discovery special concerning his sudden ability to play the piano. According to Derek, before his accident he had “never even touched a piano.” In contrast to Bill Evans, Amato says of his own experience, “I still can’t read music or tell you where the notes are. All I know is the black keys are flat. I don’t even know what I’m going to play each time I sit down… but since my accident, the notes just pour out of me.” Amato can’t seem to stay away from pianos. From the moment he touched one after his accident he could not stop. He plays for hours at a time because now his desire is so great. Although he doesn’t read music, he composes intricate pieces on the fly and plays by ear. It’s as though what he is experiencing is an end run around the conscious brain to the unconscious mind where style and substance meet.
Bill Evans referred to this as a universal mind. Evans discussed the need for intense musical study in order to free the mind to go where it can create freely. “I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a universal musical mind. Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people.”
Evans’ theory is similar to what Stephen Nachmanovitch has to say in his book on creativity titled Saving the Cat in one way: They both believe artists are especially adept at tapping a part of the mind where creativity lies. Nachmanovitch makes the case that the spark of creativity comes first and can be followed by intense study of the medium, “The important thing is to start someplace, anyplace. Then we can play with, refine, elaborate the original statement until it pleases us. Before the dance of inspiration and perspiration can begin, there must be some raw material, some spark of inciting energy.” Although both believe in allowing the language of creativity to lead the way, Evans suggests the intense study of technique must precede the creative event while Nachmanovitch believes the creative event must inspire the desire to study artistic technique. I tend to lean toward Nachmanovitch’s theory but at some point the two, technique and creative expression, begin to tumble downhill one over the other, picking up speed until together the two take flight as one creative event. Technique informs expression which inspires the artist to hone his technique.
In Amato’s case of sudden savantism, his expression has inspired him to begin to study song structure, music theory and technique. But his condition allows him to create endless amazing compositions without knowing anything at all about music. He creates freely without the hindrance of a lack of skill. For the rest of us though, there seem to be two pathways for creative expression: to have a germ of an idea and pursue it passionately, learning the medium as you go or to imagine a desired outcome and learn the medium necessary to achieve the vision. Ultimately, it will occur as a holistic experience. In fact it might be difficult to determine where one approach ends and another begins. In fact, the immersion in the creative pursuit makes the division unnecessary. It really doesn’t matter how you do your art when you’re in your element. The same artist may approach different projects in different ways. It’s the joy of creation that ultimately informs the effort. The freedom an artist experiences makes her want to continue to pursue the art. Although their styles and approaches to music are different, Bill Evans and Derek Amato have in common their creative freedom and desire. And as a teacher I have learned my most useful tool is a student’s desire. With desire, nearly anything is teachable.