Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy



Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Talent or Genius: Which Do You Nurture?

I recently came across written by my good friend and amazing pianist Jean-Michel Pilc. The book is called It’s About Music: The Art and Heart of Improvisation. Throughout the book Jean-Michel discusses his approach to teaching improvisation in which he encourages his students to embrace their own originality rather than training them to be regurgitates of theories and tried and tested jazz language. He uses a lot of aphorisms throughout the book that succinctly shed light on a lot of problems and misunderstandings in the way that people learn and view jazz and art, in general. The one aphorism that really struck a chord with me was the one by French impressionist painter Eugene Delacroix, who said that “Talent does whatever it wants to do, genius does only what it can.

This is definitely something that I’ve felt for many years, probably since I was a student at Berklee—which is definitely a hot bed of young talent. I think one of the reasons that musicians find themselves hitting a creative wall or find themselves lacking artistic vision is that they do spend too much time nurturing their talent and not enough time nurturing their genius. Meaning too much time is spent trying to become well-rounded and all encompassing and not enough is spent nurturing what makes us unique.

Now let’s decipher what Delacroix was saying:

Talent does whatever it wants…”

I interpret this as using talent to become a craftsman,  a Jack-of-all-trades, being able to do a lot of different things. Some simply call it being versatile. Some call it playing a lot of shit. Some call it knowing a lot of music. Some call it being able to come out of a lot of different bags. But whatever way you look at it, it comes down to not really making a commitment to anything—most of all, not making a commitment to being like yourself. Nurturing that special thing that only you can do. Talent is a great thing, but it’s dangerous thing when used carelessly. I think we have more talented people jazz than ever before in the history. High school kids are effortlessly playing in 15/8 and 13/8 time signatures. College students can play on the most complicated harmonies and musical forms, at any tempo. Young professional jazz musicians have already written dozens of tunes, can play any style, and are often well versed on many instruments. So as you can see, the jazz world has talent coming out the wazoo! But oddly enough, the music scene still has a huge void—especially when compared to the golden age of yesteryear.

Why is this the case? Why is it that all of this talent does not produce profound work?  Often times talent produces work which creates feelings of competitiveness and intimidation, not feelings of inspiration and enlightenment. Pianists didn’t listen to Thelonious Monk and say, “I can play just as dissonant as him.” Saxophonists didn’t listen to John Coltrane and say, “I can play just as fast and complicated as him.” When you hear someone who’s just being the very best them that they can be, it inspires you--because you’re shown the beauty and the magic that grows out of originality and individuality. It certainly does not conjure feelings of competitiveness. It would actually sound kind of silly for someone to say, “I can be him just as good as he can be himself.” I couldn’t even write this without chuckling!


Let’s look at the second part of Delacroix’s statement.

….genius does only what it can.”


Nurturing ones genius can be somewhat intimidating. One, it takes you out of the competition. And I’ll be the first to admit, competition is fun—especially if you’re the winner. But the problem is that you spend all of your time trying to do what everyone else does, only better, rather than “being most like yourself”—if I may paraphrase Monk. Nurturing genius forces you to spend a lot of time in the place Wayne Shorter refers to as the “unknown.” Who in their right mind would want to go there? Who wouldn’t want to go to the place where everybody goes? The popular place differently feels more secure. But I guess the problem is this: By being in the popular place, you set yourself for being just one of many crabs in a barrel rather than a fisherman. And there are many sayings that make this point. “You can read a book or write one.” “You can drive the bus or just be a passenger.” Whatever the case maybe, the bottom line is that by nurturing your genius, you’re calling your own shots. If the world is your stage, nurturing your genius allows you write, produce and star in your own production. It allows you to not to only discover yourself, but to share your self-discovery with the world.

Here's a little quiz you can take to find out whether you know if you’re nurturing  (A) talent or (B) genius.

1.     _____ Things you create come from an inspired place.

2.     _____ Things you create can be easily explained by tried and tested theoretical formulas.

3.     _____ You have very little in common with many of your peers.

4.     _____ You have no idea how you arrived at many of your creations.

5.     _____ Everyone loves what you do.

6.     _____ You often find yourself in unfamiliar territory.

7.     _____ You create things that are easy to emulate.

8.     _____ You often feel lonely and isolated and feel compelled to create your own universe.

9.     _____ Things you create often defy all theoretical conventions.

10._____ Things you create appeal to the majority in your field.

11. _____ Your music sounds strange when you compare it to that of your peers.

12. _____ People are constantly comparing what you do to others.


Answers: 1(B), 2 (A), 3(B), 4(B), 5 (A), 6 (B), 7(A), 8(B), 9(B), 10(A), 11(B), 12(A)

If I had the time, I’m sure I could come up with something more in-depth. But I thought this was interesting.


I’d like to end with a funny story I heard years ago, probably while I was a student at Berklee.

This guitarist went up to saxophonist Eddie Harris one day, and said, “Hey Eddie, I really want me to hear me play.” Eddie was like, “Oh yeah?” The guitarist said, “Yeah, man, I really want you to check me out.” So Eddie’s sad-as-mother-fucker radar went up and he started toying with the guy. So Eddie says to the guitarist, “Do other musicians like the way you play?” The guitarist responds, “Yeah, man, all the cats around town dig what I do.” Then Eddie says, "Do critics like what you do?” The guitarist enthusiastically responds, “Absolutely! I get rave reviews on all of my recordings and live gigs.” And then Eddie asks, “How about your relatives? Do they like what you do? The guitarist, get’s even more excited and says, ”Oh yes! My mother, my father, my brothers and sisters, even all of aunts and uncles love what I do.”

So Eddie having heard enough, looks the guy in the face, and says, “Well, I actually I don't need to hear you. I already know you ain't playing shit. All of the baddest cats I’ve ever heard, nobody liked what they did in the beginning.”

So like everything I write, these are not scientific theories, just fruit for thought!

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