Cultivating the Creative Path
by Ken Aldcroft

As an artist and music educator, I believe it is important to encourage students to follow a creative path in developing their own voice as a musician and artist. This approach will have at least two positive effects on the students. First, it will empower the students who identify music as a mode of self-expression and give him/her the confidence to discover and develop their creative voice through music. Second, in the case of students who identify music as a craft and are developing a set of marketable skills to cultivate a profession, understanding the creative process will open their minds to music they may not quite grasp and let them approach it without prejudice.

With my students, I work to demonstrate the dedication and commitment needed to develop ones voice in music through the example of musicians who have contributed to a long tradition in which creativity and invention are primary goals. Consider Ornette Coleman, for example. He made clear choices in pursuit of his highly individual and unconventional sound, despite the criticism and, in some cases, outright hostility he faced along the way. The following excerpt from an Ornette Coleman biography, from the European Jazz Network website (, clearly illustrates the commitment Ornette made at the beginning of his career to the artistic process and highlights the results of his dedication:

As he started exploring musical possibilities of extending and fusing elements of honky-tonk, blues, funk, and bebop, Coleman created personal musical vocabulary free from the prevailing conventions of harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic structures. Coleman's musical style so alienated him from the jazz community that musicians literally walked off stage whenever Coleman showed up to play. In retrospect, Coleman's innovations, later to be known as "harmolodics", not only helped to revitalize jazz by pointing a new direction away from the rigid role of harmony in bebop, but also established his place in a select group of major 20th Century American composers, such as Charlie Parker, Harry Partch, Charles Ives and John Cage.

In Los Angeles during the early 50's Coleman had to support himself with menial jobs. However, he was fortunate enough to find a core of talented musicians, trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden, who embraced his musical concepts. Although the musicians rarely found opportunities to perform the music, they spent a great deal of time improvising and rehearsing.

Things changed dramatically for Coleman in 1958 with the release his debut album, Something Else, and while he could still be scorned, he could not be ignored. One year later a second album, Tomorrow is the Question, was released and the original quartet was firmly established: Coleman on alto sax, Don Cherry on trumpet, Billy Higgins on drums, and Charlie Haden on bass.

In November of 1959, the quartet made its legendary New York debut at the Five Spot in Greenwich Village. The music was unlike anything ever heard before.

Obviously, it is very unlikely that any one artist will have the impact on a music scene like Ornette had in 1959. However, the point that Iím making here isnít about the result of the artistic endeavor but rather the commitment and desire needed to keep the music alive. This kind of dedication can only result in positive musical experiences and, for an artist, is the key ingredient toward a life-long process of self-discovery.

Discussions that focus on the choices and commitment of artists like Ornette Coleman often foster a do-it-yourself attitude among students. The DIY attitude is a key ingredient for the musician who is interested in developing his or her own music. This attitude enables musicians to challenge their own assumptions about form, approach, material, etc.; and to present music on their own terms and in their own way, without always defaulting to the expectations of those around them. Essentially, such an approach motivates developing musicians to think for themselves, to make strong and well-considered artistic choices, and to stand by them. As a music educator, I can think of no better goals for my students.

Ken Aldcroft
A Toronto based guitarist / improviser / composer / producer / educator and member of AIMToronto

IAJE Fall 2008