A Composer's Adventures

What Drives Artists?

Pepper“Give it up. You lack the fire.” Those discouraging words came from a piano virtuoso to a young prodigy, when his mother brought him to the master for an expert opinion.

Years later the boy became a successful concert artist himself and returned to the master. “Remember me? You told me to give up the piano because I lacked the fire.” “Oh, I tell that to everyone,” he said.

Of course all artists want encouragement, especially in the face of great competition in the performing arts and the scarcity of opportunities. But is it essential for the artist to continue?

I think artistic talent is paired with a special ingredient in genuine artists, which keeps them going through discouragement and other adversity. It’s like a circuit breaker that automatically kicks in when negative thoughts threaten the creative output.

I was thinking about this while reading “Straight Life,” a biography of the brilliant jazz musician Art Pepper. I can’t imagine a more impossible upbringing than he had. He was an unwanted child (his alcoholic mother tried to abort him) and his abusive father was an itinerant dockworker, rarely home. But isn’t a loving and responsible upbringing necessary to create a healthy foundation for kids’ development? And all that talk about nurturing an artist?

Yet Pepper’s childhood was a saga of neglect by the worst parents you can imagine. He survived in an awful gang-infested neighborhood where he became an alcoholic and drug addict. Despite all, he emerged as a beautiful and sensitive artist—some say the greatest alto saxophone player jazz ever produced. Why wasn’t his creativity short-circuited?

I was also inspired reading about the lives and struggles of Charlie Parker, Vincent van Gogh and others who had uphill climbs. A part of me would cry out as if cheering at a ball game, “Go, baby, go! Your game is too good, you can’t give up.”

Perhaps artists are born with an inherent instinct to create. Their work is not just a job but a way of life, almost a necessity. I have great friends who have succeeded in business and loved every step of the challenge. But they were guided mostly by reason and made practical choices, and they had many. Artists just don’t seem to have that. Creating seems predestined for artists—they have no choice.

Michael Colgrass

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