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Zen, jazz, & creativity: Lessons from the art of jazz (part III)


Jazz_album When I was a small child, our house on the Oregon coast had a small Japanese garden in the front yard, complete with stone pagodas and a koi pond. Looking back, I wonder if a kind of traditional Japanese aesthetic — at least an Oregonian's version of it — influenced me even then? At the same time, our house was filled with boxes of jazz records including albums from Miles, Coltrane, Bassie, Ellington, etc. and pop records from vocalists such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. My older brothers spun records by The Beatles, The Stones, and The Dave Clark Five, etc. I dug those records too, but something drew me to the jazz recordings. My father, who would later pass suddenly when he was only 48, was a good amateur jazz vocalist with a wonderful voice; he occasionally performed live even after he became a company worker. I credit my father with introducing me to jazz. No one gave me formal lessons in jazz appreciation or in the Zen aesthetics as a kid, but the influence of those elements were surely there, even though I would not really appreciate those things until much later in life. 

Zen_garden To those unfamilair with it, jazz can seem like an abstraction. Zen can seem quite abstract and removed from our daily lives as well. But in fact both are far more concrete than that, both are much more concerned with direct experience and direct connections, connections to reality. By mere coincidence, I have built a deep appreciation year by year for both Zen and for jazz. Though my intention was never to compare, looking back I now see that the similar elements, tenets, and complementary components of jazz and Zen are quite profound. Here a list of a few lessons that both jazz and Zen practice have taught me over the years. These lessons, all seemingly commonsensical, can be applied to presentation or to any creative endeavor.

Twenty-one things I've learned from jazz and Zen
  1. In structure there is freedom and spontaneity.
  2. Restraints and limitations can be great liberators.
  3. Don't ever force it; be ever natural.
  4. Good intentions are key. Sincerity is king, and yet...
  5. It's not about you.
  6. Listen more than speak.
  7. Speak only when you have something to say, and then in the most economic way possible. 
  8. Your approach can be direct and subtle at the same time.
  9. Fear is natural (and human), but work through it and past it. Don't let fear hold you back.
  10. Mistakes are part of it (do not worry about them).
  11. Embrace the power of now, this moment.
  12. Technique matters, but it's not the most important element.
  13. Make no pretenses; put up no facades. 
  14. Laugh, smile if you feel like it — why not?
  15. Share yourself with others; make a contribution.
  16. Simplicity is supremely beautiful, yet difficult to obtain.
  17. Emptiness and silence are powerful elements of expression.
  18. Remove the clutter, strive for absolute clarity.
  19. If you think you have mastered it, you've have already begun your descent.
  20. Always be learning. Always be learning. Always be learning.
  21. Curiosity is your greatest gift, nurture it (in yourself and in others)
Related Links (from PZ)



Mark Walsh

As well as working in business, I dance tango and study aikido (the later for some years failry intensely) these are my jazz. Both involve learning forms and them letting go of them. "Takemusu Aiki" is the basis of advanced aikido and means (roughly) "divine martial creative" as responses appear effortlessly as expression of nature through the practitioner in an unplanned spontaneous way that handles the situation appropriately. I imagine this will either make no sense or be obvious as its really I'll shut up. Here's what it looks like:


Jan Schultink

Well said.


I totally agree with Mark, Aikido and Tango have a lot to share: a research to harmony, a sincere kindness to the partner, a lot of technique that disappears into the elegance of the movements... just like jazz - and Zen! Thank you for all the inspiration I always get in your blog, Raynold!


beautiful words of wisdom, and aptly-timed for the new year=) cheers, garr!

Rik Konings

Hi Garr,

What a great list of human wisdom.
For me I can use the list for lot's of combination of creative art. It inspire me to be more creative.
I am a juggler and in the past few years I made cross-overs with painting art and juggling, running and juggling, poetry and juggling, dance and juggling and last year I visited Dave Finnigan(FL), writer of the book "The Zen of Juggling". Dave inspired me to use his book 'The zen of juggling' as a metaphor for a leadershiptraining for businesspeople in western Europe. I am looking forward to combine my knowledge with jazz and find new creative opportunities.


Any thoughts on the presentations going on at CES?

Garr Reynolds

> Any thoughts on the presentations going on at CES?

Yes, I thought Palm was great at CES. As for Macworld, I thought Phil could do better (I have seen him do much better).

John Rutter

Like that list, even without considering how they could from from an appreciation of either Jazz or Zen.

Nicely put together, as usual.

Charles Gupton


Great list.

As I get older, more of these suggestions just make sense. I've been thinking a lot lately about the power of silence and listening. People are often saying far more and frequently, far different things than the words they are speaking.

Another observation. A few words spoken in genuine encouragement of another person's heart has a great power to heal and nourish that goes far beyond the moment.

Charles Gupton


Miyamoto Musashi comes to mind: "A man who has mastered an art reflects it in every action."

Nile Cruises

Thanks Garr, I came to your post from a Twitter from Ed Dale and reading your "21 things learned from Jazz", made me think of something I read years ago when I was only in to rock music and couldnt' understand why anyone would listen to Jazz. I cant' remember how it went exactly but it was from someone trying to explain that to listen only to rock or pop usually meant that you were listening to exactly the same patterns over and over again, (4/4 time or similar) and that to listen to Jazz ( or World Music or Classical) meant you were giving your "hearing brain" a workout or a challenge. It took me a longtime to understand what they were saying but when I finally did understand then a whole new exciting and rewarding world opended up to me and it was like "finding" music all over again. (Not sure if I explained that too well!!).

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