Jun 192015

Nut graf: Ornette Coleman faced a lot of obstacles on the way to becoming a jazz giant.

"Ornette Coleman" by Geert Vandepoele - Ornette Coleman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ornette_Cole"Ornette Coleman" by Geert Vandepoele - Ornette Coleman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ornette_Coleman.jpg#/media/File:Ornette_Coleman.jpg

Ornette Coleman (photo by Geert Vandepoele. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The first time I heard the late Ornette Coleman play, I knew it was the drugs. His, not mine.

I mean, just what is this guy thinking of?

In truth, the album I listened to was fairly tame by Coleman’s standards. These were some early recordings on a barely-legit reissue, and he had Don Cherry on trumpet and different folks on bass and drums. But this stuff was still a lot crazier than I was used to.

My interest piqued, I got his groundbreaking album Free Jazz and put it on. Might as well go in all the way, right?

My first listening to Free Jazz, it sounded like a completely disconnected skronkfest. Coleman on alto, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Charlie Haden and Scott LeFaro on bass, Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins on drums. All playing together, more or less. The whole thing sounded like a coal truck slamming into a circus train.

Facing opposition

But that was Coleman’s early career track. In the late 50s he was making a name for himself, but I will not relate some of these names in a family venue such as this. Word was that he couldn’t play. At the time Miles Davis said that “psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside,” Many other jazz players gave him similarly glowing reviews, but composer Leonard Bernstein really liked what he was doing.

He’d always run into resistance. The Associated Press related this story after Coleman’s recent death:

One incident remained deeply ingrained in his memory: The night circa 1950 when the saxophonist was playing with an R&B band at a Louisiana road house and his solo stopped the dancers in their tracks. Coleman was dragged outside the club, roughed up and his horn was thrown over a cliff.

“One guy kicked me in my stomach … and said, ‘You can’t play like that!’ He didn’t even know what I was doing. I decided to take my beatings until I can establish where people can say, ‘Oh don’t beat him, listen.'”

Just listen. Pay attention. Real art looks and sounds totally out there at first, but it might develop some clarity after a second or third viewing/listening.

Coleman saw the connection betwen Free Jazz and a Jackson Pollock painting.

Coleman saw the connection between Free Jazz and a Jackson Pollock painting.

So that’s what I did with Free Jazz. I put it on again, this time with headphones. Coleman, Cherry, LeFaro and Higgins were on one stereo channel while Dolphy, Hubbard, Haden and Blackwell were on the other. With the stereo effect I started to get the idea. Not just two musicians crossing swords or playing off one another, but two full bands. Yet aided by the stereo separation I noticed they were indeed playing together.

Influences and developing voice

When Coleman was first coming up he developed an ear for bebop.  “Charlie Parker was the main man,” he said in an interview, ‘Oh man, what kind of music is that?’ And I thought I’m going to play that.”

But when he got to where he could play Parker’s stuff backward and forward, it was time to move on. To develop his own voice. I’ll bet all creatives go through that phase. I know I did.

But even with our own voices we still have our influences. When I meet a new musician or writer my first question usually is “who do you love?” That’s Eric-ese for “what are your influences?”

As out there as Coleman got, you could still hear his early influences: Texas blues. But he didn’t stop there, and he didn’t stop after he found real success. He kept growing. Experimenting with new song forms. Trying different lineups (the London Symphony Orchestra for Skies Of America), even learning new instruments.

Coleman will be missed. He didn’t just leave a legacy of revolutionary music, but by example he left some real actionable truths of the creative process.


Aug 152014
Sometimes the best ideas take you right off the cliff. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

Sometimes the best ideas take you right off the cliff. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

Dad’s seriously into classical music. Not an expert to the point where he can tell you who-all played in a particular recording, but he knows what he likes. The radio in his living room is on classical all the time.

Some nights, though, the music gets a little … well, strange. Up-and-down-the-scale violin and cello, out-there violas and woodwinds, strings sounding like a chain saw in need of a tuneup. Somehow I can’t picture Dad sitting through that — his tastes are normally rather bland — but he enjoys it. Maybe it’s because he can’t hear so well.

Hey, I like a litle out-there stuff myself. I’ll have Albert Ayler or Pharoah Sanders blasting on my Bose stereo late at night, and it’s edgy invigorating stuff. Once when listening to the title track of John Coltrane’s Kulu Se Mama I tweeted something about how it sounded like someone ripping the head off a live chicken in a Santeria ceremony. But that track is one of my favorites.

In truth, I find that really crazy stuff is best when I’m writing fiction. The music and my mind both wander.

But this is the stuff that, at first listen, I wonder what in the world I’m getting myself into.

Much of the best art — in fact the best anything — meets a lot of that say-what? at first hearing or viewing. Seth Godin, a man I respect, suggests that I-don’t-get-it response is a good way to tell if that idea of yours is a good one.

If everybody “gets it,” the idea may be too bland. Too obvious. Maybe of no consequence whatsoever. In all probability no one will give a rip. Everyone likes it but no one’s all fired up about it, either to the positive or to the negative.

“The popular, obvious, guaranteed ideas have definitely been taken,” or are so small that they’re not really worth your blood and tears,” Godin says. True.

The popular, easily understandable stuff has already been done once. Maybe twice. Now if I was to put together an online microblogging service where you spit out your thoughts in 140 character bursts and we follow each other, big deal. Boring. Been done.

But in 2006, four guys — Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Noah Glass thought that same thing up. And obviously they were smoking some bad stuff there. Listen, I’m fairly up on the tech stuff and it still took me more than a year to figure the point behind Twitter — let alone learn how to use it. Now it’s the social media platform I go to before anything else.

If I’m throwing that book concept to my writing group or that song arrangement to my bandmates, maybe I should pay attention to the response. If everybody gets it right away, I need to spin and try again. I’m not saying anything new.


Aug 082013

C’mon Charles … quit pulling your punches. Tell us how you really feel without going all PC on me.

“I say, let my children have music … rid this society of some of the noise so that those who have ears will be able to use them someplace listening to good music.”

— Charles Mingus, from his liner notes for Let My Children Hear Music.


Oh, yeah. Vintage Mingus, for your listening pleasure:

Haitian Fight Song (That’s one scary album cover).


Tensions (He’d make coffee nervous).


# # #




Jul 162013

I ran across this interview that a couple of high school kids somehow got for their school radio station, a chat with the great Louis Armstrong. By then Satchmo was in the business 50 years, already had several careers as a jazz trumpeter and as a singer, and achieved more than most musicians could ever fantasize.

But even after years of playing and working with the same eight notes in the musical scale all that time, he still held to his practice regimen.

“Even if I have two, three days off, you still have to play that horn,” Satchmo said. “You have to keep up those chops. I have to warm up every day for at least an hour.”

John Coltrane, one of the greatest ever on tenor sax, practiced at least eight hours a day, at leadt according to a guesstimate from one of his contemporaries. And when jazz pianist Bud Powell was incarcerated he found some chalk, drew a keyboard on his cell wall, and practiced on that.

Doesn’t matter what your art is, you probably have specific things you do for practice.

Some writers free-associate on paper, putting down anything that pops into their heads, and keeping the pen moving is the only real objective. Daily journal writing is what this ink-stained wretch calls practice. Whatever it is, my practice is done in longhand while the coffee is brewing. It’s part brain dump and part playtime, where I can experiment with stuff without worrying about it being readable.

Practice. That’s the time to try those phrases kicking around in your head. Time to see how that melody sounds against the chords you keep hearing. It’s when you develop your muscle memory, build up some physical stamina, fine-tune your eye and ear. Become even more familiar with your tools. Absolutely essential.

My phrases may come out all tortured and my logic twists all over the place during practice, but that’s fine. Satchmo’s and Trane’s practice sessions were probably more skronkfest than those burnished tones you expect from a musical genius, but that’s also fine.

Practice is absolutely essential, but it’s also playtime. It’s supposed to be fun.

# # #


Jun 192013

I thought this was kind of interesting. Found it on Quora.

This great quote came from a conversation between Albert Einstein and music educator/historian Shinichi Suzuki, who founded the Suzuki method of teaching music:

“The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception”

~Shinichi Suzuki, 1969, from ‘Nurtured by Love: A New Approach to Education.”

So you thought you were just a ne’er-do-well because you’re up playing that guitar at 3 a.m.? Guess again.

# # #

Jun 042013

(Is “grabbable” an actual word?)

Anyway, the free period for this ebook ends Wednesday, so might as well download it and save a few bucks.

I swiped the graphic straight from the Amazon page, so it may or may not do something if you click on it. Probably not.

# # #





Feb 012013

I have this ritual I observe when I do something significant. I crank up my phone’s mp3 player and cue up John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

I did that again today as I uploaded my newest ebook into Amazon. I was doing this in a Starbucks (home of free wireless Internet) so I put my headphones in, put the song on, and enjoyed my victory.

This also means putting something up on the usual social media channels, all with the hashtag #giantsteps. I’m celebrating, and I don’t mind folks celebrating with me.

Hey, this is big stuff in my world. I’ve beaten my enemy, including myself. I’ve put one right in the face of resistance, soldiered on, taken the bull by the horns, completed something, shipped something.

#giantsteps has become my rallying shout.

For this writer, these #giantsteps moments are rare. I save them for shipping a large project such as an ebook, for pitching an article, for completing something. Those are moments to be savored.

In my daily journal I also have several questions I ask myself. What four victories can I claim for the day? What am I most thankful for? What giant step did I take?

On those really bad days when that bipolar stuff starts giving me a bunch of trouble, I might fudge on the four victories. Getting out of the house when I’d rather isolate can be one of the four, but then I have to use my imagination to come up with three others.

Days like that, I’m totally at a loss to answer the question about giant steps, so I’ll leave it blank. I’m not going to fudge on that, so the Trane isn’t heard around the house that day.

Sometimes you gotta take those #giantsteps.

Depending on where you are in your creative life this could mean getting up and writing 500 or even 250 words. It might be submitting a story. It might mean blowing the dust balls off your guitar and playing a few chords. It might be making that sales call, or sending out a proposal for your new business.

Small steps can push-start your project

Even one action that pushes a larger process along — that “next action” in GTD parlance — can qualify. The further along you are in your creative development, the more likely you’re going to be a hard grader. Doing my daily word count barely even qualfies as one of the four victories, let alone that rarefied territory of #giantsteps. Shoot, that’s just a day’s work most of the time.

But even small actions can take that hashtag. Making a phone call I’d been dreading even though I know it starts something I need to do is a giant step. It’s not the size of the action, but the size of the project that it drives.

It’s going public with a project, knowing it’s a small action — how long does it take to send out a tweet? — but it commits you to completing your work. It’s telling a friend that you plan to hike the Appalachian Trail or lose weight or get out of debt or quit smoking, knowing full well that your friend will hold you to your word and tell you you’re being a flake if you don’t follow through.

It’s that moment when you shift from an ahhh-what-the-heck-maybe-I’ll-try-it attitude to one where you know you’re all in with something. That’s when things happen.

What I’ve noticed is that noodling an idea, Thinking about a project, or planning it out doesn’t count either. There’s no commitment there. I’m a real planner, with mind maps drawn out on my office white boards and on legal pads everywhere, but all those mean nothing until I take that action step. Victories are reserved for action, and #giantsteps even more so.

Here’s my rationale: While planning is critical stuff, sometimes you’ve got to pull the trigger.

Sometimes you gotta take those #giantsteps.

Then, celebrate. Build a personal ritual around it. Put it up on Twitter and share it. Feel free to use the #giantsteps hashtag.

So what giant steps are you taking? What do you do to celebrate?


My ebook, “Meditations I: Brain candy from creative & dangerous” will go live on Amazon once it clears review in a day or two. It’ll be free for a few days, so that will be a good time to grab it. If you like it, tell me. Or better, tell Amazon.

If you’re stuck for a victory song and you like the one I shared, grab Coltrane’s Giant Steps album at Amazon. Full disclosure: This is an affiliate link and I get a commission on it, but I love the album.

Nov 012012

As if we creative types don’t have enough to worry about, there’s the knowledge that there’s always someone wanting something for nothing.

I put in a bid for a writing gig, and per the client’s specs, I included my resume and two published writing samples.

Now, this isn’t an exact science. Any editor will tell you a prospective writer will submit his absolute best work for writing samples. It’ll give an idea of a guy’s ceiling, not his day-to-day grind-’em-out work. But even published samples will give an indication whether the guy can write, and usually that’s all an editor needs

So I sent all the stuff with my cover letter, and got my reply a few minutes ago. Check it out. It’s a beaut:

> Dear Eric,
> Thank you for your interest in working as the Technology Reporter/Editor for [company name deleted].
> The [job description] reporter/editor is expected to have a current, if not ahead-of-the-curve, understanding of digital technology, gadgets, smartphones, apps, software, games, science, etc, has to work closely in a team, deliver daily Web traffic results and meet monthly traffic goals.

Already this is ugly, but it gets worse. Read on:
> We have gone through your resume. However, due to the huge response we have received, we are asking everyone to write a sample technology story (based on the same topic). The candidates will be shortlisted for the interview, following a review of the sample story. The review will be based on the quality of the story, SEO techniques applied, etc.  


Let’s continue:
> Sample story:
> Topic: iPhone 5 – Can Galaxy S3 Mini Or Nokia Lumia 920 Steal Apple’s Thunder? (you can either choose this as the title or choose a similar title, comparing iPhone 5 with Galaxy S3 Mini and Lumia 920)
> Word count: Min. 350 words
> You may send your copy of the story to this email.
> Furthermore, please explain how you have contributed towards meeting the Web traffic goal set (if any) by your previous employer(s).
> The details of the interview, including the venue, date and time will be sent to the shortlisted candidates.
> Thank you! We look forward to hearing from you.  
> Best regards,
> [some editor]

My antennae went out about this far. I don’t mind the other requests, but a free sample?

Now here’s the reality. Chances are they need some copy, and who else to deliver it but a bunch of writers applying for a gig that may or may not exist?

It’s like the club where my old band once auditioned. We played the night for free and didn’t get the gig. The next week another band played a night for free and didn’t get the gig. Didn’t take long to figure things out; there was no gig anyway. Just a permanent state of audition, and lots of free music.

Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

But back to the here and now. This formerly-potential client did hear back from me, though probably not in the manner he wanted. Here was my response:

Any time a potential client asks for a made-to-order sample after viewing my links/clips, that sends up a huge red flag.

Therefore, I’ll pass.

Thanks for your time.

What? They think they’re playing with kids?

Again, it’s that boundary thing. I’m pretty serious about boundaries.

I’ll grant you, sometimes it’s good to give the potential client a break (like with this website owner, and he’s since proved himself to be a wonderful client). But this other character, I’m not ready to extend the same courtesy. I doubt he’s trainable, and this whole thing smells wrong.

A creative person is often wired bass-ackwards anyway. He has this screaming need to do his work and will pay a great price to put it out there, and others will take advantage of him.

There’s my boundary


And I will guard it vigilantly.

Every creative needs to define his boundaries, and protect them because someone is always willing to step over then.


(* You’ll need to ask me in private what BOHICA means.)

Oct 192012

Some things are demanding or complex enough to require a person's best.

There are probably times during your day when you operate at peak efficiency, and others when you’re probably better off taking a nap. The good news is, these times are usually predictable.

There’s even better news on this front: These peak times will evolve as you develop personal habits. I’ll get into that part later.

The whole trick here is to find those peak times, and to my knowledge there’s no real test to determine what those are. As far as I know, there’s no substitute for the good old-fashioned trial-and-error method. That, and running an audit of yourself.

Once you know your peaks and valleys, you can plan your day somewhat. If you’re self-employed, this knowledge is huge. If you have one of those day jobs where you have some control over your work flow, this is still good stuff to know. If you have one of those on-the-line jobs where you make grommets all day, it’s still good information.

If you have a day job and are exercising those creative muscles by building something for yourself in your off hours, this knowledge will be like gold.

What I found out: Some surprises

I did this audit recently, and came up with a few surprises. I have two peak periods a day where I’m really smokin’ and dealin’ — but those peaks are several hours apart. Which means if I was working for someone else full time and need to be at my best for the whole time, a split shift is the thing. But no single employer deserves that much from me.

My peak periods run from about 9 a.m. to noon, and from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Each of these periods is followed by a three-hour stretch where I start to wear down but am still good.

But from 3 to about 5 p.m., forget it. I’m useless. Anything requiring brain power takes considerable effort.

Gee, maybe that explains why I was such a strong starter but not a great finisher on my former day job. Getting toward the end of the shift I was sucking on fumes. If that job required any brains, it would have been worse than it already was.

I’m still trying to figure out how the morning thing got into the picture. Like, how did this longtime night person manage to operate in a halfway intelligent manner in the mornings? I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I’ll get to it; just let me lay my story out right.

Trust me. That monkey mind will get ya.

I’m writing this at 9:30 a.m., right there in my wheelhouse. My peak periods are reserved for writing and brainstorming; the real high-impact stuff. A problem is that my mind is so active during these stretches that I’m particularly susceptible to distractions. Especially in the morning session, when I top-load most of my work, I use a timer to keep me focused. Otherwise, monkey mind takes over.

I use my declining periods for some editing, pitching some work, research and work-related correspondence. I try to put the most important stuff toward the front of this time while I still have something.

From 3 to 6 p.m. I’ve shut work down. Forget it. I’m borderline useless. No writing or editing then, otherwise I’ll make a mess of things. Save that for reading, some correspondence, some social media. As I get older I’ve come to appreciate a good nap, and that’s the time for me to do it.

Although I always thought my chunked-up day was because I’m a max-effort kind of guy, after talking to other creative types I find two separate peak periods in a day isn’t all that unusual. It’s like the brain and body catch that second wind. Even when I try to push against my personal tide and try to get stuff done during my useless period, I still perk up in the evening. The only real difficulty here (besides the monkey mind) is that I need to bring things to a hard stop; otherwise I’ll go past midnight. This old guy needs his sleep.

Using the chunks instead of blowing them

OK, so you have a day job and maybe you’ve identified two peak periods in your day. Give one to your employer because that’s the right thing to do. Put your more intensive work into that time slot, and use non-peak times for the more mundane tasks. But if your employer demands both of your peak periods, he’s stealing.

If that other peak time is in the evening, use it for the stuff that demands your best. Write that novel. Work over the chord changes of “Giant Steps.” Build that Next Big Thing. The declining time is still good for engagement, social stuff, and anything that requires you to be present.

Appendix: Peak times will evolve

I find it interesting how my peak times adjusted over the years. I’ve always been a night person; I even sought the midnight-to-8 shift whenever possible. Mornings were for other people. I just don’t do mornings, and anyone who called me before noon usually caught an earful of naked hostility.

What happened?

I’d like to think I’ve matured, but that’s not likely (no future in that anyway). More than likely it was that aforementioned day job. I had to hit the ground running at 7:30 a.m. each day, no fiddling around. That, I think, trained me to those hours.

Some further reading

OK. I’ll admit falling asleep is an issue for me, especially when my mind is in overdrive. I noted it on Twitter the other night:

* * *

Ugh. Still up. #amwriting at 12:30 a.m., BDT. That’s #Bipolar Daylight Time for the uninitiated around here. #brainshutup

* * *

Gets rough around here sometimes.

Liisa Kyle, Ph.D and Lisa Rothstein, those outrageously multitalented ladies at davincidilemma.com, came out with a blog post about things to do when you can’t sleep, and it’s really interesting. Kyle, who wrote the piece, suggests our current model of falling down and sleeping for eight hours is a fairly recent phenomenon. She cites a BBC piece as evidence.

It seems the normal sleep pattern until the 20th Century was to fall asleep for about four hours, get up for an hour or two, then go back to sleep for another four. The straight eight started to catch on the late 17th Century, and pretty much took over by 1920. You could say increased industrialization and shift work more than contributed to this change.




Sep 282012

The process is more than just the means of achieving a result.

I have this goofy tendency to think way ahead of things. I’m a big-picture guy, and sometimes it rubs people the wrong way.

When I took a job at a railroad yard some years ago, my role was a fairly small one in the scheme of things. I dealt with truckers coming in and going out of the yard. What they did while on the property, I had no clue. All I knew was that they came in with a shipping container, left without one, and there was a train parked thereabouts.

So I had a tour of the yard. I picked our load planner’s brain. I asked a gazillion questions of our crane operators. I bugged the crap out of my boss, and I’m sure my caffeinated personality didn’t help my cause. To this day he’s probably glad he’s rid of me. But with each question I understood better what I was supposed to do.

I think best with the big picture in mind. Hang the process, give me results instead.

My one-time shrink once suggested I look more to the process and enjoy that. Results will come, she said. The whole thing sounded so Eastern with a high ooo-eee-ooo factor, so it was quite natural that I thought she was full of it. I’m just not wired that way.

As a writer I always had my eye on the finished product and on the deadline. The steps I took were merely the means toward an end. I didn’t have time to enjoy what I was doing.

Now hear this: Getting my stuff down on paper is fun. Taking a totally random germ of an idea and building it into something workable is a real kick in the pants. Talking to folks to gather the info I need is enjoyable. Shuffling through my arsenal of words to find The One that conveys the exact meaning I want, that’s fun too.

Isn’t it always a blast when you come up with that nice turn of a phrase, one that expresses everything you need to say in just a few words? Even if that masterful wording gets up snipped out in the final edit (always done with weeping and gnashing of teeth), it’s still a great feeling.

I remember this guitarist I used to work with. Guy was a musical genius but had some serious social deficiencies. He told me in a rare lucid moment that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism, and I totally believe that. He’d go a whole gig without saying a word. But watching him play was something else.

He’d stand there with his guitar clutched to his chest, wringing out flurries of notes and chords, all correct within the context of the song but challenging you at the same time. He’d make faces as his mind worked through the song, and his eyes would be fixed on a spot on the ceiling. If somebody came in with a high-powered weapon and began mowing down everybody in the place I’m sure the guitarist wouldn’t notice.

I’d come to realize, this guy was in love with the process. He’s making music because that’s what he does, like that’s the whole of his existence. Because of this love (and probably the Asperger’s) he was able to do his work with an otherworldly singleness of purpose.

When I first discovered I could write, and later when I realized I could play music, I loved the process. Any moment I could spare, I practiced.

But after a measure of success (in my world, “success” was partly from knowing people were actually willing to pay me for doing something I loved) I loved the results.

Only the process, i.e. my imagination, could conjure up a vision like this.

The process? Ahh, it was there. It was still important. However, it was a means to the result. Results are always wonderful, but like some nasty redheaded seductress in a little black dress, the results took my eye off the process, of just doing my work and enjoying it.

(Now, wasn’t it fun conjuring up that seductress? I tell you, if it wasn’t for the creative process she wouldn’t exist.)