I’m currently reading Mary Oliver’s wonderful book about writing poetry, A Poetry Handbook. (It’s essential, even if you have no intention of writing verse.)
Her very first chapter is about the primary importance of reading poetry. She writes, “Many of my students would spend almost of their time writing, and very little of it reading the poems of other poets, if they and not I were setting the assignments.”
“But,” she goes on, “to write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply. Good poems are the best teachers. Perhaps they are the only teachers.”
It’s the same for music. Until you have really delved into the great works of your chosen genre, how can you hope to say something new of value? In vocal jazz, I had to internalize Puerling, Meader, Tormé, The Real Group, Take 6, the Four Freshmen, the Boswell Sisters, and on and on before I even began to have a perspective on my own music.
Oliver adds in the same chapter, “The truly contemporary creative force is something that is built out of the past, but with a difference.” Mistrusting or ignoring of the past isn’t a recipe for great new art: it’s a recipe for ignorant art. Picasso felt he had to become a great artist in the traditional styles before he could leave them behind; we all must know our lineage better.
Oliver ends he first chapter on reading with this beautiful image of creation:
“To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air.”