True art requires breaking of cultural barriers

Innovation lies in the gray area between technical facility and passion. Many of us see artistic mastery as the end product of intense practice, which is widely true. However, creativity is entirely different. It is both emotional and intellectual, spontaneous and well-developed. But more than anything, creativity is raw, unpolished expression. It often shows up in the most unexpected places.

In jazz music, innovation is a product of improvisation – “soloing,” or making up notes and phrases that work within different chord progressions. This concept isn’t specific to jazz, however, or even to music in general.

I recently saw a video that challenged my understanding of how creativity manifests itself in our everyday lives. Blue Note Records, arguably the most significant jazz record label of all time, collaborated with New York footwear chain DQM for Vans to make a line of shoes that celebrate the conjunction of two art forms: jazz music and skateboarding.

In the project’s short promotional film, President of Blue Note Records Don Was says, “What the skateboarders are doing is exactly what the musicians are doing. It’s raw. Raw emotion.”

This obvious similarity can be lost in the sea of discrepancies between these two different art forms. One is seen as intellectual, even inaccessible, while the other is often stigmatized for its burnout “punk” culture. What these two disciplines share, however, is a crucial reliance on the artist’s technical skills, not only to achieve a finite goal, such as playing a melody or getting to the store, but also to engage in culture.

We do not often consider human interaction to be “improvisation,” but this kind of casual collaboration truly is the root of the creative process. In Was’s words, “It [doesn’t] matter if your instrument is a skateboard, or a bass, or a drum set … you go with what you can do, and you make that something new.”

What came from this project are two styles of shoes: “The Blues” and “The Colors.” Each shoe sports the Blue Note label and images of landmark albums by artists such as Kenny Dorham, Sonny Clark and Art Blakey. What’s more than the aesthetic appeal of the shoe is the symbolism of the article of clothing.

Shoes facilitate action. We create rhythms with them. We use them as a medium of expression. They grip the surface of a skateboard and amplify the sound of one stomping on the ground. Discipline, movement, productivity, expression – conceptual elements that shape both the realms of jazz and skateboarding – share one common, physical characteristic: the use of shoes. They are the instrument of the non-artist, the everyman’s “ax.” They accompany us through our endeavors like an extension of our own bodies.

Only by disregarding the constructed differences between various cultures and instead building upon their shared characteristics can we begin to create great art – art that defies categorization and compartmentalization by forcing us to expand the limits of human expression.

Mackenzie Karbon is a freshman majoring in jazz performance.

Featured image courtesy Peter Pabon for DQM