Shanghai Journal #6: You are an artist


Art is where we find it? Art is what we make it? I find those to be fraught questions (My new word: fraught).

So, for example, I am a pianist. I want to be creative—creative at the piano. Creative EVERYWHERE!

And, I just arrived in Taipei. I want to find creativity here—and I will. Tomorrow I give a master class on improvisation at the National Taipei University of Education. The student pianists there, so I’ve heard, are excellent musicians.

On Tuesday, I’ll present a master class on “touch” interfaces. It’ll be at the Interdisciplinary Multimedia Performing Arts Collaborative Technology Program at Taipei National University of the Arts.


But, let’s get right to it: we all want creativity—we want to be creative—all pianists, all artists, all everyone?

Pianists, Artists, Jaki Byard

When I took my first piano lesson with Jaki Byard

Mark Polishook Jazz Piano Jaki Byard Skype

at the New England Conservatory of Music, he, Jaki, said something that stuck with me, which was:

You are an artist

He conferred upon me what I now call artist status. It’s status I now know comes with rights, responsibilities, and privileges.

But it turns out the responsibilities are the rights and privileges. So, without saying it directly, Jaki was telling me to own what I played.

In other words, play in the moment of right now with extant skills and technique—that, instead of waiting or wishing for the gains more practicing inevitably brings .

Jaki’s conferral, as it were, showed the kind of teacher he was:He grounded his students while also stretching them.

And how did he ground and stretch? Jaki knew so much about the piano and the history of jazz that someone somewhere on the internet said (more or less):

Jaki makes old styles sound modern. Conversely, he makes contemporary styless sound old.

Here’s a recording of Jaki with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Their improvisations on Bud Powell’s Parisian Thoroughfare—they demonstrate what that writer was describing.

In between their simulations of street noise and virtuosic solos are

  • an homage to an Bud Powell.
  • a panoply of styles that somehow all come together—even though each of them represents a different period in jazz history.
  • audacious chance-taking.

This was not a recording where anyone wore a seat belt!

Jaki And Where to Find Him

Meanwhile, while Jaki mentored his many students, he toured with Art Blakey, Charlies Mingus, and  many others. Here’s a video clip where Bill Evans talks about Jaki’s talent. Here’s another video of Jaki playing all by himself.

More Travel

Four decades after lessons with Jaki I am right now in Taipei. We return to Shanghai in a few days. Then on to Shantou University where I’ll give two concerts, the first followed by a master class, the second preceded by a master class.

And all with a great poster at that!


When I’m not playing the piano or when I’m not playing with gizmos, iPads and more recently, a Haken Continuum, I’ve taken to something else: I walk about, here and there with my camera or my iPhone (camera) or both.

Gizmos, gadgets, cameras, whatever—like the piano—they’re bits of technology that let us do what wouldn’t otherwise be possible without them.

Of course, pianos emit sound whereas cameras capture light. But sound and light, they’re just waves, each of which is of a different kind?

What The Camera Saw

Here’s a street-level view a block or so from my flat in Shanghai. The camera saw, but I didn’t, the extra light streaming up from the right side of the building.

Polishook Piano Jazz Skype


It is the case that in Shanghai—or any new locale, for that matter—there’s always a picture to take. That’s because the first few weeks and months in a new place induces a special state of grace—grand curiosity?

Grand curiousity is where all things are new and interesting. For example, all streets and all corners present the possibility of something.

How else to explain how a single glove—gloves usually travel in pairs?—hangs on its own.

In My Neighbourhood

Here’s another pic from my neighborhood. It’s true, I take (too) many pics of those same buildings. I think it’s because those buildings on that particular street remind me that I am indeed now in Shanghai—which is not something I saw coming as of a few years ago.

Or maybe I should have seen it coming. The signs, they were there,

Polishook Piano Jazz Skype

Meanwhile the tall buildings in the background aren’t in Shanghai. They’re across the river in the much newer city of Pudong.

The Bund And Pudong

The Bund is the neighbourhood in Shanghai that’s just across the river from Pudong. It’s a monumental area—a century or so ago the British, French, and Americans built ginormous Art Deco buildings as regional headquarters for international businesses. In these post-colonial days those buildings obviously scream colonialism!

Pudong, in contrast, is entirely contemporary. It’s mostly if not entirely newer than new. That purple building is in Pudong although I took the picture in the Bund.

Who’s An Artist?

Joseph Beuys said:

Everyone is an artist.

How and why he said that is described in a museum wall label in Shanghai in a show of work by Beuys and Nam June Paik.

As it’s turned out, Beuys’’ description has taken on an immediate meaning for me. That’s because on 22 April I’m presenting a concert with students at and from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

The performance brings piano, performers, audience, iPads, and other gizmos together in a resonant search. It’s a search that’ll be influenced by a video of a performance by Paik and Beuys on display at that museum show.

Return To The Beginning

What Beuys advocated for, as did the larger Fluxus collective of which he was a member, was creatives don’t slowly advance or evolve new styles over time. For Beuys, creatives can and should return to beginnings.

Beginnings, that is, without that interim goal of standing and building on shoulders of giants. What Beuys meant was

We’re all creative. We’re all artists.

Argue and take issue with Beuys if you’d like. But, the elitism with which many in the arts cloak themselves was something Beuys protested against and fought with.

In fact, read a little about Beuys and Kraftwerk and Autobahn may spring to life as the fascinating conceptual artwork that it is.

8 To 7

How to get head-on pictures of traffic lights when they’re green?

Stand in the middle of the road with one’s back facing oncoming traffic.

The Guard

This fella’—he sits on top of the hotel that houses the museum with the Beuys and Paik exhibition.


Meanwhile, this image is on a temporary wall that surrounds a construction site in my neighbourhood. As a friend explained, the characters spell democracy.

I think, in this context, democracy has no political meaning. Instead, it refers to the harmony in a good neighbourhood.

I think ….