Creative Spirit Sarah Manning talks about the interplay between her writing and jazz music and the importance of nature to her creative process. Learn more.

Photo by Jaime Bley

Sarah Manning is a saxophonist, composer, writer and artist empathist. She fights for creative sustainability by building empathy between artist and fan through performing, writing and speaking. She has released four critically acclaimed albums and is a Posi-Tone recording artist. Her current release, Harmonious Creature (Posi-Tone 2014) received 4 stars in DownBeat Magazine, was chosen as a top ten album of 2014 by the LA Times and was the focus of a profile feature in JazzTimes. In addition to support as a composer in the form of a Fellowship from the MacDowell Colony in 2012, she has received grants from the Northampton Arts Council and the Puffin Foundation to support performance residencies that break down the barrier between artist and audience.

Her musical career has been dedicated to finding an individual voice in the music, and she takes that approach as a writer by listening and amplifying the unique voices of her clients. Her essay titled “The Pomplamoose Problem: Artists Can’t Survive as Saints and Martyrs”, went viral on social media and reached an audience of over one hundred thousand at her blog, She is most often found with a cat, a saxophone, or a coffee (and on a good day, all three at the same time).

Carrie:  When did you first realize your love of music?

When I was a child my twin sister and I loved to dance around to the Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf on the record player – an early indicator! My father is a huge music fan and a songwriter with a passion for film scores. I have the unusual experience of listening to film scores taped off of movies showing on television (with dialogue and everything!) in the car on trips. His passion for music directly influenced me. In 8th grade I was inspired to play the saxophone by saxophonist Paul Winter when I interviewed him for National History Day.

Carrie: Can you describe your artistic process to readers? For example, do you follow the same pattern and track when you develop an artwork from idea to product?

This is an interesting question for me right now, as I am working on incorporating my writing (words) into the compositional process of writing music. For example, maybe writing a short essay and using that to inspire a melody (though I have no intention of combining music and words). I always start from a place of sound and introspection. Having a great sound on my instrument sparks creativity for me.

I was a Fellow in Composition at the MacDowell Colony in 2012, and had a couple of weeks of uninterrupted time with all meals provided and a studio Aaron Copland had worked in back in 1956. There I learned that sitting and thinking, or having tea, or taking a walk, was just as much a part of the compositional process as playing saxophone or piano. Once I have a melodic idea, I’ll put it into music notation software, develop it further and then take it to my band for our next show. I don’t write lots and lots of tunes, so most of the tunes I have written have been recorded on the four albums I’ve done so far. I still believe in the album concept – so a recording is a collection of tunes united by the ideas I’m working on over a certain period of time.

Carrie: How do you know when a musical piece is “finished?”

Ha. As a writer of words in my copywriting business, I have had to give up on the idea of only writing when I feel creatively moved – it is a craft and a process – and drafts can look really ugly before they make it into their final form. I haven’t really felt that way about music composition, however. So I tend to write music when inspired or on deadline and only put my very best work on the page, without huge amounts of editing or rewriting. However, I am trying to embrace the idea that I should also write music even if I’m not struck by a bolt of creative lightning.

The writing (words) process has made me think about that a bit more. Because I am an improviser who works in the realm of jazz and creative music, my music compositions are structures in which musicians can add their individual voices and make each performance different. So a piece I wrote ten years ago can have a totally new feel when played today!

Carrie: What does your creative workspace look like?

I have a typical NYC situation, which means that I don’t have a dedicated studio (luckily my neighbors are great about me practicing) and that there could be any combination of cats, yesterday’s mail, piles of books or other distractions where I play. So I light a special incense and start by playing long tones on the saxophone with an electronic shruti box plugged into my speakers and sounding a drone. The practice ritual makes up for the lack of dedicated space.

Carrie: When you have multiple creative interests, how do you decide when and where to focus your creative energies?

I keep them fairly separate. In my field, even at the highest levels, there are few musicians that make a living from it. Most musicians in the jazz and improvised music field teach, have day jobs, play private functions, or have another source of income to support their careers. My writing career is more than a simple day job because it is flexible, and I enjoy the work and its creative elements more than I have any other type of work that I’ve done outside of music. This also allows me the freedom to see music 100% as a creative endeavor – and be guided by my interests as an artist rather than what’s commercially popular.

Carrie: Do those varied creative interests inform one another? How so?

My writing skills developed in doing my own publicity earlier in my music career, and my love for reading and language. My unique voice as a saxophonist and composer is as much influenced by my reading choices and other interests (like my love of the natural world) as it is by practicing and listening to other music. My music definitely informs my writing. Great writers have to know how to listen – as do great musicians! I also have a strong sense of rhythm and cadence in words, which is really important in copywriting when you want to make people feel something using as few words as possible.

Carrie: Can you share one challenge you’ve faced as a musician and how you’ve dealt with it?

Absolutely! The jazz world is very male dominated and while there are lots more female players now coming up that are getting mainstream attention, it is still a challenge to be taken as seriously as my male peers. I have spoken out publicly about the need to see women as a part of jazz instead of as the “other.” A few years ago I led a mixed gender group called Shatter the Glass as a role model to bring jazz to a wider demographic.

I try to strike a balance between calling it out publicly when I can, while still keeping the focus on making art. As an example, in 2009 I led my band at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (a famous NYC jazz venue) as part of a Women in Jazz Festival. It was sponsored by…Diet Coke! I guess they figured since women are always on a diet…(sarcasm)!!!

Creative Spirit Sarah Manning talks about the interplay between her writing and jazz music and the importance of nature to her creative process. Learn more.

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Carrie: Tell us more about your idea of creative sustainability.

When I talk creative sustainability, I’m fighting for the connection to be returned between artist and fan. So that tune you loved that got you out of bed as a teenager but wasn’t sponsored by a corporation still gets made, and you know the artist is getting paid. Today, tech companies like Spotify have stepped in as an additional barrier between record label and artist and fan to take a cut.

Starting with sites like Napster years ago and now extending into streaming, we’ve got a culture where people don’t pay for music since they can get it for free. We’ve been sold this false idea that all musicians live a glamorous life and rake in the cash. In truth, Pharrell as the songwriter of Happy, only made $2700 from 43 MILLION streams of the song on Pandora! Of course he makes money from multiple sources and probably does product endorsements, but indie artists and musicians in genres like folk, jazz, and classical do not – and their music is still life changing, just for a smaller audience.

I believe that when we devalue culture and the creativity of others, we are devaluing creativity in ourselves. And we all have creative potential!

If you want to support the artists you love, buy an album at their website or at a live show if you can, or download from i-Tunes rather than stream. They’ll really appreciate it!

Carrie:  What is one creative resource you can’t live without?

The natural world! I know, I know – I live in NYC. But I find creativity is about having mental space to fill. Spending time by the water, hiking, and listening to birds sing is essential to giving myself that mental space.

Carrie: Who/what inspires you?

There are many sources of inspiration in my life, including the natural world as mentioned. But I’d like to share a general (but very big) one that I think your readers can identify with – the entrepreneurial spirit! After all, that’s how we found each other for this interview.

The entrepreneurial idea that we can create our own lives and get outside of the traditional expectations of the 9-5 to explore our dreams and passions, and find the right balance of activities that both sustains and inspires us, is not so different from the creative process itself. It embraces curiosity, taking risks, exploring ideas, and getting to know ourselves so we can use our skills and limited time on this planet in the way that best helps others!

Carrie:  How do you define Creativity?

I’m going to answer this question like a copywriter would – which is to get into semantics. Ha ha.

Creative is not a noun. Creative is a verb. Being creative is an action, which means that is open to all, not just a select few.

“Creative is not a noun. Creative is a verb.” (Click to Tweet)

Be Creatively Courageous: What ritual can you create for your art if you don’t have a dedicated creative space?

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