An Orchestra and a Jazz Band Walk Into a Bar …

By | April 15, 2018

There is any number of ways to screw up an orchestral performance, but the one excuse that won’t work is for the musicians to say that they didn’t know what was coming. The orchestrator has taken that one off the table. In this art form, the act of composing and the act of performing are actions separated in time … in many cases by a century or more. In the improvising domain of jazz, however, composing and performing occur simultaneously. This is its defining characteristic and not knowing what’s coming is both its essential challenge and its enduring appeal for those who make this music.

This separation between planning and acting is the defining distinction that can be made between organizations of the industrial economy and those of the knowledge economy. In the case of the former, activities of strategizing, planning and implementing are separated by gaps in time. In the knowledge economy, because of the dynamic and disruptive environments in which they must operate, these organizations don’t have the luxury of such gaps. Here the activities of planning and acting become, of necessity, conflated and regularly happen simultaneously. If you’re noticing a paradigm shift in the making here, it means you’ve been paying attention.

Peter Drucker suggested that twenty-first century leaders would be like orchestra conductors. Another organizational guru, Warren Bennis, demurred: “I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don’t think that’s quite it; it’s more like jazz.” I’m with Bennis on this one. The traditional management tasks of organizing, planning, controlling and directing have become burned into the reptilian part of our brains. No big surprise really after a century or more of conditioning in organizations that efficiently and reliably produced an astonishing variety of stuff. I, for one, cut my management teeth in a steel company. We transformed iron ore into, among a great many other things, three-inch nails. If you’re going to reliably play the same tune every day, you’d better orchestrate it; write everyone’s part for them. Henry Mintzberg called organizations with standardized repertoires of tunes, Machine Bureaucracies.

I began, gradually and not always gracefully, to be disabused of this way of getting things done. In one of my stops along the way to where I am now, I worked at a consultancy where I was responsible for the performance of a team whose job it was to nurture and tend to the needs of our clients. In this case the notion of team is really a euphemism for a collection of sole practitioners being independent together – not unlike a university faculty who substitute collegiality for team. These were the unherdable geese who laid the golden eggs and as long as they weren’t in the office, I knew they were out there with their meters running. The days of organizing, planning, controlling and directing were long gone. I settled for benign oversight.

These days you’ll find me on a bandstand leading jazz musicians. Let me give you a taste of what being there is like. This is from Paul Berliner’s wonderful book, “Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation.”

From the performance’s first beat, improvisers enter a rich, constantly changing musical stream of their own creation, a vibrant mix of shimmering cymbal patterns, fragmentary bass lines, luxuriant chords, and surging melodies, all winding in time through the channels of a composition’s general form. Over its course, players are perpetually occupied: they must take in the immediate inventions around them while leading their own performances toward emerging musical images, retaining, for the sake of continuity, the features of a quickly receding trail of sound. They constantly interpret one another’s ideas, anticipating them on the basis of the music’s predetermined harmonic events. Without warning, however, anyone in the group can suddenly take the music in a direction that defies expectation, requiring others to make decisions as to the development of their own parts. When pausing to consider an option or take a rest, the musician’s impression is of a “great rush of sounds” passing by, and the player must have the presence of mind to track its precise course before adding his or her powers of musical invention to the group’s performance. Every manoeuvre or response leaves its momentary trace in the music. By journey’s end, the group has fashioned a composition anew, an original product of their interaction.

Whereas my consulting team was independent together, here interdependency is the defining feature of the dynamic, in-the-moment, improvising and self-regulating jazz ensemble. In this environment listening and paying attention to what’s going on is critical. Saxophonist Lee Konitz has this caution. “When I can’t hear anyone else, that’s a danger sign … when my attention is on myself, I know I’m in trouble.”

And so, in this context, what does leadership look like here? In a nutshell, it’s nothing more or less than creating the conditions on the bandstand which make what Berliner has so perfectly captured possible. It’s important to point out, that one of the most important conditions for success on the bandstand will have occurred before anyone is on the bandstand. This is when the leader gets the gig; negotiates the terms of the contract; works out with the client what’s to be achieved; hires the musicians. In short, the leader has to know why they’re there. The improvising jazz band has to function in a spontaneous, open and self-regulating way, but it’s not a democracy – somebody has to be in a position to blow a whistle and tell everybody to get out of the pool should the need arise.

Every jazz performance is an act of taking something familiar and engaging in a collective act of reimagining. “I never thought of it that way before.” This means that it creates a condition of dynamic disequilibrium between the conservative forces of mastery and the disruptive forces of innovation. Mastery involves the application of learned knowledge and inevitably reaches its limits and can become a competency trap. Innovation, however, involves generating new knowledge and becomes the means by which new levels of mastery can be achieved. Dave Brubeck put it well. “There’s a way of playing safe, there’s a way of using tricks and there’s the way I like to play, which is dangerously, where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t made before.” Jazz saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins echoes the sentiment. “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying.” Jazz band leaders aren’t exempt. There is, therefore, a somewhat paradoxical role for bandstand leadership: Inviting musicians into the state of discomfiting disequilibrium and the likelihood of making mistakes that innovation demands while, at the same time, making it a safe space and one free of judgment. A world away from the way I exercised my management responsibilities at the steel company and the consulting firm.

Think of it this way. The improvised jazz performance is akin to a conversation to which each musician brings their own distinctive voice; that unique and idiosyncratic style of talking that each musician brings to the bandstand. Voice is shaped by a musician’s artistic imagination exercised through their grasp of music theory and history, instrumental proficiency as soloing leaders and supporting accompanists.  Here’s what pianist Walter Bishop Jr. has to say about voice.

It all goes from imitation to assimilation to innovation. You move from the imitation stage to the assimilation stage when you take little bits of things from different people and weld them into an identifiable style – creating your own style. Once you’ve created your own sound and you have a good sense of the history of the music, then you think of where the music hasn’t gone and where it can go – and that’s innovation.

During the course of a performance, musicians are required to use their voices to serve a variety of ends, some of which they are more naturally disposed to engage in than others. But it is precisely this variety of voices that makes spontaneous collaboration the innovative enterprise that it is. And given that improvisation creates a perpetual state of dynamic disequilibrium, everyone, including leaders, at some point in the performance, will be required to get out of their comfort zone. This, after all, is where learning happens.

I’m just about done here and find myself at the point where I should be looking for something clever and memorable to say by way of an ending. You, patient reader, have no way of knowing how much time has passed since the writing of that last sentence and the one that’s about to follow. Suffice it to say that it was long enough for a walk around a couple of blocks, some extended time web surfing with nothing particular in mind, and a satisfying respite at my other keyboard – the piano. I hinted earlier at a paradigm shift and I see it as being occasioned by the conflating of thinking and acting as we move from making things to creating knowledge.

All of our relationships, regardless of what they aim to achieve, are grounded in and sustained by conversations, the quality of which will determine the success or failure of these shared endeavors. In organizational terms, nowhere is this more so than in the enterprises of the knowledge economy where thinking and acting occur simultaneously; where strategy and its implementation are emergent products of improvisational behaviour. In an environment full of surprises, we’d better learn to have focused but unscripted conversations that admit a diversity of voices so that we might surprise ourselves.



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