If This Then That – If This Then Maybe That.

By | February 24, 2017

If This Then That – If This Then Maybe That.

Orchestral music is composed and then performed. In jazz music, composition and performance occur simultaneously. The difference can be put quite simply – at the downbeat, orchestral musicians will know what’s coming; jazz musicians won’t. Two different worlds – a world of “if-this-then-that” and a world of “if-this-then maybe-that.” This is a distinction that I’ve thought a lot about when it comes to the different ways in which we organize ourselves for all of our collaborative undertakings. There’s work we plan and then carry out and there’s work where planning and execution happen concurrently.

One of my favourite writers about matters organizational is Henry Mintzberg. In his book, “Structure in Fives,” two are relevant to what interest me here: Machine Bureaucracies and Adhocracies. He describes the means by which each coordinates the interdependencies among their component parts. In the case of machine bureaucracies it is standardized work processes whereby standardized inputs are transformed into standardized outputs. Steel companies, car manufacturers, and large government organizations are examples. In the case of adhocracies, Mintzberg describes the coordinating mechanism as mutual adjustment. (I know – it sounds like what two physiotherapists might do on a date.) Consulting firms, advertising agencies, computing industry businesses and project teams are examples. Here multidisciplinary, self-regulating teams innovate and solve problems in environments characterized by uncertainty where considerable discretionary action is required of those doing the work. In adhocracies planning and action occur simultaneously.

  1. The table is set. Given an environment in which the only constant is change and the challenge is to adapt or fail, how are we to prepare ourselves when we don’t know what’s coming?

A jazz ensemble is an adhocracy and jazz musicians have been mutually adjusting (improvising) for over a hundred years and have taken it to a high level of sophistication. (By the way, improvising isn’t winging it; winging is something you do when planning fails.) Improvising makes very particular demands on its performers. For the jazz musician, possessing the requisite skills (having an easy facility with one’s instrument) and knowledge (music history and theory, harmonies, scales and tunes) is essential. But as necessary as they are, they aren’t enough. Something more is needed.

I’ve been reading “Organizational Improvisation” and in one of its chapters I came across a reference to the work of Guy Claxton, an academic who specializes in creativity and learning. He speaks of what he calls the “4Cs:”competence, comfort, consistency and confidence. This sounds exactly like what the acquisition of skills and knowledge ought to provide – wouldn’t we all like to do whatever it is we do feeling competent, comfortable, consistent and confident. And yet, he says, the “4Cs” can be potential barriers to the risk-taking inherent in improvisation and impediments to learning as well.

Listen to Dave Brubeck. “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.” Competence, comfort, consistency and confidence will ensure a safe performance, but if you want to go somewhere you’ve never been before, you have to get out of the “4C” zone. Stan Getz echoes this when he speaks of what he looks for in a jazz musician. “There are four qualities essential to a great jazzman. They are taste, courage, individuality, and irreverence. These are the qualities I want to retain in my music.” Now, just take a minute and imagine a jazz ensemble comprised of musicians with these qualities engaged in a spontaneous act of concurrent composing and performing. I don’t know what you’re imagining but I’m pretty sure it’s not a safe performance. And then there’s Miles Davis who took getting beyond the “4C” zone to a whole new level. Miles went to great lengths to ensure that neither he nor the musicians in his band would go there. He never rehearsed   – he didn’t even like his musicians practicing. Pianist Herbie Hancock recalls Miles saying, “I pay you to do your practicing on the bandstand.”

As a reader you will have no way of knowing this, but several days have passed since I wrote that last line. How to give you a sense of what that “something” beyond skills and knowledge is has been the nagging question. I think I may have figured it out – I’ll talk about what it’s like for me to experience that “something else.”

About a year ago I had begun thinking about the musicians I’d like to hire to do the monthly jazz vespers I do at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Oakville. I was going through the express checkout line at a local grocery store and just ahead of me was Russ Little, an Oakville resident who had been the lead trombonist with the Woody Herman and Count Basie orchestras and Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass. Nothing ventured, right? I introduced myself and asked him if he’d like to do the vespers gig. “Sure… when is it?” There are two things about this that are relevant. As I was imagining playing with Russ, I was already, at some visceral level, outside my “4C” zone. Holy shit, what have I done? The other thing about it was Russ’s openness to the invitation – all he wanted to know was when it was. That openness to new experiences is one of the defining characteristics of jazz musicians. When I hire musicians for Getting in the Groove or jazz vespers gigs, all they ever want to know is the downbeat time. There are never questions about repertoire and they never expect that there will be a rehearsal. They may ask if there’s a dress code.

And on the matter of staffing the band, I always hire musicians who are better than I am. Two reasons for this: 1) I want to put on the best possible performance for the people who hire me and 2) playing with really good jazzers gets me out of my “4C” zone – never a bad thing because that’s where my learning happens. Well, maybe there’s a third reason – I get to bask in the reflected glory. My job as leader, to put it simply, is to create the conditions for musicians can be as good as they can be and sometimes that means just getting out of their way! That’s far better than losing my nerve and trying to get back to a safe place.

When I asked you earlier to imagine a jazz ensemble comprised of musicians with the qualities Stan Getz looks for engaged in a spontaneous act of concurrent composing and performing, it might have occurred to you that the potential for screwing up would be highly likely.

The musicians of Getting in the Groove did a gig for senior management team of a teaching hospital and one of the docs asked what jazz musicians do when something goes wrong. I said that, given that we get into trouble together, we get out of it together.” “That’s where we’re different”, she said. “When we get in trouble here, we look for someone to blame.” In a jazz performance, however, getting out of trouble doesn’t mean getting back to a safe place but, rather, using the “mistake” to go somewhere else; as a point of departure to somewhere potentially interesting.

Here’s an example. I was doing a workshop that was a component of an executive MBA leadership program at the Schulich School of Business with guitarist Kevin Barrett, bassist Brandi Disterheft and drummer Tim Shia. We were playing Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” and Kevin was taking the melody the first time through the tune. I was accompanying him by laying down some “less-is-more” chords. What I didn’t realize was that Kevin wasn’t sure how the melody went on the eight-bar bridge and I missed his little head nod that told me that I should play it. The result was that for the first four-beat bar of the bridge, Kevin and I were contributing nothing to the performance. Then something remarkable happened. Brandi and Tim took over in a minimalist way. Brandi played one note per bar and Tim, on the same beat as Brandi, stroked his cymbal once. And so it went for the entire eight bars of the bridge at which point Kevin and I got back in. It was humorous; it was quirky; it was fun. And workshop participants got the joke that transformed the performance. So we built the “mistake” into the rest of the performance of the tune. Karl Wieck would refer to this as “the aesthetic of imperfection.”

I’m just about out of space here. I don’t know what these stories might have suggested to you about what belongs in that “something else” beyond skills and knowledge category, but if your mind has been noodling with things like attentiveness, openness, an ability to listen (“big ears”), a tolerance for risk-taking and uncertainty, a sense of humour, artistic sensibility, Bill Mays’s wonderful “fearless and egoless,” a willingness to become emotionally and viscerally engaged with others, you’ve got it. And then there’s Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that the antidote to the predicament of unpredictability is forgiveness.

And, finally, if you’re also imaging that this “something else” is not skills to be acquired through training but, rather, dispositions to be acquired in a nurturing culture, you’d be right about that too. Maybe that’s the next Random Riff: Culture and the Aesthetic of Imperfection. A project for the season of Lent perhaps.


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