The Jazz Lesson in Improvisation
I used to think, how could jazz musicians pick notes out of thin air? I had no idea of the knowledge it took. It was like magic to me.
— Calvin Hill, bass player
In an environment characterized by uncertainty, the success of all our widely and wildly varied enterprises will depend on our capacity to figure out stuff on the fly; in other words, we need to develop a capacity for improvisation.
The essence of jazz is collective improvisation and depends on the spontaneous, dynamic, and creative interplay of the performing artists. But the freedom so essential for its performance is grounded in a rigorous individual and collective discipline. The makers of jazz music figured out a long time ago how a diverse but highly interdependent collection of individuals can perform collaboratively and put the theory of synergy into practice.
Improvising isn’t winging it. Which is why, in mastering the craft of improvisation, jazz musicians have learned to do things that the inhabitants of other collective undertakings merely dream about being able to do, namely:
- creating a culture that fosters innovation;
- treating uncertainty as an opportunity rather than a threat;
- encouraging risk-taking while seeing mistakes as learning opportunities;
- fostering an openness to voices with something new to say;
- seeing diversity as a source of creativity by developing multiple perspectives on complex problems.
And if you’re imagining that in pulling this off, jazz musicians have a unique perspective on the nature of leadership, you’d be right.