Magic Charm

That third night was a charm.
Walking with you
arm in arm
along Eighth Avenue
or maybe it was Seventh?
I can’t tell because
I’ve been under a spell
since that third night.

One thing is sure,
what I felt was pure.
Enchanted by each word
I’m certain I heard
my soul’s echo in your voice.
Through incantation and my
you opened a portal
and led me into the
Try as I might,
I’ve lost all sight
of life before —
those three nights.

Through calm assurance,
patience and endurance,
you discovered the lover in me.
Solo navigation would never reach this elevation.
Together we achieved
what I’d hardly conceived;
we made love real
and the possibilities are still–
bringing me to my knees.

Simple pleasure
beyond measure–
your touch, your scent,
your time
and the way you penetrated my
I left a trail of blood
on Eighth Avenue
or maybe it was Seventh?
proof I died that day.

Our souls connected
I was resurrected–
through the gift of sight.
On sunny days,
this charm glistens,
shines so bright,
it hurts my eyes.
I’m surprised I’m not blind
or maybe I am?
On dark days
(not to mention the nights),
my mind plays
tricks and
I see glimmers of light
no one else can see and when
darkness hangs
on me
like a blanket of lead
–on these very darkest of nights–
I hold my charm tightly
but it doesn’t shine
brightly, so
I rub it in my hands,
press it to my lips
and feel its soft glow.
I see what I feel
and because I feel, I know–
that third night was a charm.

If you are cold,
this charm will make you warm.
If you are in darkness,
it’ll give you light.
It’s tarnished, you say?
that’s only because
you can’t see
as deeply as me.
My reply?
Open your third eye.

That third night was a charm.
Walking with me
arm in arm
along Eighth Avenue–
or maybe it was Seventh?
Re-member the magic
in that moment.

–JJModeste, 1/4/2018


January 10th

January 10th


Let this day rain on you

hard and heavy with big,

fat drops that fall like

Gabriel’s tears and

deliver unto you

a message of hope.

Let a wild wind rip away

the mud-caked dust of despair

and leave you raw,

so sunlight can

singe all that hurts and

let new growth begin.

Let quiet calm halt time

and keep March away, for now.


Here in this moment,

rage within but

stand still.

Fearless protector,

listen deeply and be comforted

as the universe echoes

the sound of your soul and whispers

these words from the vast beyond–

I am well.

—JJModeste, 1/10/2018

Love in a time of violence

We are living in violent times. Our current political theatre has me in knots. I’ve read enough about emerging markets, governance, and foreign relations to know – democracies fail. Is our experiment in democracy failing us now? Did our particular type of democracy, capitalist democracy, hasten our demise and so now threaten to upend the Republic?

Political violence is ripping our nation apart. I am traumatized, daily, by 45 and his administration. Policies, orders, administrative and judicial appointments are setting our nation back more than 50 years. State violence – police brutality, in particular – has me deeply troubled. Too many view State violence as a partisan issue. Black Lives Matter, they say, ignores the risk police officers take every day, ignores the good cops who honor their oath to ‘serve and protect.’ People seek exceptions that allow them to deny what their eyes tell them is real. This psychological and emotional disconnect perpetuates violence and sacrifices human kindness. Blaming dead people for their deaths is inhumane and breeds outrage. And so I wonder… how does political, emotional, physical and psychological violence shape our daily interactions? How does violence shape the way we love?

The violence seems most acute in communities under siege. So, this poem, “Love in a time of violence” is an effort to re-commit to love.

Love in a time of violence 


There is a beautiful fierceness

inherent in Black Love.

It means — I desire you, insatiably,

and will protect you, heroically,

and in the space between desire and protection,

I will love you

romantically, tenderly, and erotically—

History has made Black Love


it is always open season

on Black bodies. 

Black women are angry 

at Black men and

Black men are suspicious

of Black women.

History is a heavy load to bear.

We wonder– 

can love overcome 

anger and violence and mistrust and

centuries of hurt?

There is historic rage in my love for you.

Yet, that rage breeds a passion

whose fire burns eternally,

and a loyalty encoded in my DNA. 

I know you,


You are mine, for all time. 

It matters not what becomes of

“You & I.”

To love you is to have always loved you.

Deep like the ocean,

long like the Nile — 

Big, like the sky,

Still, like a mountain,

My love is always.

— Jackie Modeste, 1 August 2017


Arts, Ed & Entrepreneurship

On Friday, January 29th at 8:30PM, the Emilio Modeste Quartet will perform two sets of jazz at The Bronx Beer Hall. Located at 2344 Arthur Avenue, the Bronx Beer Hall is situated on an iconic avenue, steeped in the cultural history of the Bronx. Come early and stay late, personnel: Emilio Modeste (tenor and soprano sax), Jordan Carr (drums), Jason Clotter (bass), and Leo Posel (piano).

IMG_9345 (1)
From L-R: Leo Posel, Jason Clotter, Emilio Modeste, Jordan Carr

What I love most about this? These young musicians are deeply engaged in the arts, committed to sharing their talent, and engaging audiences in and through the music. Despite all the available options in New York City on a Friday night, these guys want to perform — for you, for me, for us. They are sharing themselves and being courageous in ways that matter. Also, let’s remember, a set list has a narrative arc and requires careful consideration of audience, timing, flow, and emotional intensity. Collaboration is necessary to the performance and begins long before the musicians step onto the stage. Band members collaborate musically and verbally as they discern which songs might best suit the audience and the idea they intend to convey. Time management skills are honed during the process of preparing for a gig and the pressure builds until the night of the performance. These young musicians must balance academic, rehearsal, practice, family and other demands on their time and attention. The gig is the “test” — the performance will be assessed by the audience, the management/owners, and by the band itself. It’s no wonder the Every Student Succeeds Act passed and will now integrate the arts meaningfully into a well-rounded curriculum for k-12 students.

These kids are musicians and entrepreneurs, they are also educators in their own right because through their music, the dare to make us all more culturally literate. Join us at the Bronx Beer Hall on Friday, 1/29 and see for yourself.

Finding Your Groove: the Art of Teaching Through Jazz

It’s been a looooong time…. I took a hiatus from blogging, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes, and from social media in general, to regroup; to spend some time thinking about what I want to do and how. What I’ve learned, re-affirmed, is — I love “educating.” Facilitating the learning process by encouraging smart conversations really energizes and delights me. I enjoy knowing what people think, how they process information and make sense of the world. Given all the outrageous, heartbreaking, problematic, and frightfully topical news coverage of late — I am more committed to educating than ever.

We need to think deeply, creatively and critically (not for the uninteresting sake of being critical). We need to listen to one another and be smarter. We need to engage thoughtfully. We need to be like jazz musicians in our thinking, interacting, and problem solving.

On Tuesday, June 30th, I’ll be at NYC’s legendary Cornelia Street Cafe with my colleague, Bassist and Principal of Jazz Impact Michael Gold, offering a workshop, “Finding Your Groove: the Art of Teaching Through Jazz.”

Michael Gold 2

JJM by Frrank Stewart

We’ll address three main questions:

  • Why is it hard to “hear” new ideas?
  • How do great teachers teach critical thinking?
  • How do we cultivate curiosity?

This is part of what I’ll be doing to help make a difference. If you’re in NYC, or can be, join us and “BE” in our incredible creative space for learning. Let’s make a difference. Spread the word and Find YOUR Groove….

Tuesday, June 30th — 6-7:30PM

The Cornelia Street Cafe — 29 Cornelia Street, NYC 10014

CALL 212-989-9319

Follow the Music

This is an excerpt of my remarks for the June 19, 2014, Jazz Diplomacy event sponsored by Natixis at the National Archives. 

Into a Black, Brown, and Beige World
Into a Black, brown and beige world went US Jazz Ambassadors, including: Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Leading with jazz and spreading democracy in sound, our finest musicians traveled to far-away places — Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe — collaborating and integrating with various people of the world for more than two decades, beginning in the mid 1950s.Middle East and Africa c 1955

Oh, they had been overseas before. Armstrong and Ellington had toured abroad in the early 1930s — just after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 — but this was different. These were no ordinary gigs. These musicians, who had established themselves as cultural icons at home, were now tasked with representing the nation abroad. Indeed, this integrated bunch whose home country was in the midst of an intense Civil Rights struggle, was being called upon to save the nation’s image, globally. They did that and so much more.

Ike Gets Dizzy
The idea of Jazz Ambassadors was a collaboration between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harlem Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., after the successful multi-year Cold War tour of Porgy and Bess. Dwight EisenhowerNew York City Councilman Adam Clayton PowellPowell, who was married to organist Hazel Scott, was able to secure Dizzy Gillespie for the first official tour (Middle East, 1956). In the midst of racial strife that seemed sure to tear the nation apart, Dizzy Gillespie was a bold and necessary choice for leading the new venture.

But why jazz?

Jazz had an established global audience, internationally recognized talent, and was an art form indigenous to the United States. Primarily an instrumental music, jazz did not require lyrics, understanding the English language was not required for participation or appreciation. A “stealth weapon” of the Cold War, jazz was a relatively new art form so exceptional, it could rival the centuries of excellence of ballet and classical music embedded in European cultures and the Soviet Union. (Satchmo, 28) What’s more, jazz musicians weren’t hung up on race or ethnicity; jazz culture was and is inherently integrated, musicians sought and seek the best sounds. Jazz is an inclusive form, welcoming as many instruments as can be played.Global face

Created by Americans of African descent living in the US, jazz could simultaneously combat racial strife at home and promote diversity abroad. Supporting jazz meant acknowledging the cultural value of its historically marginalized populace, an effort that was in direct opposition to the realities as witnessed in contemporary news accounts. Dizzy big bandSeen through the lens of jazz, the United States was not the racist, materialist society others deemed it to be; instead, the US was a leader, a modern, progressive nation unified though its diversity, a disruptive innovator in a world wedded to custom.

Prelude to Chaos
The 1950s were turbulent years in the US. Senator Joseph McCarthy was closely associated with the era known as the “Red Scare” and took the ideological divide between democracy and communism to levels that were positively surreal. He turned his glance inward, accusing fellow countrymen of betrayal; and widened the gulf between races by castigating the socially conscious of every hue. The US involvement in the Korean War (1950-53) divided that country along ideological lines.

Separate, however, was not equal; so said the Supreme Court in its 1954 decision in Brown v Board but society had other ideas. In the summer of 1955, a young boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, was murdered in cold blood because witnesses thought they heard him whistle at a white co-ed during a summer visit to Mississippi.

Emmett Till imageDespite their own damning testimony, his killers were acquitted. That December, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white patron on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus and so launched a dignified nonviolent economic attack that lasted more than 380 days.Rosa Parks on bus

Segregation has been US social custom. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas sent the National Guard to prohibit nine children from integrating public school. Charles Mingus 2The Little Rock Nine eventually received protection from President Eisenhower who sent troops to protect the students’ right to matriculate. The insidiousness of this violence and the complexities of justice — these blues — were written indelibly into our cultural history with “Fables of Faubus” by Jazz Ambassador Charles Mingus.

Jazz and Life
Jazz had various forms but each reflected life in a unique way. Bebop musicians such as — Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Roy Haynes, and JJ Johnson — brought forth a sound that illuminated virtuosity, was harmonically complex, and faaaaast! Bebop was rebellious, unsettling, and energetic. Domestically, it reflected the struggle for Civil Rights. Internationally, it appealed to youth and many overseas who struggled (psychologically, at least) and imagined life under a more liberal order.

The swing music of the big-band era with its steady, reliably placed beats, no longer seemed sufficient for capturing the velocity of social change. Incredulous, unnerving social contradictions, were expressed in bebop with sounds that were at once fiercely violent, emotionally dense, and cathartic. In one sense, musicians seemed to intellectualize the struggle; creatively processing its absurdities and indignities. Yet, swing privileged collaboration, promoted individuality through improvisation, and suggested social cohesion in ways bebop did not.

Innovation through Jazz
Legendary producer, NEA Jazz Master George Wein understood integration on a variety of levels. He knew we needed a variety of jazz forms and he wanted as many people as possible to engage the music. In 1954, when the United States seemed to be on the brink of social collapse, George began a series of annual outdoor jazz festivals in Newport, Rhode Island; and the rest, as they say, is history. George Wein & DukeThe idea of jazz festivals democratized the way we experience music. Through jazz festivals, George gave us a template for active engagement, audience growth and development, rotating leadership, and private/public partnership. Jazz reached through socio-economic barriers, dealt with the depths of emotional pain and injustice forthrightly, celebrated the triumph of the human spirit, and made even the most unlikely collaborations possible.

This was music to the State Department’s ears. George had a model that worked and a sizable, reliable network of musicians. The alliance between George Wein’s Festival Productions and the US Department of State was ideal. Musicians were able to expand the audience for their music and develop artistic alliances that would otherwise not be possible. The State Department was able to enter geopolitical spaces in black, brown and beige areas, bridge gaps in understanding, and forge meaningful alliances by bearing culture — not arms.

What’s more, jazz is self-regenerating. Whether swing, bebop, avant-garde, or cool — jazz adapts to change, embraces difference, and enables individuality through freedom of expression. Jazz is always modern and always relevant; it is agile. As Cultural Historian Albert Murray wrote, “The more any art form changes… the more it should be able to fulfill its original function.” (Hero, 72)

The tours of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were arguably the most successful. Musicians adapted to their ever-changing environments and audiences. EE Soviet map c1960They formed musical alliances, booked gigs and gave interviews in local markets. The music was sold bootleg and broadcast on the radio. Jazz became the sound of democracy and where jazz went, so too did commerce. Jazz had broad social appeal and reached the “man in the streets” not just those in elite circles of power. This was revolutionary — average citizens the world over had the chance to experience an art form that spoke to them directly and encouraged them to speak back. Jazz availed people of the possibilities inherent in individual self-expression.

*          *          *

The, now historic, Jazz Ambassador tours ended in the mid 1970s. The program left an indelible impact on all those involved; from diplomats whose jobs were made easier because of the way jazz commanded respect and made conversations flow, to musicians who hungered for the breadth of exposure to new sounds and interactions with new audiences, to average citizens who recognized their voice.

Follow the Music
Jazz tours continue today in modified form. Cultural presentation programs are now commonplace but it is no coincidence jazz was an early leader. As a response to economic disaster at home, musicians revealed themselves as entrepreneurs and expanded their networks of supporters and sponsors decades before terms like “social media” or “globalization” would enter into our collective vocabulary. Moreover, the blues — the deep feeling of contrasting emotions transmitted through sound, captured and sustained in jazz — is what connects people to the music and invites them into the shared creative, expressive, space and facilitates the formation of emotional communities. People from far and wide travel to be close to the music and what’s more, jazz musicians will travel to reach the people; they seek each other. As an inherently inclusive art form, jazz works because musicians absorb the sounds of local environments and through seamless collaboration, extend and enhance understanding.
Our efforts to engage the black, brown and beige of the world today — those in our own country and in emerging economies — will require lessons learned best through jazz: collaboration, listening, improvisation, and leading. Follow the music, it will teach you everything you need to know.




‘Mind the Gap’ — Develop Cultural Competence

The alleged “skills gap” dominates conversations about the relationship between education and work. Peter Smirniotopoulos and his co-author Natalie Pregibon offer an insightful analysis and some solid recommendations for how we might better prepare students for the demands of the workforce, today and tomorrow. One thing I really like about Peter’s approach is his uncompromising insistence on the value of creative thinking. Read Peter and Natalie’s series, Public Education and Job Readiness, here. Peter and Natalie were also recent guests on my radio show, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. You can listen to the show by clicking here.

Content is Crap (S/O to Greg Satell)

My classrooms are laboratories for engaged discussion and the development of new ideas. ConversationMy hope is that this will lead to an informed understanding of the content under scrutiny and also more meaningful and smarter work lives and civic engagement. I am passionate about educating. In my mind, the practical application of knowledge, can’t be beat. Over 20+ years of educating, I’ve put in the “deliberate practice” of 10,000 hours. What’s this mean? In part, it means the content I deliver doesn’t suck.

Why is THAT important?

In “Content is CrapGreg Satell tells the story of Ed Catmull who, as president of Pixar films, was committed to moving the films from “suck to not-suck.” This is important because Catmull wasn’t just looking for a gimmick to trick more people into seeing his films. As Greg notes, Catmull wasn’t merely seeking an audience” he wanted to “share something important with the world.” For all my love of content — American culture & jazz, ethnic studies  — “content” as Greg notes “is crap.”
But academics are genuinely delighted by content. We spend decades studying our fields of interest and by the time we reach the dissertation level, we have narrowed our chosen fields to an esoteric spot in the universe that no one else has considered in exactly the same way. Academics are the most blase entrepreneurs.

Here’s the thing — the content we find so fascinating sucks to most of the world. The way to salvage not just our egos but our beloved fields of inquiry from extinction, is to deliver the content is such a way tBoringhat connects us with the audience, that creates an emotional link between the content and something meaningful in their lives. We must create not just a new audience for our ideas but “share something meaningful with the world” which necessarily requires pushing beyond classroom walls. We must “mind the gap” between disciplinary specificity and the pragmatic demands of life outside the academy.

Education and Employers

A recent Guardian article lamented the state of economics education. Students and employers are struggling to see the relevance of skills honed in class because theoretical models fail to impress beyond the classroom. “Employers complain that recent economics graduates, while being technically proficient, know very little about the real world. Lacking knowledge about the historical backgrounds, institutional details and political idioms of real-world economies, they end up being idiot savants – they can manipulate most complicated mathematical models but cannot translate their insights into business strategies and economic policies in the real world.” — Ouch!


Here’s another biting critique: “When graduate economists do have something to say about the real-world economy, their advice is incomprehensible to noneconomists – and noneconomists make up almost all their audience.”

How do we Bridge the Gap?

First, educators must educate as if most students will not pursue PhDs (because most don’t). Second, academics must write for non academics. Since tenure is growing ever more elusive, this is practical because it’ll help academics secure jobs beyond the academy. Those scholars seeking to spread messages and educate the public broadly through MOOCs and/or social media (blogs, video blogs, Twitter, Facebook, radio programs, etc.) democratize education and include the global masses by using language that is easily understood. Third, seek professional viability beyond the academy — please.

You’re on your own!

According to the Guardian article, students in Norway were told by professors, their role was to offer “an analytical framework” for the material and students themselves would “have the rest of [their] lives to learn about current affairs.” This is such a cop-out. The aura of elitism is used to obscure poor pedagogy, lack of creativity, or just plain laziness. However, as hierarchies go — “‘pure’ research is more prestigious than applied or policy-relevant research, and research is more important than teaching. So, the more detached from the real world your work is, the higher up in the intellectual hierarchy you are.” Higher Ed is responsible for its own marginality, is doing its part in maintaining the status quo, and is abdicating its responsibility to prepare students for the future.

The Necessity of Mess  

This is no surprise. Our cultural quest for increased efficiencies (think Six Sigma), has led to hyper specialization, the mechanization of human beings, and the devaluation of emotional connections. We seek linear explanations and simple dichotomies to explain complex phenomena. Regarding education in economics, the Guardian writes, “In the past, economics was taught as a series of interrelated debates about competing theories and the different policy recommendations of those theories. Imprecise, even messy, but useful.”

In economics, the most popular reform proposal is “The introduction of mathematical models of complex nonlinear systems – the kinds of models which, at least with hindsight, might have predicted the 2008 financial crisis.” This is great but without practical application, this will be — yet another — theoretical model. Lively debate, interactive class assignments, collaborative projects that involve field work, and actively engaging social media to disseminate and test ideas are just some of the ways that will make the experience of learning economics (and all fields) meaningful and practical. Let’s transfer this pedagogical approach beyond the classroom to the workplace and boardroom.

The swing of things

John Coates wrote a really insightful NYT Sunday Review article, “The Biology of Risk.” In a nutshell, he likes the idea of uncertainty in markets because it teaches us — via practical experience — to be agile and creative. If our bodies are physiologically conditioned to respond to stress such as that caused by volatility; then, reducing change leads to a reduction in our ability to respond effectively to stress. The result? More and more devastating bubbles.

Coates explains, “Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash.” StressCompanies, however, have no coping mechanism. Fortunately, we have the blues and jazz — cultural coping mechanisms with built-in features like call and response, swing, and improvisation that endow practitioners to manage change confidently and even gracefully.

MurrayAccording to Cultural Historian Albert Murray, “what is ultimately at stake” in a moment of crisis “is morale, which is to say the will to persevere, the disposition to persist and perhaps prevail; and what must be avoided by all means is a failure of nerve.” (Stomping, 10) Seizing up is not an option. Coates notes, “risk aversion” [amongst traders and the like] “occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities…” Indeed, we need people who are agile, who can respond reflexively and creatively to changing conditions. Murray’s explanation of a musical break is relevant to, at least, those working in finance. On dealing with uncertainty, he writes: it’s a matter of “grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality which is to say entropy.” (Blue Devils, 95) But you can’t just read Murray’s writing, you have to apply his theories practically and develop a trained, reflexive, response to change. If you want your business to swing, develop cultural competence.

The similarity in thinking expressed in Coates’ 2014 NYT article and Murray’s 1974 nonfiction text belies the 40 year time difference. There’s been a gap between theory and practice for decades, at least. What’s more, the notorious racial segregation in the United States is compounded by the segregation of ideas — science and technology are necessarily divorced from music and culture — and this hurts us all. What we need is an integrated approach to educating; the practical application of Murray’s 40 year old ideas in realms beyond the art and humanities and in forums beyond the traditional classroom and stage. We must mind the gap between theory and practice, bridge it and (perchance) close the skills gap. Educate holistically and move from crash to swing.


Jazz & the State

Mark S. Weiner was our guest on the March 7, 2014, episode of Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. Mark’s most recent book, The Rule of the Clan, is a really smart read; insightful, and filled with the intellectual provocations suggested by his title via the word “clan” and the idea that its ability to “rule” itself (and perhaps us?) is something we should think about carefully.

The idea is that in the presence of a weak State, extended kinship groups (clans) provide necessary protections, resources, and assistance for its people. The role of the State, then, is to integrate into these groups — via laws, enforcement, myriad resources, opportunities, and assistance — in such a way as to present an attractive alternative to clan rule. In liberal societies, the goal is to “liberate” or remove barriers to individual self-expression. So, the laws, resources, etc., are ideally intended to facilitate the process by which individuality is realized, actualized.

This is what jazz does. What you see on the bandstand, what you hear when you listen to jazz, is the process of granting individual self-expression via improvisation within a group. So, liberal society requires diverse voices and structures that enable the freedom of self-expression.

The agreement amongst musicians, the social contract, if you will, is that each person has decided to enable the freedom of self-expression — “we will help each other and won’t get in each other’s way” — is the unstated mantra of the jazz band.

During the Cold War, jazz was viewed as a stealth weapon precisely because if its ability to entice people with the possibilities inherent in the freedom of self-expression. Jazz music represented democracy, literally and metaphorically; and during the ideological standoff between communism and its foe, jazz musicians and their fans were considered threats to a more orderly way of life. Makes sense, jazz and democracy are messy. When everyone has a voice that is deemed valid for meaningful participation on the bandstand and/or in civic, judicial, political, and executive processes; then, decision-making is complicated and can be slow, tedious, and costly. Authoritarian regimes can seem utopian by contrast.

Jazz is Hard. Democracy is hard. Integration is hard.
Clans offer comfort and security, until they don’t. Deep loyalties can mask abuses of every kind, limit or obscure opportunities, and otherwise veil potential. When the State is weak, corruption reigns, and abuses of every kind are rampant. Deregulation is a great idea, until it isn’t. Sure, liberating markets is great but when the effort feeds on itself; we can easily revert to closeted activities — nepotism, sexism, racism, etc., — that erode progress and undermine not only the economy but the strength of liberal society. Integration encourages transparency, revealing activities that might otherwise remain hidden. This inherent checks & balances system makes democracy hard all over again. A strong State promotes and protects individuality. Dr. Wes said it best on Friday’s show, [Duke Ellington would], “enable members of his band to be their best selves—and as a result, by the way, very few people wanted to leave his band.” Where jazz goes; so, too, goes democracy. Let’s swing.

“Super Competence” and the Death of Management

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)

“Excessive reverence for the romantic illusion of “original thought” is the most fraudulent and destructive element in the institutionalized process of jazz education.” — Chuck Israels

It’s always a pleasure to hear Wynton Marsalis tell the stories of his life, music, and growing up in jazz. His raspy voice suggests a life well lived and his tall tales are captivating and seem decades old, even if he’s recounting yesterday’s trip to the grocery store. In a recent interview at a multinational finance firm before a crowd of nearly 1,000, Wynton shared insights on the relationship between jazz and business. Here are some of my takeaways:

Wynton has played many different styles of music but his accomplishments in classical and jazz are known best, likely because he’s won nine Grammy Awards (a few in each genre). Wynton’s training and practical experience in music are marked by interdisciplinarity, he moves seamlessly through perceived sonic divisions; an effort that requires intellectual agility, technical prowess, and talent.

As Innovation Thought Leader Scott Anthony explains (taken from his book, The Silver Lining):

“A good way to visualize what is required is to think about what a classically trained musician needs to do to become a world-class jazz musician. The musician has the right foundational knowledge and practical ability to make the transition. Continuing to play with accuracy and following principles of good musicianship continues to be important. But the transformation-seeking musician has to stop certain behaviors, such as following carefully laid out scripts displayed in music scores. The musician has to change the way he uses his ears. Instead of listening to ensure that everyone is playing in synch with each other, a jazz musician listens for unexpected changes. Finally, the musician has to start a new behavior—improvisation based on his personal synthesis of a variety of music styles. The transformation is possible. Jazz greats such as Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Scott Joplin, and Shirley Horn were classically trained musicians. But it requires careful thinking and hard work.

Similarly, for leaders to move from the business equivalent of classical music (operational effectiveness) to jazz (innovation) there are things they need to stop, do differently, and start. Specifically, companies have to stop some innovation efforts to free up time and money for transformation (Chapter 2). They have to do more with less by improving the productivity of individual innovation initiatives and broader innovation programs (Chapters 3-6). They have to start focusing more intently on value-seeking customer segments (Chapter 7). Individuals need to start driving personal reinvention so they have the fluidity to master increasingly common paradoxes (Chapter 8).”

Scott thinks like a musician. The work of innovation requires thinking differently, liberating oneself from mental barriers such as tradition or formal training, and having the courage and agility to navigate uncertain terrain.

Jazz band clip art

As Wynton talked about key tenets of jazz — the blues, swing, and improvisation — I thought about how these qualities encouraged creativity and might lead to innovation.

The Blues
In jazz, this is better described than defined but in general, the blues is the feeling of longing that permeates the music. It’s a hybrid form — already interdisciplinary — “a synthesis” says Albert Murray, “of African and European elements, the product of an Afro-American sensibility in an American mainland situation.” (Stomping 63) As a hybrid entity, the blues captures the opposing elements (African and European) that yields the “unexpected changes” Scott mentions above. The blues musician actively synthesizes opposing elements when he plays, compounding the totality of his experiences.

Billie Holliday

The blues is not a verbal music, no matter the lyrics involved. Instead, the blues is marked by vocal nuance. This is important to note because in a culture that privileges systems of efficiency and quantitative data, the blues is a reminder of the liminal space between human error and possibility and indicates the inadequacy of precision and disciplinary specificity to yield comprehensive results. In its exactitude, specificity is limited; the blues, by contrast, is broad. So, words and phrases aren’t necessarily articulated with precision; they are bent, pulled, prodded, as vocal ambiguity drives the emotions expressed, capturing a wider range than precise musical articulation can allow.

In business, the blues can be thought of as the angst that arises from combining quantitative and qualitative data. By considering quantitative data in the context of qualitative data — the information we gather via observation, judgement, professional insights, experience, feeling — we enter the realm of uncertainty. We are challenged to move away from the objective markers of knowledge, interpret the data, trust our judgement, accept the consequences therein, and exhibit courage by managing the associated ambiguity and emotional duress. While systems of efficiency have been great for providing us with objective measures and have served as guideposts we can rely on for analysis; they have eroded our confidence in using judgement and common sense and have left us ill-equipped for functioning autonomously.

Data image

As Management Professor Richard D. Johnson of SUNY Albany suggests in a recent Harvard Business Review post, “Along with better data, we need to develop a more nuanced view of human qualities and human potential.” He asks, “Can we not only accept, but embrace, that some behaviors may not be reducible to easily quantifiable metrics, and that no amount of data can fully capture all of your, or my, best performance qualities?” In summary, “In a world that is increasingly driven by quantitative analyses of employees and performance, we need to find ways to efficiently incorporate both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of performance.” Musician educator Chuck Israels also observed, “An inability to deal with the selection of un-predetermined passages” in music students. The obsession with precision is ruining our ability to think creatively. This holds true is business too. A recent McKinsey study found, “Once the trainers looked below the surface, they discovered that these leaders, though highly successful in their fields, were instinctively uncomfortable and lacking in confidence when conversations moved beyond their narrow functional expertise.” Ivy league education notwithstanding, we are afraid to go off script.

Wynton described swing as cooperation. We work with one another, cooperatively, to achieve a common goal. We help each other. Swing helps us understand our shared humanity; we rely on one another to achieve goals, to progress. Teamwork, group work, and such require our efforts to be cooperative or collaborative. You should read Joel Dinerstein’s book, Swinging the Machine. Think about how Henry Ford’s conveyor belt represented the automation in US culture during the Swing era and then consider the complexity represented by social media and the ways in which it has reshaped work today. As Carl Stormer says, work is looking a lot like jazz; which, as Martin Mueller of the New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music, says should be expected because jazz is a modern music — always in sync with the rhythms of our contemporary lives. We need training in how to solve complex problems with creative thinking.

Musician and educator Chuck Israels suggests that the problems of note selection be minimized in the early stages of learning to improvise. In this way, “deeply ingrained performance habits can be developed which will withstand the added strain of the “real time” problem of choosing what to play.” He tells us, “A separation of elements may be necessary in order to gain control of all that must eventually be integrated into the highest level of the improviser’s art.” Carl Stormer’s line, “Control is for beginners” is on point. Those who are inexperienced must follow rules habitually until these become reflexive responses. Israels notes, “Nothing is so well prepared as a great ‘spontaneous’ performance.”

Super competence

I was most intrigued by Wynton’s use of the term, “super competence” to describe improvisation. I’ve long understood improvisation as “the ultimate skill” demonstrating such mastery of a skill that its execution is not simply carried out but played as in being done, not only confidently and effortlessly but with a “dancer’s grace under the pressure of all tempos.” (Hero 25)

But “super competence”suggested something else — that talent need not be exceptional; one can be “good enough” and still improvise. That’s great news! It means most of us — if we work hard and apply ourselves — can improvise. We are capable of self-guided, independent work. This means we don’t need to be micro managed but can, instead, carry out duties sans oversight once we achieve the habits that make our actions reflexive.


This democratizes the realm of improvisation, a highly coveted skill. This means the average worker can learn a set of skills and, in time and practice (yes, practice, as in what musicians do), become good enough to work unattended. As the McKinsey report I mentioned earlier indicates, “Focusing on context inevitably means equipping leaders with a small number of competencies (two to three) that will make a significant difference to performance.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance” articulates the angst of the struggle to articulate individuality amidst the crowd. Certainly, this is our struggle. We want workers who are competent and confident enough to work without continuous oversight or affirmation but who also stay focused on a larger goal. We want workers who know their jobs so well their actions and responses are reflexive and look like play. When we have a group of self-guided employees whose work looks like play, they will have mastered self-reliance, self-management, self-governance (to address Emerson’s concern) and super competence.

Is super competence the death of management? 

Jazz and Management in Practice

On Sunday, January 26, 2014, the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra (JSYO) performed its weekly gig, the jazz brunch at one of New York City’s premier jazz clubs, The Jazz Standard. This week, I was struck by the activity of learning to play a classic jazz tune anew and the leadership lessons contained therein. So, here’s some lessons from the bandstand… aka, “Sunday at the Jazz Standard.”

Guest Artist/New Manager
Guest artists are common at the JSYO. World-class musicians are brought in to diversify the group’s interaction, help generate and realize new ideas; and generally to offer a different creative lens through which to stimulate artistic discovery. In this sense, the sessions are like laboratories where ideas are asserted, tested, refined, and conclusions (however temporary) are reached, generate new lines of inquiry and the cycle of discovery continues. (Will deal with innovation in an upcoming article, stay tuned…)

Talent Identification/Assessment
Like a new manager, a guest artist comes with an understanding of her profession but with incomplete information about the skill set of the team with which she’ll be working and so the approach to realizing her artistic vision in steeped in uncertainty.

The JSYO is an eclectic assortment of students. The kids range in age from roughly 8 – 18; some are in traditional schools, some in performing arts schools; some have played since they were very young, others are in a solidly intermediate stage. I remember Master Drummer Michael Carvin’s words “I don’t teach beginners” when I think of the JSYO bc these kids are decidedly not in the early stages of musical or instrumental discovery. Some students are seasoned performers, the JSYO being but one of several performance groups; others are new to the stage. Some students don’t have regular band in school, others have band class almost daily. Some students know they want to become professional musicians; others have no clear picture of the path their career might take.

Getting Started
So, how and where is a Guest Artist/Manager to start? Here are a few observations from Sunday:

  • Introductions: Let me hear you play (quick assessment of skill, talent, ability). In the non music realm you might inquire about a current, recent, or upcoming project. You might ask about hobbies or what the person finds interesting outside of work because this can help you identify otherwise hidden skills.
  • Call and Response: While the playing/speaking is happening, get into the performers/speaker’s space. Show you are listening by giving feedback, verbal or nonverbal cues to indicate you are engaged. In music you’d snap your fingers, sway to the rhythm, bob your head. In business, you’d offer verbal affirmations, extend the thought and create a brief conversational flow, and/or express appropriate emotion to what’s being described.

Now that you’ve established a rapport with your team, you can move towards getting them to “buy in” to your artistic vision (project, product, strategy, etc.) because the people involved, your stakeholders, feel humanized, validated. Engaged musicians are like engaged employees; and as a recent Bain study indicates, “Engaged employees go the extra mile to deliver. Their enthusiasm rubs off….”

Ted Rubin’s ideas on the Return on Relationship Ted Rubin are valuable here

While in music, this type of interaction is common practice, in business it is not. Residents of the C-Suite know the value of relationships and engagement but according to a recent Bain study, they don’t practice what they preach. Another Bain study found troubling trends as outlined in “The Four Secrets to Employee Engagement.”

In Practice

Olivia Trummer came to work with the kids on Sunday. Hailing from Germany, she’s a pianist and vocalist of note. Known for her original conceptions and use of timing and rhythm, Olivia’s innovative arrangements honor tradition (in both the classical and jazz genres) while being unmistakably modern.

Like many of you, the JSYO kids know “Miles Davis’s” famous “So What” from his classic album, Kind of Blue. Olivia challenged the students to play the familiar song in an unfamiliar time signature (¾). In other words, “do something different, with impact” — innovate.

Oh, it was a rough start replete with fits and starts and lots of giggles and side commentary from the musicians! The sounds were awkward, the attempts to play the tune were alternately frustrating and comedic as the kids struggled — creatively, intellectually — to carry out the assignment. Like marathon runners training for the big race, the kids never played the whole song in the new meter during rehearsal. Instead, they played short sections, reviewed the trickiest parts, and tried out solos individually when the group took breaks. They moved on from the song and rehearsed other tune in the day’s set list.

What just happened?
Olivia trusted the students’ talent. Students “bought in” to Olivia’s vision bc they trusted her to lead them through the song’s complexities. The working relationship congealed around a newly formed bond of trust and students worked to deliver their best efforts to help Olivia realize her vision of the song, a revision of a standard.

Show time
Olivia stood before the band in front of a capacity crowd at the Jazz Standard’s brunch and directed the band for its first ever full performance of her arrangement of “So What.” Miles’ version runs 9 minutes, 22 seconds; Olivia’s version is a full 15 minutes. A trusted leader with full band support; Olivia communicated with the band verbally and nonverbally during the performance — she remained engaged — transmitting cues to guide the band. Micromanaging? Not at all, this was the band’s first time performing the tune in Olivia’s arrangement, her involvement was necessary to offer real-time assessment and tweak accordingly. This way, she can be assured the band is on track and remains focused on the vision.

Through extended solos, Olivia gave the band room to explore its own musical ideas and fine tune its efforts to realize the song in the new time signature. Playing extended solos on “So What” was not only a new challenge for band members but was do-able bc Olivia had assessed individual skills in advance, she knew the band could deliver even in front of a live audience. Soloing allowed band members to integrate the tune into their own voicings, testing the song, and making it their own. Ownership improves outcomes.


When the song ended, the audience was delighted — the performance was a success. How do we know? A real-time assessment via soft metrics: audience attention during the performance; applause, head bopping, body movement; follow-up commentary between audience members and musicians; and the interaction between musicians and audience members during and immediately after the performance. Such soft metrics remind us to trust our own judgement of human interaction.

Olivia’s vision was delivered and affirmed. The students demonstrated not only their obvious musical talent but also the creative and intellectual agility necessary to meet the demands of uncertainty. Significantly, they didn’t run from the challenge. (How do we measure “grit, determination, courage?) “One reason for this superior performance is that” musicians like “engaged employees, direct their energy toward the right tasks and outcomes.” The students were focused on the demands of the time signature, playing and creating. (How do we measure focus?)

Teaching workers and students to adapt to uncertainty means moving them away from the familiar even as we rely on it to guide change. The kids, like so many of us, already knew “So What.” In asking the students to play the song differently, Olivia challenged them to be engaged at every moment. They could not rely on autopilot or muscle memory to play the song; the new meter required self-conscious thinking with each note. Being self-conscious and focused for long periods of time requires mental and intellectual stamina . (How do we measure intellectual stamina?) The extended solos required careful articulation, real-time processing of information and consistent self-conscious co-creation, individually, with band members, and Olivia.

Metrics is no easy thing. For far too long, we have been trained to privilege systems of efficiency and have developed metrics for assessing the disparity between the 100% (mechanically impossible) efficiency of work and our efforts. This compounds feelings of inadequacy and undermines our confidence in using human judgement and common sense when assessing situations. Fortunately, our kids are learning to trust in their hard work, face challenges, and manage uncertainty with confidence and courage. Lucky for you, you don’t need to be a kid to swing; you, too, can use jazz as a management tool.