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.

Albert Murray’s Influence Beyond the Blues

Albert Murray was 97 when he passed away in his Harlem apartment on Sunday, August 18, 2013, at 7:30PM. It was a moment those of us closest to him had been expecting and when the moment finally came, the foot soldiers in his command knew just what to do. A series of calls, emails, and text alerts signaled to all — the time had come. Some of us convened in his home to offer comfort to the family; hear his long-time caretaker’s stories of his final moments, watch a VHS of his 50th wedding anniversary, toast the magnitude of the man, and contact the media.

Albert Murray, Jackie Modeste

Albert Murray, Jackie Modeste

 

In the days that followed, there have been many tributes to Murray. I have remained silent; the articles written – when combined – offer a fair assessment of Murray and his work. Fellow Murrayite Paul Devlin shared an article written by Daniel Matlin that motivated me to join the discussion. Matlin gets off to a good start, quoting Henry Louis Gates Jr. in describing Murray as a “militant integrationist” Ahhh yes; that line of thinking will move us in a direction we’ve not yet ventured in re-membering Murray. In his seminal text, The Omni Americans, Murray famously defined American culture as “incontestably mulatto.” (22) Matlin’s historical timeline — his delineation of the riots, their impact, and the shifting discourse from the civil rights issues of the South to the urban blight in the North — is insightful. His deft positioning of the intellectual and philosophical divide between those who laid bare the urban blight of Northern cities and those who celebrated the “creativity and agency of the black poor” is instructive. As Matlin asserts, Murray’s writings often countered “pathologism by adopting a diametrically opposed position that was no less partial and exaggerated, and that tended toward a troubling romanticization of the lives of the black urban poor.”

Indeed. So, let’s begin THAT discussion….

The integrationist ideology advanced in Murray’s nonfiction and depicted fictionally in his Scooter series lacked the overt edginess and violence of the Jim Crow era, the tumultuous Civil Rights era, and subsequent racial strife. As Matlin suggests, Murray’s writing seemed out of touch. This criticism is not without merit. However, there are two aspects about Murray you should know: Albert Murray was an Air Force officer and a man who believed, unwaveringly, in the power of educational excellence. As such, Murray saw a world beyond localized conflict. Instead of harnessing the energy of legitimate resentment or anger towards social and economic injustice and transforming these emotions into more of the same in a “boots-on-the-ground” effort to effect change; Murray employed a strategy that had the potential to change the governing structure of society.

In the culture of so-called black Americans, Murray found the arsenal for revolutionary change — the creative transformation of the blues and the harmonious collaboration of jazz in the form of swing. In the trenches of civil unrest words, ideas, and bodies could become casualties of sectarian fighting. So from his Spyglass tree – the eighth floor of his Harlem apartment – Murray looked down on the rooftops and streets, considered the vast expanse of human endeavor and possibility, and developed a strategy – a cultural coping mechanism – for combating injustice, long term and worldwide.

The Necessity of heroes 

The Scooter Murray created was a storybook hero, an archetype, whose exploits were meant to instruct the masses. If Scooter’s do-good nature seemed to belie the very real dangers of Jim Crow, it was because he saw a world of possibility in spite of the perpetual threats to his mind, body and spirit. Indeed, Scooter was Murray’s “(local) personification of the hope… of mankind.” (Hero and the Blues, 92) Armed with a rich culture, solid education, an inquisitive nature, and steel-rugged determination, Scooter was a “prediction and even a promise” a “warning as well as an inspiration” of the meaningful change to come. (Hero, 92) Those, who like Scooter, wielded razor-sharp intellect and demonstrated intellectual and emotional agility could be central players in societal transformation – not in the streets – but on the level of policy; an effort that required deep integration into new and more complicated environments and the “high grade point average” Murray wrote about so often. (Briarpatch, 20)

JALC Wall: Emilio, Jose, Albert Murray

 

Education & revolutionary change

Murray noted, “Many confuse revolution with rebellion.” (Briarpatch, 18) Murray reminded his readers that the “rebellion part, as rugged as it may get to be from time to time, is only incidental. It is the revolutionary change that counts” and in Murray’s estimation, education would be the key. So, at the 1978 Honors Convocation at Howard University, Murray advised his audience to be “outstanding students.” “What” he asked “could be more subversive in the United States!” (18) Indeed, in light of the privatization of education, the frenzied high-stakes testing, the rising cost of higher education, etc. – Murray’s insights are as timely as ever.

From the particular to the universal 

The dichotomy Matlin creates – castigating or celebrating black American life – is not sufficient for studying Murray. Murray’s writing on the hybrid nature of the blues and jazz and their rightful place in discussions of US identity are key to understanding the vast influence of his thinking. The blues and swing represent the relationship between the particular and universal. For Murray, “the intellectual’s very first step should represent an effort to approach life in universal terms…. To become as cosmopolitan as possible.” Further, he advised, “you reach the universal or the cosmopolitan through the particular.” (Briarpatch, 18)

So what does this mean?

It means by recognizing the individuality expressed through the blues we gain insight into larger group dynamics. The blues with its deep emotion, inherent call-and-response pattern, and ultimate catharsis, acknowledges and affirms humanity. The human desire to connect is revealed through the blues as is the potential to transform, endure and perhaps thrive amidst even the most inhumane circumstances or conditions. Jazz with its polyrhythms, multi instrumentation, and varied configurations represents the complexity of group dynamics. The blues is the common denominator, connecting individuals emotionally. When individuals recognize their shared emotion — when they listen to one another – they can develop empathy for each other. When jazz musicians bend their instrumental sounds to the fragility of the human voice, the wailing, moaning, and longing so often associated with the blues; they acknowledge, integrate, and emulate human emotion and make it part of the group’s consciousness and forward movement. When this is part of swing, it is the ultimate form of cooperation or collaboration because it indicates we’re listening to one another and moving in the same direction.

Writ large, the relationship between the blues and jazz offers insight into community formation, organizational structure, and the possibilities of large-scale collaboration. Championing the blues as a necessary component of jazz acknowledges the myriad contributions of Americans of African descent in the creation of the broader US national identity. It is also a mechanism by which to acknowledge and integrate the historically marginalized and disenfranchised into the broader fabric of American life. By transference, this is a template that can be applied across geopolitical borders because every region, every country has its own blues. Swing represents a coordinated effort. Make no mistake, spreading jazz – especially in the form of swing – whether by musical tours, educational programming, online streaming, etc., is an inherently radical act because it makes people aware of their individual voices and their collective power. This is the connection between jazz and democracy. One need look no further than to the Arab Spring to understand the transformative power of people acknowledging individual suffering, collaborating, and effecting meaningful change. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen insightfully noted, “jazz consistently represented a stealth weapon” during the Cold War – the same is true today. (Satchmo, 28)

 

Beyond the Blues…

And there’s more… When multinational corporations enter into established or emerging market areas, their activities are not unlike that of the musician playing blues-based jazz. The corporate behemoth must bend its “ear” to the streets in order to better know the desires of potential consumers. To better understand the dynamics of crowds? Look no further than a Second Line parade or a jam session. To integrate innovation into business models or company culture? Look to the jazz musician soloing, improvising collectively, or in a small group. Hierarchical organizations in general – corporations, governments, and higher education institutions – pose particular challenges to progress and innovation, the blues and jazz studied as related processes offer insight into how and where to make necessary improvements. Through his writing, Murray projected an “image of man (and of human possibility) that is intrinsically revolutionary. Such an image… is automatically at radical odds with the status quo.” (Hero, 81)

Do Murray’s methods of combat belie the grittiness of the struggle for socio-economic justice? Hardly. Like the military man he was, Murray formulated strategy above the fray (an Air Force officer would) that would take care of us individually but that could serve the cause of socio-economic injustice globally.

My mentor Albert Murray will be memorialized tomorrow, September 10, 2013, at 1PM in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, an organization built in large part on his intellectual framework. We do ourselves a great disservice if we think of Murray as a man who presented simple dichotomies such as – black v. white or “misery and social breakdown” v. “joyful and carefree.” Not only do we miss the breadth and depth of Murray’s thinking and reveal ourselves as poor students of culture with only a tangential understanding of his voluminous writings; we simplify the struggle for socio-economic justice and so become consumed with distractions at the margins of the debates. Honoring Albert Murray requires intellectual integration, moving our thinking from margin to center; being “incontestably mulatto.” After all, we are Omni-Americans.

 

Skills Shortage on the Global Stage

In one of my favorite Foreign Affairs articles, Secretary of State (former) Hilary Rodham Clinton sounds very much like the head of a multinational corporation with an ear bent towards listening to diverse constituents and reaching the geopolitical frontline. Acknowledging the changing global terrain, Clinton emphasizes interconnectedness and the changes necessary in diplomatic skills sets. She notes, “increasing global interconnectedness now necessitates reaching beyond governments to citizens directly…”. She continues, today’s ambassadors are, “responsible not only for managing civilians from the State Department and USAID but also for operating as the CEO of a multiagency mission.”[1]

How do we cultivate the skill of knowing how to communicate with civilians directly when prior experience required expertise in dealing only in elite circles and spheres of influence? 

In a really insightful TED talk, Paddy Ashdown identifies three major shifts in power. Watch Paddy’s talk below:

 

One thing that most intrigued me was the way Paddy correlated the growth of multinational corporations with international criminality, globalization means they share the same space. We get both the “good” and the “bad” at once. This mandates the rule of law but one that goes beyond our traditional nation-state thinking into the realm of global governance (not government). He notes “treaty based agreements” such as the G-20 and Kyoto as efforts in this direction. Paddy goes onto talk about our “multipolar world,” or a “European concert of balance, a five-sided balance” and “counter balance” and of course that got me to thinking about music….

I’ve written here about Global Swing and also about coordinating information from disparate sources in such a way that we not only hear the distinct “voices” but create a synthesis of meaning — harmony — in our heads (see “Six-Part Harmony.”) I’ve also written an article on the ways in which the cultural footprint of the blues and swing can be discerned in sectors as different as education, healthcare, business and governance. So, this stuff is heavy on my mind.

Today, I’m thinking about the relationship between diplomacy, multinational corporations, and swing as a model of governance. It seems to me that the skill set Clinton identifies as being necessary in our cadre of diplomats is the same skill set that leaders in multinational corporations need – the ability to communicate effectively, and even confidently, across and through sectors, with particular emphasis on those that seem unfamiliar.

In moving towards a system of global governance, we’ll need to listen to not only the most vociferous, those that have traditionally held the reigns of power, but those that have been historically and geopolitically marginalized. Paddy says, “We must reach beyond the cozy circle of our Western friends.” Clinton advocates for “civilian power” and says we must reach “beyond governments to citizens directly.” New players on the global stage, MOOCs and US universities with an international bricks-and-mortar presence face similar challenges as they negotiate the realm of diplomacy and global governance through the entry-point of education. Employees at every level of the university – along with diplomats and multinational corporate leaders – must acquire new skills to be effective. There’s a lot of work in retraining to do!

Paddy informs us that the cultural model of a “European concert of balance” worked in an earlier historical period. Learning how to integrate globally is a central challenge for today’s players on the global stage and so I am convinced that cultural models hold the most promise. I’m placing my bet on swing. Let’s consider the two forms…

Fugues articulate distinct scripted voices that come together in a pleasing blend of sounds creating a unity that is both complex and simplistic. There is a beauty in fugues that soothes the soul. A fugue’s parts are transcribed and are to be performed in strict accordance with notations with very little room, if any, for improvisation. Fugues can be emotionally rich but deviations from the score are not encouraged, anticipated or desired.

Jazz is the music of active participation and it is jarring – or, at least, it can be. Collective improvisation – a la Jelly Roll Morton – comes first to mind. Jelly Roll’s music brings together a cacophony of instrumental voices in a highly textured, tightly woven musical statement where everyone’s voice is prominent, recognizably audible. Somehow, the “mess” of the music has synthesis. Part of this mess is in the unstructured articulation of voices at unexpected times. Everyone is gathered to play the same song but there’s really no way to predict how an individual musician will decide to play along. Uncertainty is inherent in jazz.

…and THIS is the world in which we live.

Swing is about coordinating the perceived cacophony and creating a musical flow – governance, if you will. Finding a way to integrate the seemingly disparate parts in such a way as to advance the score. A steady rhythm is important in swing because it drives the momentum. Henry Ford needed a reliable pace for his workers. Dancers need reliable beats to ensure well-articulated and well-placed steps. The work of cooperating with various global constituents – some of whom will seem unfamiliar and whose values systems will seem at odds with our own – will be messy. We must keep the “mess” and swing. We need people trained in coalescing eclectic parts and creating a cooperative flow.

Skills needed include: listening, collaboration, leadership, resilience, and the ability to exude grace under pressure


[1] Foreign Affairs, Volume 89, No. 6, “Leading through Civilian Power” 14 -15

Call-and-Response: the US, Qatar & Current TV

In a move that exemplifies his ability to identify and form strategic partnerships – not to mention his business acumen – Al Gore sold Current TV to the Qatari owned Al Jazeera for a handsome $500M. In quick response, Time Warner Cable (TWC) dropped Al Jazeera English (AJE) from its cable line up eliminating access to education in international affairs and world news to millions of viewers.

This is a bad thing…sadface3

AJE is not without its critics. In a delightfully biased article, John Nolte takes the New York Times to task for criticizing TWC’s right to cut ties with Current TV given the sale to AJE. Lambasting the “elite journalist overlords” who “apparently consider this openly anti-American, anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist cable news network” worthwhile, Nolte asserts “it’s no secret that Islamists subjugate women, fight for a theocracy, and despise gays.” And since protecting the freedom of speech is important in the US, it’s also “no secret” that the right-leaning in the US have a robust reputation for doing the same, but for now…

Praised by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator John McCain for its coverage of the Arab Spring, AJE is more than the incendiary news source its critics claim it is. Rather, it’s an educational platform that allows average people – not field professionals, such as journalists, politicians, diplomats, scholars, etc – to better understand and weigh in on discussions regarding international affairs. AJE could help create a better informed US populace, particularly if people don’t agree with the range or tenor of topics being covered because through ideological dissent, clarity of one’s own views can emerge.

As in jazz, call and response (CNR) are intricately connected actions. The repetition of calls and responses forms a conversation or swing and sustaining these conditions is no simple thing! Watch this short clip of Reggie Thomas and Alvin Atkinson.

When AJE puts out a “call” regarding world affairs, the US populace returns a “response” based on what is heard and understood. Eliminating the “call” means either the “response” doesn’t exist or it is disconnected; in which case, the populace remains “ignorant” literally – “destitute of knowledge or education.” Encouraging conversation — not perpetuating ignorance — should be our goal.

In severing ties with Current TV, TWC abdicates its responsibility to help educate. In an act that reinforces corporatism, TWC seeks to maintain the status quo and so the dim glow of already lackluster intelligence by hiding behind the excuse of low ratings and the legal right to terminate the agreement.

Creating a more engaged populace requires collaboration, conversation. CNR is a necessary part of building understanding and improving listening; it’s also a central tenet of the blues and jazz. Given Qatar’s increasing involvement in world affairs, its acquisition of Current TV makes sense. Qatar is also home to Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha and like it’s NYC counterpart, JALC Doha privileges swing jazz. Why? Because swing requires engagement, active involvement. Qatar is sending out a global “call” and the opportunity — the responsibility — to respond is ours.

Train Whistle Diplomacy: Blues-Based Jazz & National Identity

Train Whistle Diplomacy: Blues-Based Jazz and National Identity (47 – 67)

  • Blues and swing, 48 – 51
  • Blues-Based jazz, 51 – 53
  • Business strategy and corporate culture, 54 – 56
  • Government and Governance, 57 – 58
  • The President, 59 – 60
  • The Significance of Culture, 60  – 61
  • Spain: 61 – 62
  • Mexico: 62 – 64

Thanks to the Editorial Board and the Advisory Board for your helpful comments and suggestions in brining this article to print.

The Necessity of Global Swing

Swing is a matter of coordination – finding and sustaining equilibrium – a rhythmic flow. The recent G-20 meeting in Mexico was an example of the shifting global terrain. The ebbing of Western dominance must be balanced with nations not historically integrated into the global power structure. This year, BRIC nations asserted their voices globally by contributing 75% of the International Monetary Fund’s firewall. Similar articulations resonate in the healthcare sector where India, for example, has had a major impact on reducing the price of HIV/AIDS treatments and essentially eliminating its country’s polio epidemic.
Swing

The need to compete

Getting the world to swing will require coordination across and through regions. As with a jazz ensemble, each section or region has its own sound, its own expertise. Mutual respect within sections and between them informs the performance of the chart. Divided into chairs or individual roles within the section, each musician – like each geographic region – has a role to play that can be noncompetitive within the section/region and certainly across instrumental divisions in the same way that Taiwan will differentiate itself (market segment, military, cultural offerings and consumer preferences, etc.) from South Korea and from Hong Kong. Likewise, a first-chair saxophonist cannot compete with a second chair; they play different parts. A saxophone and trombone are, of course functionally different and play in different keys though both are needed in an ensemble.

When the virtuosity of one instrumentalist challenges that of another within his section; increasing the number of chair positions can accommodate the internal or sectional differentiation. The more chair positions (think globally here and think diversity) the greater the ability to capture nuances of sound, to recognize individuality. Geographically, when the virtuosity or expertise of one region is articulated, it differentiates itself from other regions.

Blind & Deaf

Superpowers no longer rule the world. Today’s construct is not a dialogue but a conversation disrupted by a multiplicity of voices. BRIC nations, African countries, and Latin American nations have integrated into and diversified the global dialogue, and have created a polyrhythmic global conversation that requires more nuanced hearing, different listening, and more complex and attuned responding. Nicholas Kristof’s NYT article on Africa and its promise is instructive. As he notes, the media typically covers the famine or genocide dichotomy all too familiar when reporting on African nations. This “black or white” divide is all too common in US political, legal and economic history. When these polarities guide discussions, they mask underlying potential of people and individual nations; turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to nations and entire continents where talent and vast resources are left unrealized. By seeing and hearing differently the US might – like the Asian countries Kristof mentions – build mutually beneficial relationships in Africa.

Jazz as a conversation

Conversations enriched by multiple points of view can – like jazz – create the conditions for new ideas to emerge and innovations to occur. Each new bit of information integrated into a conversation, each new instrumental voice incorporated into a jazz score increases the differentiation. Each new disruption requires us to seek balance again by acknowledging and responding to the disruptive force. For example, the common 4/4 time signature is disrupted each time the blues weaves its way into the sonic efficiency. Improvisations also challenge equilibrium. Culturally this is the process by which we integrate diverse national, religious, gendered, etc., voices into conversations ranging from global governance and multinational management strategies to local politics and school board elections.

Artful impact

Seeing and hearing differently increases our consciousness and can change our perspective. Take, for example, Scott Shane’s NYT article “as Islamists Gain Influence, Washington Reassesses Who Its Friends Are.” The author correctly assumes that Americans don’t see clearly or listen carefully. Why should anyone be surprised when a nation of Muslims elects an Islamist government? Yet, those accustomed to binary opposition are suspicious of the gray area regarding inquiries by the newly elected President into the release of an Egyptian sheik. On this point Representative Peter T. King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee asserts, this is “the kind of talk you hear on the street – not from the president of the country.” Well, yes, Peter and that’s actually the point. Learning to listen to the crowds and not simply voices emanating from the elite sectors of government (or the C-Suites in business) gives us vital information that could be instructive. (Think Jamie Dimon).

Middle East experts like Michele Dunne, however, are attuned to nuances. In her view it should not be assumed that the “rise in Islamists puts the United States in greater danger from terrorists.” In fact, she thinks the opposite may be true. “Major Egyptian terrorists” she notes, “were shaped by their rage against the [Hosni] Mubarak dictatorship” – a secular Western-leaning leader.  “The movement of Islamists into mainstream politics should reduce the terrorism threat.” Thinking musically, this makes sense to me because when the voices of the people are integrated into the policies that govern their lives – the score – the policies are consistent with their views. When strategy reaches the frontline, productivity increases due to large-scale “buy-in.” The integration of voices into and across sectors disrupts the one-way flow of information. But there’s more – when multiple voices are integrated into the flow of information the dichotomy is disrupted and an enriched conversation occurs.

Is this hard to manage? Of course! Short term, dictatorial styles are highly efficient but if you’re committed to democratic formation or long-term business viability and relevance, it’s wise to be slow and steady. Coordinated efforts increase engagement and dissention but they also diffuse tension over time and create the conditions for sustained organizational flow, or swing. Michele Dunne’s advice is instructive, “If Islamic groups like the Brotherhood lose faith in democracy” — when your citizens or employees think their voices are not being heard — “that’s when there could be consequences.”

Get ready to swing…

What’s this mean for you? Get more art in your life. Art is disruptive; it forces us to emote, to demonstrate our humanity. Moreover, art gives us examples we can use to deepen our understanding of the world.

Disruption anyone?

Consider the following clip: Alan Gilbert directs a masterful program, the “Philharmonic 360” a spatial performance that features three separately situated orchestras in New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Philharmonic 360This ain’t no concert hall. The Armory is the size of a US football field with an 80 ft (24m) vaulted ceiling. Think about the three separately situated orchestras as geographic regions and consider their efforts to perform their very best rendition of a chart, the way in which their sounds diffuse into the air, and are received by audience members. Now consider the challenges of conducting or governing these disparate regions, each with its own identity, personality, strengths and weaknesses, etc. Now consider the importance of trust and having your strategy/chart reach the “frontline.”

Classical changes

Disrupting organizational structure is unsettling. Coordinating seemingly disparate voices is an anxiety-ridden endeavor and the outcomes are not assured (though Gilbert’s program was brilliant). Gilbert’s program was exceptional in the classical realm. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s largest venue, Frederick P. Rose Hall, features a stage where part of the audience sits behind the orchestra.

JALC Rose Theatre

 You see, jazz is about mobility and integration and so in the concert hall designed specifically for its performance, audience engagement was a key factor. In Gilbert’s program and in the Ode to Joy Flash Mob, classical music is seen doing what art always does – disrupting our sensibilities. Jazz does this all the time but classical? Indeed, the tectonic plates are shifting. Let’s find our footing and swing.

Crowds, Chaos, & the Competitive Edge

“Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate.”

— liberal Egyptian friend of Thomas L. Friedman

I’ve been fascinated by Facebook’s IPO and its skewed valuation. I’ve written here about its mission to connect people, its open platform, use as a diplomatic tool and how this correlates to jazz and its similar use. Today, I’m thinking about connecting, collaborating, and crowds. While jazz encourages collaboration, it’s alleged Facebook does not… but can it? What is the relationship between connecting and collaborating? Are crowds manageable and if so, to what extent, and what are the consequences?

The role of social media in transforming dictatorships is well documented. By raising awareness and creating a sense of urgency, Facebook users in the Arab world were able to voice collective opinions about their governance and effect change. Yet, the crowds that connected to topple dictatorships have been unable to answer the bigger more prescient question: What next? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army, relatively small groups, are well-organized and will likely make decisions on next steps. In the US, the Electoral College streamlines the power of the masses and usurps the popular vote to decide Presidential elections.

But aren’t crowds the essence of democracy? Don’t the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Army, and Electoral College create oligarchies by representing (or seeming to represent) the masses who fought and died for democracy?

Meritocracy

Chris Hayes has an interesting take on this. In a really smart discussion about meritocracy in education, Chris touts the benefits of selecting the “best and brightest” from the masses through a process that is open and transparent. Those deemed exceptional receive specialized training and are tracked for enhanced opportunities because they represent society’s best. Chris disrupts the notion of hierarchy based on merit by using several key examples and reveals how centralized power is born from an otherwise democratic process that essentially reinforces the status quo.

Do open systems and crowds naturally or logically lead us to centralized power and oligarchies?

Facebook & Jazz

Facebook’s dilemma seems two tiered: how to determine its valuation and how to monetize crowds. With more than 900 million users and room to grow globally, advertisers and investors have a difficult task at hand. The growth strategy needed seems to be one of moving from connecting to collaborating and here’s where jazz can be instructive.

Connecting to jazz can be as simple as passively listening to music on an iPod but collaborating is different. Active listening – engaging the music through foot tapping, finger snapping, head bopping and the like – integrates audience members/listeners into shared time with musicians. Physical response is a way of acknowledging and validating each other’s presence; it’s collaboration, the ultimate “buy in.” In second line parades, in particular, the energy of cooperation has both magnitude and direction; collaboration is compounded because random people from various points – crowds – convene, enter into, and act upon the acknowledged shared time in a coordinated way along a designated path. The crowd eventually disseminates, becomes random again, and moves onward to the next parade.

Music experienced in shared time reduces, momentarily, the chaos of crowds by coalescing, harnessing, and channeling the energy. Individual and collective movements become relatively predictable in and around the rhythm. Of course, this is why algorithms are important (but insufficient because humans are emotional beings – think of the disruptive nature of the blues — with no finite number of predictable responses) in data analysis. But for now…

Controlling the chaos of crowds is meaningful for jazz, Facebook, and democracy. Swing jazz with its mechanically efficient time signature, is an important step in ordering action. However, this is not the Pied Piper, leading his passive followers to doom. This is a Second Line parade, a dynamic ordering of people where participants are meaningfully and creatively engaged in shared time for a specific purpose. The band and audience members need each other to sustain the forward momentum.

Similarly, in Facebook, the power of the crowd lies in its differentiation realized collectively. Administrators of Facebook Pages create spaces where people can convene and actively and meaningfully engage one another around a common topic, event, goal, or activity. In democracy, the voices of the people must be integrated into the governing party lest questions of legitimacy arise. There should be active engagement, not merely representation, between members. In each case – jazz, Facebook, democracy –individuals have the power to disrupt order despite organized efficiency (think metronomic swing, timelines, status updates, “likes”, and Six Sigma).

The voices of the people are integrated into an ensemble (if the sound is smooth) or by way of collective improvisation (if it’s edgy) – no single entity or small group reigns. According to Mc Kinsey Quarterly, this type of interaction “requires a more direct, personal, and empathetic exchange than a traditional town hall meeting allows.” It’s team building or creating a band.

The Competitive Edge?

This emerges over time as a result of differentiated focused action. Get inside the crowd; integrate into the masses and change your vantage point and your steps accordingly. Crowds don’t walk in straight lines; they are nimble, agile, and ready for change. Beware of systems of efficiency because these do not take into consideration the volatility of humans. Structures that don’t bend, break (NOLA levees and Hurricane Katrina)

The Inverted Front Line: Listening to Polyrhythms

Essentially Ellington is an annual international high school jazz band competition sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) shared the stage with high school students at various points and also performed charts for the upcoming season’s competition. The JLCO’s performance of Duke Ellington’s “Second Line” was compelling and got me thinking…

Second lining is very important in New Orleans. It’s part of a parade and is even part of funeral processions and helps transform the sad occasion into one of celebration. In a traditional New Orleans funeral procession, the front line is composed of the group of family members and friends who have convened for the purpose of laying a loved-one to rest. Musicians may play a dirge as the pallbearers carry the casket through the streets and before long, upbeat music begins. The second line is the crowd of revelers that follows behind the front line, performing a highly syncopated, rhythmic stepping-sliding dance. The first line and second line are intricately connected but what’s clear is that the front line is the leader, the reason why the second line can exist.

Traditional Front line

If we think of a company’s front line, managers who represent core beliefs, execute strategies, and engage directly or are close to the customer level; then, consumers make up the second line. When strategies change, the second-line dancers or consumers respond accordingly. With agility, they adjust their steps, or preferences, in such a way as to accommodate sonic shifts or shifts in corporate tactics due to change in leadership, global markets, the competitive field, etc. Consumers, like second liners, are vital in the feedback loop and give businesses the type of detailed transaction-level data discussed in Sam’s interview. Consumers, like second liners let companies know which, whether and to what extent implemented business strategies are effective. They allow the company to keep doing what it’s doing.

Inverted Front line

What happens when we think, instead, of consumers as the front line? What if consumers were believed to be the holders of core beliefs and the executors of strategies for engaging the marketplace? Businesses would then form the second line and have to be nimble, like dancers, to adapt to ever-changing consumer desires. Here the consumer defines demand and businesses must create the rhythm/tempo or product/service stream that supports the consumer’s preferences or the dancer’s steps. The corporate behemoth must learn to anticipate consumer demand and become agile enough to support the consumer/dancer’s complex moves. Hmmmmm…

But wait! Wait! Doesn’t this mean the business will have to sacrifice its core beliefs in order to provide “rhythm-on-demand”? Consumers are fickle, how can a business remain vital long-term given such uncertainty? Doesn’t this work better for small businesses whose size is an advantage?

I’m glad you asked.

The short answer is, “No. Companies don’t compromise their core beliefs by providing on-demand services” and “Agility builds the skills necessary for resilience, thriving amidst change.” Remember, too, “Size does not indicate flexibility.” Core beliefs don’t change, strategies do.

By providing “on-demand” services or products, companies don’t forgo their core beliefs; rather, they strategically align their beliefs with consumers or end users whose preferences are similar. Instead of retaining a tight hold on customers they already have and so intensifying business to business competition for a finite number of consumers, businesses that dare to dance lay to rest strategies that served the older model; they diffuse B2B tensions and take advantage of the opportunity to reach the next billion consumers by altering their strategies and extending their reach into new (let’s call them, global) markets. There is much cause for celebration here. No longer the “gatekeepers” of a product or service, businesses that invert the front line must articulate their brand identity forthrightly in order to devise strategies sufficient for securing new potential consumers. By identifying their “onlyness” businesses differentiate themselves from would-be competitors, become stronger and better able to manage change. While some traditional customers may be lost in the shuffle, businesses have the potential to attract many more and capitalize on the benefits of globalization.

Social media fuels this change and helps companies realize greater potential even as the familiar consumer base shifts. Companies most successful at anticipating consumer desire (think Steve Jobs) will be most successful long term because their operations will serve as a template for leveraging social dynamics to corporate advantage and thereby make businesses more nimble operationally. They will be able to anticipate, integrate themselves into, and perhaps lead the “next big thing.” Agile companies are poised for innovation because they are resilient amidst change, they know how to provide the music that supports a dancer’s steps in real time. (Be sure to see the clip below)

Panic stricken corporations

Recent corporate downsizing and the ongoing reluctance to hire is an indication of corporate panic. Behemoths can’t dance ( S/O to Code Mizell) and so their response to uncertainty has been to shed as many employees as possible to protect revenue, to hide their lack of agility. However, when we invert the model, we see the need for employees has grown. Companies need people who can read, interpret and translate data into viable strategies that reflect not only the company’s core beliefs but who can also provide an appropriate response to the changing environment. Companies need people who can adapt easily to today’s global polyrhythms and who can teach others how to participate most effectively. Consider the music from emerging democracies or emerging market regions and how different it sounds from say, Western classical music. The polyrhythms of jazz and of New Orleans jazz in particular are a composite of the complexities of our global environment and the collective improvisation inherent to New Orleans jazz culture is the sound and the template for the global collaboration and nimbleness needed to sustain successful multinational corporate and diplomatic efforts today.

So, how do you define your front line?

This clip of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is from a December 2011 performance at City Center in NYC and features the Alvin Ailey dancers. Note, the band is performing live on stage while the dancers perform. This is extremely difficult because the band must anticipate the dance steps (and vice versa). Both sides must be poised for change at every moment or the performance will fail.

Here’s Duke’s “Second Line

1. Listen for the integration of sounds. In the beginning, the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums) is led by a clarinet who articulates the melody. The voice of the clarinet is neutralized by the crowd of instrumental revelers who join in (at about 23s) but re-emerges (approx 1m) and reasserts its voice, forthrightly, throughout the song.

2. Listen for individual instrumental expressions (especially the trombones and trumpets) as they take advantage of the opportunity to articulate their sound. This enriches the score, giving it texture and power as it progresses.

3. Listen to the clarinet. Follow its journey from beginning to end; its clear melodic cry in the beginning, its nearly muted sound that struggles to be heard in the middle sections of the score, and its periodic vibrant wail from mid section onward and exhaustive but jubilant cry at the end.

Now listen to Wynton’s clarion call to join in a traditional Second Line parade and practice your dance steps!

The Bubble, The Blues & A Streetcar Named Desire

Blanche: “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on!                         A Streetcar Named Desire, scene nine

The blues counteragent…is that artful and sometimes seemingly magical combination of idiomatic incantation and percussion that creates the dance-oriented good-time music also known as the blues.”– Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues (16-17)

Passion drives the streetcar that transports Blanche DuBois to her sister’s home in the French Quarter of New Orleans as imagined by playwright, Tennessee Williams. Blanche, desire’s first foe, lives a life on the run. Wanting magic instead of truth, Blanche lives in a bubble that transports her from city to city in an effort to avoid reality; in an effort to avoid the blues, which as Albert Murray reminds his readers, “are always there, as if waiting and watching.” Indeed, the blues waits for Blanche at each juncture and though it bursts her bubble each time, she bounces onward even to the play’s end where she is committed to residency in the town of “Delusion.”

Meanwhile, Stanley Kowalski, his wife Stella (Blanche’s sister), and their friends Mitch, Eunice and Steve live within the rugged reality of the blues. They embrace the desire and it permeates every aspect of their lives. To be sure, their lives are sharp-edged and filled with ugliness; Stanley and Steve are verbally and physically abusive husbands; money is in short supply; and overt sexuality and gambling stir emotions that ignite passions of every sort. The “lowdown dirty shame” of life is experienced fully by these friends driven by desire.

These worldviews – the bubble and the blues – are substantively different but have much in common. Blanche’s coping mechanism is to distance herself emotionally from life’s jagged edges and transform her realities – multiple family deaths, financial devastation, and the dual angst of loneliness and being alone – into delusions of grandeur. The Kowalski’s and their friends cope with life by engaging its harsh realities and use living, not magic, to transform their angst; persistence, resilience, and engagement characterize the group. While bubbles protect the psyche and the blues abuse, bubbles burst; those who are experienced in engaging struggles head-on are best prepared to manage life’s inevitable blows. Resilience doesn’t happen magically; it’s a tradition, steeped in history, practiced daily and mastered over time.

The Bubble…

Binyamin Applebaum and Robert Gebeloff report on safety net recipients whose Blanche-like delusions of grandeur allow them to rely on government programs but disavow their use. The middle-class lives they lead are government subsidized; and when pressed, recipients acknowledge assistance and admit to associated feelings of guilt. Receiving handouts from an invisible force, the safety-net recipients live in bubbles like Blanche and who in acknowledging the unknown physician who comes to her rescue says, “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” By extension, the housing bubble and ensuing global financial disarray can be viewed as contemporary consequences of existing in Blanche-like bubbles.

The Blues…

In “Uncommon Sense: How to Turn Distinctive Beliefs into Action” authors Jules Goddard, Julian Birkinshaw, and Tony Eccles address beliefs and their impact on business strategy and performance. The way A Streetcar Named Desire’s characters handle change is a case study into their “distinctive beliefs.” Blanche does not embrace change; she wants magic to transform her current reality and her actions flow from this core element. Yet in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, change is an accepted fact of life and residents believe in engaging volatility forthrightly. As the authors note, “some of [these] beliefs are smart and others aren’t” – the viability of each is tested through performance – literally in this case. Tradition is not only that “which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.”

The Bottom Line…

Tradition matters in business. Core beliefs form the culture and are executed through strategies (let’s call them corporate coping mechanisms) that inform management styles, mediate change, gauge risk aversion, identify talent and help define competitive advantage. Yet, organizational hierarchy can leave strategy confined to the C-suite, in a bubble shared by an elite few. Moreover, when a company lacks diversity (in thought, gender, ethnic or religious difference, national representation, etc.) the bubble stays in tact even if it encompasses the entire organization. Blanche’s problem is one of integration. She does not integrate into her sister’s culture and so the strategy for living in New Orleans remains foreign to Blanche; she does not diversify her thinking or way of living. Thomas Barta, Markus Kleiner, and Tilo Neumann’s findings are instructive. They assert, “for companies ranking in the top quartile of executive-board diversity, ROEs were 53 percent higher, on average, than they were for those in the bottom quartile.” In other words, diversity or integration is good for business and for Blanche. The Kowalskis integrate fully into the French Quarter; experimenting with life through daily practice and developing habits for living that help them endure – resilience is a tradition. Strategy must be integrated throughout the company and as with the French Quarter, the tension necessary for testing core beliefs is encouraged; groups are synthesized, innovation happens and continuance is assured. Goddard, Birkinshaw, and Eccles assert, “Real strategy making is about developing a process for consistently pushing beliefs forward.” Blanche’s strategy fails to allow her to successfully navigate the culture of New Orleans – bubbles burst.

If A Streetcar Named Desire seems an odd entry point into a discussion of corporate strategy, you’ve not been reading my posts long enough! You see, arriving at Elysian Fields – the final resting place of heroes – requires a journey on a streetcar named Desire, a transfer to Cemeteries and a walk of six blocks. Harnessing the passion necessary for growing a business may require the death of a certain way of thinking or operating. “It is challenging to get executives thinking in [an] unorthodox and experimental way” and the journey through the cemetery, the period of transformation, is long and fraught with challenges “but the potential rewards” or ROI or ROE “are enormous.” So, get out of your bubble, get on board, and go see A Streetcar Named Desire (behind the scenes)

Starring Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche, Blair Underwood as Stanley, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella, Wood Harris as Mitch, and Amelia Campbell as Eunice with an original score by Terence Blanchard The Cast

Practice What You Preach

I am no fan of Sarah Palin. So I was irritated by the TODAY show’s decision to use her as a guest host today. I admire Palin’s outdoorsy ruggedness and her athleticism. I am intrigued that she is from Alaska, a state I’ve always wanted to visit. My disconnect hails from the moment Palin entered the national spotlight as John McCain’s choice for VP running mate in 2008. What a smack in the face for women, I thought. How could such an unintelligent, disconnected, ill-informed person advance the interests of anyone? How could she represent the nation? Surely thinking people of all stripes and women in particular would see though John McCain’s offensive attempt to secure the female vote by choosing a running mate whose only commonality with women broadly is physiology. So, today I was determined to opt-out of watching TODAY in protest.

… and then my twelve-year old said to me, “You have to watch TODAY because you say we can’t just listen to people we agree with.” Grrrr! So, I watched the show and I’m glad. Not only because I demonstrated by my own example that “Mommy stands by her word” but because watching the show was instructive. My opinion of Palin has not changed; in fact, I’m more convinced than before that she is ill-informed on a variety of issues and intellectually weak. I am also more convinced than ever that responsible journalism is a thing of the past, at least on morning TV.

My twelve-year old’s reminder reminded me of my recent blog posts, “Six-part Harmony” and “No Rhythm, No Rhyme” where I lamented the lack of listening by elected officials, professionals in a variety of fields, and the resulting lack of meaningful engagement and productive conversation. Our problem in finding answers to the innumerable problems we face as a nation and as global citizens, is not a lack of intelligence but a lack of engaged conversation. When we only listen to like-minded people, we stagnate; we flat line and effectively stop growing and learning. Innovation does not/cannot happen.

I am reminded of a musical collaboration between Wynton Marsalis and Yacub Addy, a Ghanaian master percussionist. The two agreed to work on a joint project due to their mutual respect for one another and the often-sited commonalities between West African music and jazz. Musically, however, these two forms just didn’t gel; they were too different. Wynton explained,  “In performance, we discovered things about balance, orchestration, and the beat – our two musics are very different. We realized that a collaboration showing both groups at their best might not be possible.” Well, if two world-class musicians can’t find a way through “dissent” what hope is there for the rest of us?!

Short answer, there’s a lot of hope for us. Here’s the thing: musicians spend a lot of time in rehearsal. Rehearsal is where they test their musicianship, artistry, and their ability to collaborate. SWOT is exposed in rehearsal. Wynton and Yacub worked through their musical differences and found commonalities that allowed the musical project to move forward. They engaged their differences, struggled through the learning process and created an outstanding piece of music, Congo Square.

Here’s a clip from Wynton’s first trip to Africa. This clip might be my favorite. He is listening to a group of South African children sing a traditional song. He’s never heard the song and doesn’t speak the language but when the children are finished, Wynton “sings” the song back to them through his trumpet. This clip demonstrates humility, respect, and the subsequent and immediate result – learning.  

Musicians engage difference as a matter of professional necessity; do we? Imagine if we extended this to engaging difference in politics, education, business, diplomacy, and relationships of every kind. You know the “right” thing to do. So, go practice what you preach and make the world a better place.