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.

 

 

 

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‘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!

Disconnect

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.

 

“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:

Interdisciplinarity
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.

Swing
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.

Improvisation
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.

Superhero

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? 

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.

 

Albert Murray at 97 — the Geography of a Mind

“Identity is best defined in terms of culture… American culture, even in the most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto.”

— Albert Murray (The Omni Americans, 22)

Of all the lessons I leaned from Murray, this nugget of truth – first imparted to the masses in his 1970 seminal text The Omni Americans – continues to resonate with immediacy. Simply stated, we are what we do; and if we are doing it in the same country, certainly in the same region, state, city or municipality, we are more similar than dissimilar despite efforts to accentuate the contrary.

But wait, aren’t Americans known for individuality? Don’t efforts to describe our culture as homogenous not only defy our national identity as historically articulated but also undermine today’s push to articulate our onlyness and to differentiate our unique qualities amidst global competition?  Well, yes, and no…

An Air Force officer trained along with the famous Tuskegee Airmen, Murray was well-traveled and lived overseas during various stints of military service. His hunger for exploration, however, was cultivated as a child living in a port city just outside of Mobile, Alabama. Ships from various parts of the world arrived in Mobile, sailors would disembark, and cultural integration and discovery began anew with each docking. This curiosity, inherent in childhood, was cultivated daily. Murray describes the wanderlust inspired by geography and topography through the voice of his protagonist, Scooter:

“You couldn’t see the L&N Bridge from the skiff boat landing where we were standing then, but we knew where it was because it was also the gateway through which the Chickasabogue, which was really a tributary, flowed out into the Mobile River which led down into Mobile Bay which spread out into the Gulf of Mexico which was a part of the old Spanish Main which was the beginning of the Seven Seas” which of course, could take you anywhere in the world.

– Albert Murray, Train Whistle Guitar, 40 (1974)

President Benjamin Payton (Tuskegee U) & Jackie Modeste

President Benjamin Payton (Tuskegee U) & Jackie Modeste

Murray also credits his English teachers for making him cognizant of the personal and social responsibility to travel. Morteza Drexel Sprague at Tuskegee and Mr. Baker at the Mobile County Training School considered racial progress (remember, this is the 1920s – 30s Jim Crow US Deep South) synonymous with “epical exploits” such as “penetrating frontiers and thereby expanding [a] people’s horizons of aspirations.” In other words, Murray owed it to his people to penetrate borders and to integrate himself into as wide an array of possibilities as possible because in so doing, he led others to push past borders of every type, both real and imagined. (Albert Murray, South to a Very Old Place, 132: 1970) Certainly this has particular resonance in domestic communities of color and the historically marginalized the world over. Yet when considered broadly, this notion moves us into enlightened discussions of immigration, global population shifts, and the associated political and legal requirements of facilitating such mobility. Cultivating citizen diplomats who know their place in the world — literally and figuratively — is a matter of education and is necessary for both the kindergartener who learns “A” is for Afghanistan and the executive in a multinational corporation.

One of my favorite quotes is Murray’s definition of the break. He writes, “Nor is the break just another mechanical structural device. It is of its very nature, as dancers never forget, what the basic message comes down to: 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.”

   — Albert Murray, The Blue Devils of Nada, 95: 1996

As we wonder how to “come back” after the devastating financial crisis and how to position ourselves given the pending crisis in education, we’d do well to learn resilience from the creative arts where asserting individuality and making a comeback are routine. “For what is ultimately at stake 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.” (Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues, 10: 1976)

Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, George Wein

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, George Wein

In 2001, as if reminding us to stay focused on collective progress, Murray offered a few words on protest. He wrote, “Protest is something that you must always be extremely careful about, because it can degenerate so easily into the self-righteousness of those who regard themselves as victims rather than people of potential and thus become more emotional than insightful and corrective.” Murray wanted “smart” conversation about our shared direction and he was clear, “Military rhetoric is not enough. And besides, it doesn’t require the high grade point average that the truly qualified leader must earn.”

 — Albert Murray, From the Briarpatch File, 20: 2001

I think about our political discourse and Frank Bruni’s recent article lamenting our uninformed citizenry and know the continued relevance of Murray’s wisdom.

Jackie Modeste, Albert Murray

Jackie Modeste, Albert Murray

Albert Murray outlived his two closest friends, Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden or “Romy” as Murray called him. Murray turned 97 on May 12th and he doesn’t always recognize me these days. We’ve passed the point where he can carry on the intellectually rigorous conversations of the past but Murray is as feisty as ever and though his speech is compromised, he still enunciates some very “choice” phrases that mark the privilege of the aged and wise. He comes to life when he hears music; his momentary lucidity makes for some truly wondrous moments. Albert Murray is a man of ideas and his landmark contributions to cultural history and to the blues and jazz in particular, form the foundation for much of the debate on these subjects today. Yet because the blues and jazz are inextricable parts of US identity, the study of these fields offers insight beyond the stage. Indeed, Murray’s writing provides us with gems of wisdom that can help us build institutions and systems that more closely align with our national identity and steady us as we push ever onward towards being a more perfect union.

Midday Riffs: Don Tapscott, Knowledge & the Suite Life

“A blues riff is a brief musical phrase that is repeated, sometimes with very subtle variations…”

–Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues

Did you know Don Tapscott plays the Hammond B3 organ? Don’s commentary always makes good sense to me because I “hear” where he’s coming from. His ideas on collaboration are applied on the Hammond B3, that’s what music is – applied knowledge.

Watch this 5-minute video of Dan, Making Internal Collaboration Work, on McKinsey’s site. There are a couple of things I really like:

  1. Collaborative decision management: Don says we should think of social media tools – blogging, ideation tools, jams (more on that later), etc. – as the “new operating systems for the 21st century enterprise.” He says, “these are the platforms upon which talent – you can think of talent as the app – works, and performs, and creates capability.”
  2. Knowledge: rather than viewing knowledge as something we should contain once a valued employee (in Don’s example) leaves a firm; we should view knowledge as an “infinite resource.” We should not try to contain it but should use knowledge to collaborate.
  3. Collaborative suites: facilitate the movement of ideas within and across sectors.

Brilliant! But then, Don’s a musician and so he “gets” the notion of working collaboratively.

My take:

1. What I really like about this is that it is user-friendly; it invites participation in the decision-making process.  At every point of integration — where ideas come into contact with one another — there is the opportunity to forge deeper meaning and more complete understanding. You can get to best practices doing this. From novice to expert, ideas are cultivated and expressed. This yields the ultimate “buy in” because everyone’s voice is validated; it’s democracy in action, it’s jazz. Think about jazz as an open platform and the saxophone as a tool. You can give the horn to a novice and the music created will sound a certain way and serve a certain purpose. Now, give the same horn to a virtuoso…

Sonny Rollins performing, “St.Thomas”

2. Containment conjures images of the Cold War and the ideological battle between the United States and Russia as we tried to “contain” the spread of communism. Here’s the thing, democracy “won” by spreading the idea of free and open societies. When knowledge is freed — when it is thought of as an “infinite resource” — it works the same way and for the same reason, collaboration has a multiplier effect. Ideas regenerate and penetrate barriers, both real and perceived.

3. Musical suites are collaborative extended works, divided into sections or themes that are connected by transitions. While each segment could stand alone, it does not; instead, each part is integrated into a unified whole via carefully considered, nuanced transitions. I can imagine Don’s collaborative suites working the same way, connecting related and/or seemingly disparate ideas drawn from different segments of an organization into a unified elaborate whole. The processes developed to do this work help businesses cultivate ideas and create a culture for so doing.

My all-time-favorite suite is Duke Ellington’s, The Queen’s Suite … Here’s the most popular segment, “Single Petal of a Rose” 

…so, now I’m off to think about assessments. Why?

Because if social media is a “platform upon which talent works”; then, we learn can learn much about the nature of work, skills required to perform tasks and efficiencies, and the way in which these skills lead to or support desired outcomes. Lots of transference in the educational sector regarding testing and school, student, and teacher assessments. But for now, check out this video of Jimmy Smith, playing “Back at the Chicken Shack” … I’d love to know the back story on that… and Don, this one’s for you. Keep swingin!

Morning Riffs: Apple & MOOCs

Duke Ellington, “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (1943)

“A blues riff is a brief musical phrase that is repeated, sometimes with very subtle variations…”

— Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues

Apple

As I sat reading Nick Wingfield’s NYT article today lamenting Wednesday’s sharp decline in Apple’s stock and the subsequent quotes from various financial “experts” and investors whose pessimism over the stock decline has turned “once-euphoric investors” into “nervous” (neurotic?) bunch, I want to scream ENOUGH ALREADY! Apple is a solid company and will be for decades to come.

So, here’s my take:

Apple is an enviable company and will remain so. Apple’s move to provide less expensive products signals market expansion, a meaningful effort to reach out to the next billion consumers at a price point they can afford. The United States can be seen as one big beta test. Apple will also save billions on marketing because US consumers – Western consumers in general – have been an impressive sales and marketing force, buying so many Apple products that even when stock slides, revenue remains solid and sales are up. The rest of the world is now convinced that Apple’s products are reliable and superior.

Nick’s assertion that Apple is moving into “cheaper product categories” is instructive and indicates the hyper consumerism and greed that have gotten us into all kinds of trouble (remember the housing bubble and financial fallout?) The pernicious language gives insight into behaviors that have allowed otherwise smart, savvy financial experts and investors to ignore the fact that Apple’s profits remain sizable and that Apple earns profits beyond US borders. The “nervous” twitches are the result of a gluttonous hunger for fast and furious financial gains. Apple’s success should be valued long term. It’s great that Apple’s financial acceleration was dizzying for so long but expecting constant acceleration is shortsighted, at best. For now, I’ll say this: use different metrics to assess Apple’s viability and value. Apple is not a crash-and-burn type of company. Chill.

 

MOOCs

How do we monetize Massive Open Online Courses? That’s the essential problem for higher education. Thanks to the Internet and companies like Apple and Google, we are able to give away course content free of charge. The problem is this: universities rely so heavily on tuition as a source of revenue, that MOOCs totally disrupt and simultaneously fascinate higher ed boards, administrators, and wily investors as they devise ways to generate more money. What do we do? It seems to me that the more we democratize knowledge acquisition via the Internet’s open platform, the more we increase the value of face-time. Here are two ideas, let me know what you think:

  • Change the education delivery model: Roving professors would create dynamic classrooms where professors and/or traveling educational teams move globally from campus to campus – like jazz musicians on the road – delivering global lectures in person. This is also a powerful diplomatic tool that helps integrate students around the globe, putting them in actual — not just virtual — contact with one another and creating opportunities for increased cultural understanding and innovative ideas.  This also has the potential to effectively combat the rising cost of US tuition as – like Apple – we expand our pool of students. Break-out teams can help reach and monetize the next billion students. Creating international campuses on the same stagnant model of delivery is nothing new; same thing, different country. Time for change.
Jonathan Batiste

Jonathan Batiste

  • Change the revenue model: As a knowledge economy, we should place primary value on the transfer of ideas, not the number of butts in a seat.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates opted out of higher ed. The tuition they might have paid a single university pales in comparison to what they could afford to do as successful businessmen. In the spirit of collaboration via jazz, engage students on a lifetime journey of learning, social responsibility, and associated philanthropy.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

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.

Streetcar and the Desire for Cultural Competence

A Streetcar Named DesireI was all geared up to write an article about corporate social responsibility today. What, with the $2B loss at JPMorgan Chase and the news that Jamie Dimon won’t have to split the duty of being both the bank’s CEO and Chairman, I had a lot to discuss! However, a recent and ill-informed write up of A Streetcar Named Desire came back to haunt me last night and I had to weigh in.

Ben Brantley is a noted theatre critic for the New York Times. I am no expert in the dramatic arts but see as many theatre productions as I possibly can. I especially like Shakespeare in the Park. In any case, I don’t “follow” reviews as such. So, when I read Ben Brantley’s review I first thought, “Wow, I don’t like how that feels” but I deferred to his expertise. What do I know? A trained writer, his review seems fair enough at first read but leaves the bitter aftertaste of having consumed bacteria-laden milk. However, once the Tony nominations came around and Streetcar was nominated for only one category, Best Costume, I had had enough and decided — it’s time to write a letter.

Now what you have to know about me is that, I appreciate human interaction. My second-grade teacher, Ms. Nathanson, inscribed my report card with the curious term “social butterfly” and in so doing, she branded me for life. So, I wrote a letter to Ben and sent it to him via email. I’m posting my “Response to Ben Brantley” letter here today because it’s actually on topic — social responsibility and cultural competence aren’t just for corporations, even those trained in the arts can suffer from cultural Glaucoma.

So, Ben… this one’s for you.

Dear Ben,

With all due respect to your acute theatrical insights, you missed the nuances of culture in the current multi-racial casting of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that would have likely enriched your review. Your assertion, “I wouldn’t care if all the performers were green” suggests that you accept the US as an “incontestably mulatto” nation (Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans, 1970) and that your interest lies only in the quality of the dramatic performance. Professional integrity notwithstanding, your timid nod to cultural history in noting the “easygoing ethnic eclecticism of the New Orleans quarter” was woefully insufficient. A deeper understanding of US cultural heritage might have led you into a more substantive analysis of the play.

Terence Blanchard’s original score shapes the play’s action. Through the intimacy of the blues (listen to Duke Ellington’s song of the same name) and the complexities of jazz, African American culture forms the foundation of the play. You notice “none of the spontaneity or urgency” of William’s version but also miss the subtleties in the current play. Your focus on Underwood and Parker’s good looks, the “many hours at the gym” you imagine he’s spent, Rubin-Vega’s “pin-up” girl sultriness and Wood’s “likable gangliness” is not only topical to the point of stereotyping but is amateurish. You allowed desire to mask your cultural ignorance and missed the edginess of the blues. Its lamentations contained within the complexities of jazz indicate the triumph of the spirit amidst life’s intricacies. The flashes and explosions of action you crave are culturally inaccurate; rather and instead, the actors meet life’s inevitabilities with grace, elegance, and inherent hopefulness – the very “stuff” of the blues. To be sure, historically marginalized people the world over have devised strategies for surviving and thriving in spite of the most inhumane circumstances. What you saw but missed on stage was the ability of talented, culturally sophisticated actors to relay a story of triumph despite rape, domestic violence, financial hardship and the like. Nicole Ari Parker’s masterful depiction of Blanche endows the role with the tragicomic consciousness of the blues. She may be down, but not for long. You offered a glimmer of insight in noting, “You don’t have to interpret Blanche’s fate as tragic.” Indeed, the nervous breakdown of previous iterations is a relic of a different time and place. So, too, is your review.

Ben, you let us down. From the pulpit of one of the world’s leading periodicals, you had the opportunity to demonstrate the global relevance and timelessness of art, cultural expertise and professional courage. Instead, you displayed professional timidity and the cultural ignorance of the most distant “outsider.” You shirked your responsibility to provide an informed review for your reading public. Ben, this was your “break” your moment of truth and you failed us miserably. As Albert Murray has written, this was your chance to “improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality” – and so you did.

Finally, your ill-informed write-up speaks to the need to diversify the talent pool of theatrical (at least) reviewers. We need writers who bring depth of perception and courage to the reviews they offer. This is a requirement of the global economy.

Respectfully,

Jacquelynne Modeste, PhD

Black Star News

* * *

Watch this clip

CAST: Blair Underwood (Stanley), Nicole Ari Parker (Blanche), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Stella), Wood Harris (Harold Mitchell), Amelia Campbell (Eunice), Matthew Saldívar (Steve), Rosa Evangelina Arredondo (Matron), Carmen de Lavallade (Mexican Woman/Neighbor), Aaron Clifton Moten (Young Collector), Jacinto Taras Riddick (Pablo) and Count Stovall (Doctor).

The Innovation Train

“Essentially, questions about experimentation in the arts are also questions about the relevance of tradition. They are questions, that is to say, about the practical application of traditional elements to contemporary problem situations. Hence, they are also questions about change and continuity.” – Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues, 71

Innovation is all the rage. Businesses, educational institutions, healthcare organizations, and even government entities have all climbed aboard the “Innovation train” but few seem to know what to pack. Yet, this is an enthusiastic bunch that hangs from the windows shouting – higher profits! Higher test scores! Higher profits! Greater accountability! En route to a dream destination, people expend innumerable resources and too often realize only short-term gains because they haven’t packed well.

Hanging from the windows, passengers en route to Profit Land miss the scenery. They’ve not brought cameras; they’ve left sunglasses at the office, tanning lotion at the drugstore, and none have maps, a GPS, or first aid kit. You see, the journey to Profit Land is through the tunnel of Innovation but there are thorny branches along the route and wind gusts of hurricane force, trembling terrain and blazing rays of sun. Culture teaches passengers how to survive the journey, it has done so since the beginning of time through traditions that have helped people endure amidst catastrophes more sinister than financial meltdowns. The purveyors of this knowledge are artists. Why? Because art forces us to realize our humanity, to emote, relate to one another, build relationships necessary for our survival and develop coping mechanisms for navigating the tricky terrain of life and its labyrinth of personal and professional relationships. Art unsettles us, brings us out of our “comfort zones” and forces us to engage.

Relationships matter in business

In a McKinsey Quarterly article, “Developing Better Change Leaders,” the authors offer the example of “Annie, Conor and Pierre” to present the challenges and successes of navigating change. In each case, developing strong interpersonal relationships prevailed; demonstrating empathy, engaging socially, and creating bonds of trust led to improved outcomes. The improved outcomes, readers are told, serve as examples of “innovation”; change happened because exemplary leadership skills were honed and implemented and the success was measured in increased returns.

Through business model innovation, companies hope to restructure their organizations to leverage internal innovation capabilities. This is really smart and gets to the heart of what drives innovation – (cultural) identity. Instead of identifying innovation by an end result, profits, these businesses move towards deep integration of internal segments and create a tightly woven diverse fabric where different ideas and practices come into direct contact with one another and yield better ideas and best practices. Adaptability is then realized because a company becomes adept in navigating change and hence is resilient in times of corporate duress, those very times when flexibility is tested. Relying, as some companies do, “solely on product innovation” misses the point of identifying and then leveraging core beliefs and the associated corporate coping mechanisms that lead to continuance even in the face of change.

The Benefits of integration

The benefits of integrating business and revenue models are many. When these models are integrated, revenue is cast as an extension of the company’s core beliefs and becomes a measure of the extent to which employees are cognizant of and “buy-in” to corporate strategies, function systematically and adapt to change. Moreover, company differentiation is realized and when each business is made aware of its unique identifying features and offerings, the possibilities of scaling upwards are realized. This information is vital to branding. As the authors note, “A good product that is embedded in an innovative business model… is less easily shunted aside. Someone might come up with a better MP3 player than Apple’s tomorrow, but few of the hundreds of millions of consumers with iPods and iTunes accounts will be open to switching brands.” This leads to an environment of theoretical noncompetition because uniqueness cannot be duplicated.

Change Leaders

Nilfoer Merchant always has something insightful to offer. You should follow her Tweets (@nilofer) for ideas such as the following: “Innovation happens when ideas, resources and constraints collide” (4/18/2012 6:50PM). Indeed, like passengers on the train, ideas must come into contact with one another in order to be tested for relevance and viability. “To Innovate, we need to check what assumptions we carry forth from the past… that need to be released.” (4/18/2012 7:00PM) Or rather, we must discern what works and what does not, if we are to endure and perhaps prevail. “The real question” Nilofer asks, “is why are we doing what we are doing and what measures *that *.” (4/18/2012 6:59PM). Are we simply interested in achieving short-term gains and turning a quick profit? Or, are we invested long-term to the process of innovation, developing better business practices and relationships and working towards improvement of the human condition? She notes, “If we borrow the metrics of finance (scale) to fuel social change, we are using the wrong measures” (4/18/2012 6:58PM) because such measures capture tangential gains; the journey to long-term gains, cultural sustainability, is deeply embedded.

The passengers on the Innovation train must not only board but must engage one another as they yell from the windows, lest the ride become one of simple and unimaginative self-interest leading to a mad rush for a single pot of gold at journey’s end. Instead, by engaging one another, distinct identities can be realized; and through differentiation, each company can recognize its own pot of gold. The experience of the journey can inform practices, decisions, and become habits that create a tradition within which innovation can occur.

As Albert Murray reminds his readers, “The traditional element is precisely the one which has endured or survived from situation to situation from generation to generation… not only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.” (Hero, 71-72) In other words, businesses seeking to innovate or to create the conditions within which innovation can occur, should work to identify their core beliefs so that strategies for success can be discerned, implemented, duplicated and disseminated throughout the organization. Furthermore, while tradition is often critiqued as being stagnant, it is the direct opposite. Its hybrid nature merely gives the appearance of a singular entity but hides its diverse inner workings. Never judge a book by its cover.

How Do we Assess Change?

Business and organizations of every sort are keen to rely on financial metrics for assessing the success of programs and practices. Determining success in restructuring something as significant as organizational culture requires asking different questions that queries that yield a more compete picture. These are some initial ideas:

  1. Monitor each stage of an implementation: beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Ask the same questions at each juncture.
  3. Ask probing questions yield depth of insight into areas such as: company mission statement; the way in which specific jobs help fulfill company goals; organizational structure (how many “bosses” can you name? what segments are related to yours and what are their tasks?); the relationship between non work support systems on workplace productivity; personnel “hidden” talent and interests (Multilanguage proficiency, mathematical or technological expertise, hobbies, volunteer work, musical tastes, etc.).
  4. Post assessment “follow-ups”

Check your Ticket to Ride…
In the United States, the blues and jazz form major cultural markers of identity and through their study, lessons can be learned in areas such as: collaboration; talent identification; resilience; strategy; innovation; leadership and competition. While companies seeking to work with US businesses can learn from the blues and jazz, US businessmen would do well to learn their own culture so as to root their corporate confidence in something that holds when storms occur and counter the historic and ongoing stigma of the US being profit-driven soulless.

For now… The humanistic qualities that served Annie, Conor and Pierre, are honed through art as a matter of disciplinary practice and professional viability. Artists are change agents, conductors on the train of Innovation and when they check your ticket to ride, check your ego – listen, learn, and innovate – meaningfully.

Theatre Reimagined