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.

 

 

 

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.

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!

Big Data, Change, and Swing

How Big Data is Different” — by Thomas H. Davenport, Paul Barth and Randy Bean (henceforth known as DBB) was published in the July edition of MIT Sloan Management Review and explores the question:

How do the potential insights from big data differ from what managers generate from traditional analytics?

DBB: “Very little of the information is formatted in the traditional rows and columns of conventional databases.”

Global Jackie: We  need people who think in nontraditional ways, who are trained in fields beyond STEM

DBB says: Companies want “To understand their business environments at a more granular level, to create new products and services, and to respond to changes in usage patterns as they occur. In the life sciences, such capabilities may pave the way to treatments and cures for threatening diseases.”

Global Jackie: It’s not just business people and scientists who engage such processes! Jazz musicians understand their environments on a “more granular” level” every time they play the blues. Amidst the complexities of rhythm changes, time and key changes, audience cheers, applause and activity, bandstand dynamics, nightclub culture, and an assortment of randomly occurring disruptive forces, jazz musicians “respond to changes in usage patterns as they occur” and create classic if not legendary compositions and solos. (Listen to Louis Armstrong’s extended solo from 12s – approx 1:44) 

DBB have three on-point recommendations for improving data-handling capabilities and since they, somehow, left out jazz musicians (gasp, shock, horror) and the associated culture, I’ll improvise on the changes they’ve laid out…

DBB:

               1. Pay attention to flows instead of stocks: In real-time monitoring contexts, organizations need to adopt a more continuous approach to analysis and decision-making based on a series of hunches and hypotheses. Social media analytics, for example, capture fast-breaking trends on customer sentiments about products, brands and companies.

Global Jackie: Jazz is social. Improvisation happens in real-time, there are no second chances, no do-overs. Musicians must process information continuously, coalesce it and  articulate it in a way that makes sense (remember, they must respect time, key signatures) and sounds good. The “hunches and hypotheses” occur as musicians craft  improvisations and new hunches and hypotheses are integrated into each new performance. These are skills that can be learned, honed, and performed in the corporate sector.

DBB: 

               2. Rely on data scientists and process developers instead of data analysts: “Data scientists,” as these professionals are known, understand analytics, but they also are well versed in IT, often having advanced degrees in computer science, computational physics or biology- or network-oriented social sciences. DBB notes that this type of  “upgraded data management skill set” also requires, “business acumen and the ability to communicate effectively with decision-makers.” DBB admits,  “This combination of skills, valuable as it is, is in very short supply.”

Global Jackie: Wow, ya don’t say? A whole team of data scientists and traditional IT people with advanced degrees? Well, I guess I can see why this is an improvement over using only data analysts but geesh, no wonder business can’t swing. Great to train tech people to build social skills but why not also take those trained in design, the creative arts and culture and train them to adapt or apply their skills and ways of thinking, processing and evaluating information to analytics? Not only will you create the disruptions necessary for innovation to occur but you’ll integrate thought processes that can lead to more effective team building, and realize hidden talents within your team. Not to worry, your organization can be trained to build a culture of resilience, innovation, and swing.

DBB: Early users of big data are also rethinking their organizational structures for data scientists. Traditionally, analytical professionals were often part of internal consulting organizations advising managers or executives on internal decisions. However, in some industries, such as online social networks, gaming and pharmaceuticals, data scientists are part of the product development organization, developing new products and product features.

Global Jackie: I like this… a lot because there’s a great deal of integration happening.  Rethinking organizational structures is fun for creative people; designers, musicians, and the like find this fascinating. Making data scientists “part of the product team” is a major step in the right direction. We’ve moved past racial segregation in the US (just go with me on this), let’s address the segregation of knowledge.

3. Move analytics from IT to core business and operational functions. The traditional role of IT— automating business processes — imposes precise requirements, adherence to standards and controls on changes. A key tenet of big data is that the world and the data that describe it are constantly changing, and organizations that can recognize the changes and react quickly and intelligently will have the upper hand.

Global Jackie: A key tenet of jazz is change. Musicians deal with uncertainty every day in every performance and in every articulation of a song. Musicians deal with pitches that vary, disagreeable reeds, sound boards affected by changing weather or internal climate conditions, etc. Constant change, uncertainty and all its associated anxiety, is an inextricable part of US cultural identity. Dudes, it’s called the blues and when individual angst is integrated into complex structures — like jazz, like corporations — we retain the “granular” even as we flow towards Six Sigma like efficiency, even as we swing.  .

 

 

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 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 “Daddy State” and Swing

Political Scientist Dorian Warren was a guest on Melissa Harris-Perry’s inaugural show today. He used the term “Daddy State” to describe the current trend in Republican politics to curtail the rights of women. I found this really intriguing especially given MHP’s discussion about why it is good for the nation to have a healthy GOP and not the fractured incoherent variety now on display. I don’t think MHP had ample opportunity to develop this idea on today’s show but she’s already got me thinking (and you too, I hope!).

So, the idea of a “Daddy State” bothers me because dictators (pick your favorite) use the language of fatherhood to disseminate their messages. Authoritarian imageThey don’t lead because they desire supreme power or authority; instead, they are caretakers of the nation and its people. They lead from a position of deep love, not a deep need to control. So, when they rain down on their populations with brute force or curtail the rights of women to seek education, advance professionally, drive cars or decide on reproductive rights it is from a position of taking care of people, lovingly, as a father would his children. Scary.

The idea of a “Daddy State” is also troubling to me because it brings to mind the GOP and its ongoing efforts to curtail women’s rights. This effort reached a new high on February 16, 2012, when the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform convened an all male panel to testify at a hearing on women’s health. This is part of an effort that has been trending for a while (historic efforts to roll back Roe v Wade, “personhood,” etc.). Lacking a coherent strategy both as a party and as a unified opposition to Barack Obama, the GOP seems to be positioning itself to establish a “Daddy State” to take care of the nation and this is scary because it is a move towards authoritarianism and this should worry women and men. On its most elemental level, the “Daddy State” keeps the populace in infancy. As we see the rise of Super PACs and the electorate shifting towards the billionaire sector, even the power to vote is being threatened. Well, neither girls nor boys are eligible to vote in a “Daddy State.”

As bothersome as this is, the current incoherent state of the GOP is also of grave concern. While those of us who support Barack Obama may breathe easier thinking such GOP disarray ensures the President a second term, the lack of coherent opposition to Obama and his policies is tantamount to a win by default and so does not indicate national strength or political vibrancy. Voter supression imageIn fact, if the GOP would break itself into various factions or if other parties would emerge and contribute to the national formation of a multiparty political system, Obama’s win would be more meaningful. As much as unity indicates strong consensus, it also indicates the type of ideological singularity that can lead to authoritarianism.

The US values competition to a fault but where is ideological competition or the diversity of opinion now? While diversity strengthens “wins” in politics, classrooms, board rooms, etc, the GOP’s incoherence is not simply an indication of the diversity inherent in its ranks; rather, it signals panic. The GOP seems to be in need of sound restructuring and I kind of mean that literally. If we think of the various political assertions or voices within the GOP as distinct voices in a fugue; then, the overall structure of the party should allow distinct articulations to enrich the score. Instead, there is cacophony. The guiding structure is not able to sustain the diverse voices in the party.

Well, fortunately, our President knows the blues and has more than a passing knowledge of jazz. Obama’s method for governance is not unlike Duke’s as he sustained his band over the course of decades despite economic hardships, illuminated individual talent within his ensemble, and kept swinging. Duke big bandThe GOP needs to get its act together (I mean that kind of literally too) so we can have a meaningful election season. The fugue is not the right model for our contemporary environment. Jazz, especially blues-based jazz in the form of swing, offers a model for managing uncertainty and integrating disparate voices into the overall score. No Daddy, noooo! — let’s swing.

“The Intimacy of the Blues”

Stripped down and bare, at least when we consider the textures of Duke Ellington’s big band, “Intimacy of the Blues” (1967) is sensuous. The reeds — alto, tenor and baritone sax — create a richness in the texture on top of the rhythmic foundation of the piano, bass and drums. Tightly woven, the octet that recorded Duke’s original score allowed the sound to be “tried out… so that the leader could hear how they sounded and consider the possibility of their translation upwards into the full band.” (Stanley Dance, original liner notes, Intimacy of the Blues).

“Translation upwards into the full band…” got me thinking about how a central idea can be made more complex. When we think about the blues and its plaintive sound; the way its form is recognizable, and its call-and-response patterns repeated as if to encourage incantation, I think about the challenges that arise when this elemental sound or form is translated “upwards” into more complex renderings. How is its essence retained and not diffused into an unrecognizable form when faced with instrumental variety? What compositional compromises or adjustments are made in order to retain the distinct sound of the blues and prevent it from becoming something else? Is this a “social contract” in musical form; do artists give up some of their creativity in order to play the blues in an ensemble? What is lost, what is gained?

Sure, you’re wondering why I’d even consider such specifics outside the realm of arts. Well, here’s the thing: the blues is culturally significant (read Albert Murray’s, The Hero and the Blues and his seminal text, The Omni Americans for some background) and so influences American culture in the US in ways not consciously recognized, save for those of us trained in culture. Here, Bob O’Meally’s informative compilation, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture is also useful. Bob’s book delineates the ways in which jazz (and the blues) serves as an identifying feature  of US culture; he shows us who we are as a nation, culturally. I accept this and support fully the view that the US is best identified in terms of its cultural heritage, not its capitalistic desires. It is this view — a national identification through cultural heritage — that endows the US brand (yes, brand, as if we are selling ourselves to ourselves and the world) with integrity and is the preferred strategy for both self (national) identification and engagement with foreign actors.

Ok, back to my fascination with “upward translation.” Here are my assumptions: the blues is an identifying feature of US identity; Duke Ellington played blues-based jazz; meaning, he self consciously integrated the blues form into his compositions. Because the blues is an identifying feature of US identity and since jazz permeates US culture, its pervasiveness is wide ranging and impacts or influences even those sectors of society not typically identified as having a relationship with the arts. So, as Duke integrated the relatively simple form of the blues into his instrumentally and musically complex compositions; so too does blues-based jazz inform complex systems of organization and governance beyond the bandstand. (For an overview of this, read my forthcoming article in Spectrum: the Journal of Global Studies, Spring 2012)

Governments seeking to engage one another in the interconnected 21st century world face challenges similar to those of Duke as he worked to “translate upward” his blues composition in “The Intimacy of the Blues”  and move it from a score for an eight-piece band to a full ensemble while retaining the singularity of the blues form and its identifying features — “e pluribus unum” in sound.

The jazz ensemble functions multilaterally — as do today’s nations or regions — and conversations (not two-way dialogues) between instrumental sections with disparate and distinctly identifiable sounds engage one another around the common theme or score. Here, think of the score as world peace and the distinctly identifiable sounds as each state’s interest in self preservation as a sovereign entity. Globally, we are committed to playing this score to the very end.

When a jazz ensemble commits to swing, it commits to achieving and sustaining equilibrium or a rhythmic tension between the bass, piano and drums, that moves the score forward while advancing and illuminating the talents of various sections. When a jazz ensemble commits to integrating the blues into this formulation, it weds itself to a couple of things: honoring the traditions of African Americans in the US who codified the form; a call-and-response pattern and repetition inherent to the style; and an emotional intensity that conjures intense feeling. Integration is key. Bands can swing without the blues and  jazz is not necessary for the blues; the two are mutually exclusive. Integration is a conscious choice.

Back to matters of global governance… Various state actors must collaborate, like a jazz ensemble, to achieve equilibrium in force or power; the “sound” of which is sustained peace. If we think of emerging states or democracies as representing the volatility of the blues; then more established actors, like well-organized instrumental sections in an ensemble, must strive to sustain equilibrium despite or in spite of unpredictable assertions — the blues — interjected into the operational efficiency. Gone are the days of ideological stand-offs between two Superpowers; those metaphorical dialogues were unproductive. Gone are the days of lone Superpower privilege such as that enjoyed by the US in the Post-Cold War era; those days of conducting the ensemble from a position of hierarchal superiority have passed. Instead, the multilateral conversations exemplified in a jazz ensemble that swings the blues are instructive in managing the current moment of relative uncertainty. By emphasizing culture over capitalist desires, the US can manage its revised role in global affairs more efficiently and maintain its national integrity.

Duke’s band was known for its rich textures in sound, instrumental variety, excellence in musicianship, and long-term committed personnel. Surely there is something to be learned from Duke.