Jazz and Management in Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outcome

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

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

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

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