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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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

Blues You Can Use – Lesson #1

Ma Rainey – “Deep Moaning Blues” (1928)

Blues You Can Use – Lesson 1

“While it’s hard to find people that do the technical things, it’s even harder to find people who can interpret them, who can use creativity to ask provocative questions, who can think about experiments to run that would be interesting.” – Sam Ransbotham

We’re not looking in the right places for talent. It amazes me how many times I read about innovation, creativity, performance, talent, soloing, collaboration, etc., in business journals, blogs and such but rarely come across an engaged or sustained discussion about the performing arts. Do these high-level corporate executives and MBA types really use the words without getting the connection? I’m beginning to think so.

Business leaders need to engage artists, and vice versa. Businesses could gain valuable insight into the much-touted creative process and jazz musicians could begin to identify ways their creativity and talent for innovation could open new professional opportunities. Sam says businesses want people who can think creatively. So, in addressing the “expertise shortage” and in response to a void in management skills, companies are “sending people out to explore what other people are doing and trying to simulate some thinking in that way.” Huh?

Who can blame business leaders for using business leaders to seek out other businesses to see what they’re doing? It’s not their fault; we all do it. We seek the familiar because it makes us comfortable. Besides, in the US art is consumed as a dilettante experience and one largely reserved for the elite. So, the take-aways from artistic experiences are ethereal; people sit, enjoy, clap and leave. Here’s the thing: the differentiation made possible virtually through social media and that yields the highly-coveted detailed data Sam discusses is actually part of our lived experience.

Here’s why: the detailed data – transactional-level, customer-level or front-line information – is the stuff of the blues. The blues is a highly individualistic music that addresses the most mundane needs and a full range of emotion. There’s a blues song for just about everything and while the lyrics reveal the specifics of a situation (a lost job, lost lover, and the like) and so constitute the transaction-level information we need; the music itself is the “big data” the guiding structure of the blues, the choruses, call-and-response and repetition. But there’s more – the individual nuances of the song, both instrumental and vocal, indicate complexities that cannot be duplicated. The blues signal our onlyness and differentiates us even if we experience the same malady. Musicians can talk informatively on this stuff all day – just ask.

While initiating a conversation between business leaders and artists may be really interesting, it’s unlikely to result in much if any immediate quantifiable change. (We’ll need metrics for that but SLOW DOWN! These things take time; and besides, we don’t yet know what questions we should ask; now do we?) Having the conversation is only the beginning to building reliable and trusted networks, relationships that can guide growth and be mutually beneficial long-term. Business leaders need results. Guess what? So do musicians. They “need” to compose songs, perform at gigs, master certain techniques or phrasing, hire personnel, etc. They are continuously engaged in the process of differentiating themselves. All this and more is necessary for professional viability. Musicians, however, know mastering their instrument takes time. Do you want to master the art of change? 

So, what do we do? I’m so glad you asked!

  1. Convene an integrated group of business leaders and musicians (various artists would be great).
  2. Set the agenda to include such things as: basic introductions; brief descriptions of each craft; professional trajectories and skills sets.
  3. Identify common topics and discuss.
  4. Business group – translate lessons into the language of business and move to incorporate these into practices, associated trainings and workshops. Artists – translate lessons into the language of your specialty. Move to incorporate these into new marketing strategies, management techniques, administrative efficiencies, and the like.
  5. Do joint activities so that talent pools mix, bonds are strengthened, and assessments can be conducted.
  6. Follow-up! I cannot stress this enough. On-going conversations and trainings yield the best results because like musicians, businesses are invested long-term. Think of this as a Board of Trustees, the group must demonstrate its commitment to advancing the collaborative enterprise; and yes, we are building “trust.”

What can you do right now? I’m glad you asked.

1. First and foremost, listen to the blues… listen for call-and-response patterns and for repetition of lyrics and instrumental voices

2. Read Sam Ransbotham’s interview in MIT Sloan Management Review (April 2012)

3. Buy and Read Albert Murray’s, Stomping the Blues (pp.45 – 54, 93 – 128; don’t worry, it’s mostly pictures)

Bessie Smith – “Oh, Daddy blues” (1923)

Image

Elephant Sperm Banks — Good Idea for Business & for Jazz

“Inbreeding presents real problems… [and it] isn’t just a problem for captive elephants” – it’s a problem for businesses and is an often-sited critique of jazz. Scott Anthony delves into his discussion of “innovation inbreeding” by using the example of Jackson, a Pittsburg area elephant who has sired so many calves in the US there is concern that the gene pool is homogenous and the species is at risk. Scientists want to create a sperm bank so as to diversify the gene pool in the creation of future calves. You see, whether in elephant sperm or in business, homogeneity (across sectors, within divisions, in the talent pool, etc.) is a bad thing. In business “inbreeding” occurs – when “innovation efforts are consistently led by the same group of people who have lived their life within the company.” In jazz, so the critique goes, “inbreeding” takes the form of musical stagnation and institutionalization.

Inbred businesses

Businesses seeking to retain or initiate their presence in established or emerging markets face a problem of integration. People stick to what’s familiar, it’s a herding mentality that provides psychological comfort through homogeneity. Valerie Gauthier notes managers in today’s globally interconnected businesses “feel a constant tension between the need for agility… and the quest for purpose, direction, and meaning.” They flounder, sensing the need to do something different but are unsure about just what to do and how. Their angst, she notes, “leads to irrational and erratic behaviors.” Yet it is this very tension that encourages the innovation necessary for business success, especially in the midst of ever-changing conditions. Managers not accustomed to hybridity in the workplace “gene pool” develop symptoms of neurosis and are indicators of systemic damage or worse, financial extinction. They need cultural coping mechanisms.

Hybridity in business

In “Learning How To Grow Globally” Christopher Bingham and Jason Davis use a “Soloing vs. Seeding” analogy to illuminate the differences between homogeneity and hybridity. Soloing and seeding represent direct and indirect approaches to learning respectively. Businesses need both. The soloing arm tends to realize financial success faster; while seeding yields slower growth initially but performs better long-term. Blending these approaches to create a hybrid seed (see, we’re back to elephant sperm) would seem to strengthen the company overall while also maximizing the talent pool. Moreover, a combination approach allows both a full-scale unified effort as well as a small group concentrated effort, a nimble arm to meet specific demands. In botany as with elephant sperm, the cross-pollination of ideas creates hybrid seeds that are resilient; they are better able to handle shifts in the (financial) environment such as wind gusts (wild market swings), tsunamis (depressions and recessions), and earthquakes. Growing globally will require adaptability to changing conditions.

Stagnant Jazz?

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestraand its institutional home come under regular attack for being unimaginative and restricted in their programming – homogenous. Eric Porter’s, What is This Thing Called Jazz??, offers a thorough overview of various critiques noting, the organization and its music “became a lightening rod for conflict, stemming from the attempt to craft a jazz cannon, from personnel decisions made regarding the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and from personality conflicts between major players at Lincoln Center and the jazz press.” As the Artistic Director of the JLCO Wynton Marsalis has often been condemned for “cultural gatekeeping” and espousing the “ideologies of social and cultural conservatism and neoliberalism”; and likewise, his music has been critiqued for being dated.

The charges are not without merit. You see, when cultural osmosis (like cellular osmosis) is thorough, the entity loses its apparent “two-ness” and becomes a singular new entity. So, as the ensemble performs in its characteristic swing style; tightly woven instrumental sections move convincingly through the score with locomotive power, difference gives way to the riveting dynamics, and the steady rhythm suggests automation. However, we must remember, the score is likely to have been arranged specifically for the performance; meaning, it is already a departure from the original. Also, solos are always current on the night they are performed; they are not written down and so cannot be repeated verbatim from night to night. Innovation is inherent within these conditions and the response to changing conditions is reflexive.

Change, Grow & Be Stronger…

Jackson’s efforts notwithstanding, the scientists in Pittsburg, businesses and jazz musicians know – hybridity is a good thing. Enduring long-term means coalescing disparate parts and making a whole, new thing. Call it what you will – cultural osmosis, hybridity, integration, diversity – when we are made to move beyond our comfort zones, we adapt, change and grow.

Collective Improvisation

The clip I’m attaching to this post is an example of collective improvisation (listen closely for this beginning at 2:45s); everyone is playing a different take on the melody at the same time – sonic hybridity.

Pragmatism and the Blues

In the Introduction of his Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Traiditon, James T. Kloppenbeg writes, “Pragmatism is a philosophy for skeptics, a philosophy for those committed to democratic debate and the critical assessment of the results of political decisions, not for true believers convinced they know the right course of action in advance of inquiry and experimentation. Pragmatism stands for open-mindedness and ongoing debate. The flexibility of pragmatist philosophy, which helps explain Obama’s intellectual acuity and suppleness, may paradoxically undercut his ability to inspire and persuade the American electorate and the United States Congress at a time when strident rhetoric and unyielding partisanship have displaced reasoned deliberation and a commitment to problem solving.” (xiii)

Albert Murray describes the, “fully orchestrated blues statement” as “a strategy for acknowledging the fact that life is a lowdown dirty shame and for improvising or riffing on the exigencies of the predicament. What is that all about if not continuity in the face of adversity? Which brings us all to the matter of heroic action…” (The Blue Devils of Nada , 14)

Acknowledging life is a “lowdown dirty shame” is nothing if not pragmatic and “improvising or riffing on the exigencies” of a situation certainly requires open-mindedness and flexibility. Obama’s “intellectual acuity and suppleness” can be understood, culturally through the blues. When I think of the intractable US Congress and those who, as in the NYT article I recently cited, are reluctant to own up to their use of government subsidies; I think of the poverty in the area of US cultural intelligence. The delusions to which so many cling as noted by Todd Gitlin who ponders whether or not Americans can have an honest debate on government indicate a lack of cultural intelligence (at best). Staying away from the hard questions doesn’t make them go away.

The anxiety, the self-protection, that goes into a conscious denial and then reluctant justification of receiving government subsidies is deeply troubling. First, failing to acknowledge reality renders one incapable of contributing to improving a given situation.  Second, the inflexible ranting about the evils of government subsidies moves the topic into an ideological corner from which advancement is unlikely because it is populated — happily, due to delusions — by those who believe they know “the right course of action.” Third, progress and democracy stall when active engagement is withheld because we don’t reach full participation and only a relatively small portion of, say the electorate, is involved in the decision-making process. This undercuts democracy in really important ways because the “representative” majority lacks diversity in thought.

Ok… so for today… business leaders deal with this type of thing and they stay tuned into grumblings in “ideological corners” and move those people to the center of discussion as a matter of sound business practice. Was reading Scott Anthony’s HBR blog today on “Negotiating Innovation and Control” and was glad to see so many ideas flowing about how to develop innovation strategies. This type of flexibility, openness to ideas and pragmatic confrontation with hard truths is common in business and is necessary in a democracy.

How do we get there? Cultural education — blues-based jazz, swing — is my preferred method… what’s yours?

The Blues… honestly

Brainstorm is a blog on Ideas and Culture that I find really thought provoking. In his February 12, 2012, entry, Todd Gitlin asks, “Is it Possible for Americans to have an Honest Discussion About Government?” My cynicism has not yet eclipsed my hopefulness and so my answer is, “Yes, it is possible. Si, se puede!” But how and what do we gain/lose by engaging in honest debate?

Gitlin’s entry is a contemplation on a New York Times article on critics of government safety nets who also depend on these daily.  So, various commentators have been “brainstorming” (great blog name BTW) about this. As indicated in the NYT article, people who firmly believe the government is too involved in the lives of the people are also loathe to admit their own dependence on government subsidies. When the hard truth is brought to light and an admission seems unavoidable, said recipients lament the fact and indicate they’d  rather do without the assistance. Good, good but not productive.

I was fascinated in reading this because the emotional and psychological work required to recast reality seems substantial. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s must read essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” which deals with omissions of race in literature but these things are transferable, so bear with me… So, what work goes into denying the reality of receiving subsidies and what trickery is involved in simultaneously rejecting the notion of subsidies being necessary to conduct normal daily affairs (the NYT article sites allowing after school sports activities for children and paying for necessary medical operations). The article gave no answers but shed light on the issue… good, good.

In order to have an honest discussion about government we’d need to deal with the uncomfortable truths of our reality forthrightly. We’d need to, as a nation, look at hardship head on, meet it in the eye, and call it what it is in order to deal with it meaningfully. We’d have to own up to the blues, honestly. So, instead of repeating favorite feel-good political soundbites and calls for “smaller government, lower taxes” and requests to “privatize healthcare, social security, education” etc., we’d have to ask, “Why is it that I can work full-time and still not be able to pay for after school sports for my children?” or “How is it that I have worked 30+ years and can’t afford to have the operation my wife needs” or “Why can’t I afford for my child to go to a ‘good’ school?” — All variations on the theme, “My baby done left me, oh what am I going to do?”In The Omni Americans Albert Murray reminds his readers that the blues ballad, “almost always [relates] a story of frustration [but] could hardly be described as a device for avoiding the unpleasant facts… on the contrary, it is a very specific and highly effective vehicle… [for] acknowledg[ing] the essentially tenuous nature of all human existence.” (Murray, 57) Honest answers to hard questions are necessary in order to move political conversations from soundbite to real life. In this case, we need to illuminate the relationship between the private sector and government.

Gitlin notes, “We can legitimately debate which taxes are fairer, and which expenditures most necessary and just, but as long as up-by-the-bootstraps ideology runs rampant, realistic debate is crippled by dishonesty. Unacknowledged dependency on the whole social network—not just on government—makes for delusions about how easy it would be to dispense with the safety net.” Significantly, these delusions keep progress at bay.

One way to begin having an honest discussion about government is to move thoughtful conversation from the classroom into the living room via the airwaves. Why? Because educators are trained to dig beneath the surface of ideas and excavate the hidden treasures and because so many people get their “news” and political ideas from TV and radio. Discussion imageThose trained in subject-specific research are experts who have committed their professional lives to knowing a subject deeply. When we engage them in conversations and allow their voices to integrate the mainstream media and infiltrate households, we pollinate the populace with ideas, the seeds of critical thinking — this is a bold new move.

I am excited about Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show which airs on Saturdays and Sundays beginning February 18, 2012, but not just because she’s smart as all get-out, poised and balanced in her approach but because she represents a move to elevate political discussion. Harris-Perry will not avoid the hard truths of our reality, she will delve in with a brain trained to think critically and to engage. She will extract the nuggets of gold that will enrich us all.  She says, “Part of the way I end up here is, I think the ivory tower has a ton of brilliant information that doesn’t show up for ordinary people.” Chris Hayes, who also has a show on MSNBC talks about time. He says, “Sometimes it has taken five minutes… to get past the talking points that are familiar to any cable news viewer. But we have the luxury of time.” Yes, thinking takes time and delivers the opposite of soundbites and 30 second news clips.  Harris-Perry’s show airs a full two hours for two days in a row. Cynical me says this must be tied to some profit margin but intellectual me thinks this is the right thing to do. Thoughtful conversation takes time. Harris-Perry and Hayes are part of a movement to reinvest in the power of intellect and an acknowledgment — by the market no less — that thinking takes time and has long-term benefits.

The NYT article on Harris-Perry poses the question, “Is this a sign of the rise of the academic on TV? Professor imageThough cable news is still stereotyped by some as a 24-7 screaming match, there are now pockets of intellectual stimulation that did not exist a decade ago.” — the rise of academics on TV will cause a rise in the level of political discourse. Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC notes, “Today, our audience thrives on being smart.” Finally, the market has demanded more intelligent TV.

This leads me to the idea of job creation. Why? Because the market seems to finally be acknowledging what educators have always known — thinking is valuable. Harris-Perry and the like are not trained in math or science and according to the soundbite scenarios, “we need more math and science” in order to be competitive — perhaps. However, it seems to me that a better educated and more thoughtful public trained to think critically in all areas, increases national competitiveness long-term. Imagine the US nimble and flexible enough to change with changing global demands because its entire population was prepared to contribute thoughtful, informed options or responses to whatever obstacle we faced. Perhaps the US can become a nation of thought leaders who collaborate with thought leaders in every region of the world to coordinate efforts to combat any number of global ills, including: climate change, poverty, healthcare, etc. Imagine the industries associated with this growth in thought leadership.Critical thinking image

By engaging honest debate we stand to lose the comforts of delusion and these are many. We would have to take responsibility for our contributions to the fracturing our systems of governance, healthcare, education, etc., painfully engage the unknown and have the courage to create something new. We would gain integrity and be offended that the current negative political campaigns and mudslinging avoid engaging hard questions and supply only soundbite answers instead.  We would gain an engaged and better informed populace invested in creating new systems rather than simply and unimaginatively destroying what we have. We would move towards solutions and not run from the hardship of our many problems. We need the blues, honestly.