Editor’s note: It is recommended that readers listen to Miles Davis’ “The Birth of Cool” while reading this story for the optimal sensory experience.
PORTLAND, Maine — The jazz quartet started playing, and people stopped talking. A rolling drum beat moved the music along, an upright bass supported the foundation, the keyboard filled in the holes and a piercing saxophone lifted the music higher.
As the four musicians played off each other, each took a turn driving the melody — catching each other’s eyes as they shifted tempo or volume, trusting their fellow artists as the music evolved on the fly.
It was, according to organizers of the recent seminar, the perfect way to “draw imagery and connections between jazz performance and business performance.”
With about 30 people in attendance, the idea was to use how the jazz quartet operated — and some of the history and structure of jazz itself — as a way to illustrate and stress key business principals including evolution, creativity, leadership, relationships and decisiveness.
It was, said Frank Laurino, chief strategist at Backbeat, “seriously uncharted territory.”
Laurino and John Rogers, director at VTEC, had talked about trying to do this sort of business leadership seminar for a while. VTEC mostly provides technical training, including in-depth work on specific programming languages and the like. But Rogers said he has wanted to move into broader discussions around leadership, creativity and other key concepts.
“Jazz performance has a lot to teach business about how to apply creativity, so it’s not just this fluffy concept,” said Rogers. “Creativity is something you can learn, practice and apply to practical things in a business place.”
The idea was sparked after Laurino read an autobiography of Bill Bruford, who was a drummer with bands such as Yes and King Crimson. The book, said Laurino, made a number of observations on life, relationships and parallels between running a business and running a band. So Laurino and Rogers decided to try a seminar that drew the parallels in a live setting; Bruford attended, as well, and spoke to the people there.
During the evening, Laurino played drums in the Matt Langley Quartette, while Rogers spoke at the podium. Rogers spoke about jazz great Miles Davis, and how he grew “Cool Jazz” out of the foundation of bebop. While Davis continued to evolve, he always had his signature sound on trumpet, said Rogers.
He likened it to Apple, with its constant evolution from iPod to iPhone to iPad — with the “signature sound” being the “i.”
Both Davis’ jazz and Apple’s product development provide examples of how evolution happens, while remaining true to the foundation they’re built on, Rogers suggested. In the case of Apple’s example, the foundation is not radically altered, but new markets are opened.
The group looked at how jazz courts the unpredictable. Until the notes come out of the saxophonists’ horn, there’s uncertainty as to what will be played, but it’s up to the rest of the band to play off that sound, respond to it. The jazz musician, said Rogers, is forced to foresee change.
Businesspeople, on the other hand, appreciate long-range forecasts, predictability.
“But if expectations are your master, you’re not open to change. It’s the tyranny of expectation,” said Rogers.
Laurino added that businesses need the structure and flexibility but also need to keep a constant eye toward re-invention. Otherwise, he said, you end up being the last company producing buggy-whips. The goal in business, he said, is to introduce more creativity into the stable environment.
Another concept Rogers introduced was that big ideas come from small, creative actions. Practice, or rehearsal, for a jazz quartet represents a continually applied small, creative action, he suggested. When Davis started toying with the idea of cool jazz, it started with the introduction of a mute to his trumpet — a small, creative act, said Rogers.
In the business world, he pointed to Isaac Singer, whose name is immediately connected to the sewing machine. He didn’t invent the sewing machine, but he applied the concept of interchangeable parts to the machines, dropping the prices. And he invented the payment plan and the trade-in plan, said Rogers. He also aimed the product at a new market — homes. Each of those innovations were relatively small, creative steps that moved the business forward.
The group also touched on the idea of leadership, both in terms of setting a direction and in terms of allowing workers to have the authority to be creative and move the company ahead.
To illustrate, Rogers asked band leader and saxophonist Matt Langley what the overall vision was for the quartet. It was, said Langley, to “apply a jazz vision to current music.” As an example, the band began playing a jazzy version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” But Laurino, on drums, didn’t get the vision, and was pounding out a dance-floor beat. Langley had to tell Laurino to listen to the other musicians, to get a sense of the direction of the song.
In the same way, said Rogers, a company leader needs to offer guidance, share a vision of what the business is doing, and why. That leader must allow people to think, observe, engage in trial and error and produce, he said.
The process of creating jazz is unlike that of rock, classical or other music forms, said Rogers. Jazz musicians share leadership and authority with each other, passing it off as the music dictates.
“In business you have to allow people to lead in their position, if you want to take advantage of the creativity that’s inherent in being human,” said Rogers.
And each musician must react quickly as the music changes, noted Laurino, “in real time — no debate, no focus groups, no consensus.”
“It’s one-two-three play,” he said, relating that concept to decisiveness and action in business.
Arthur Fink, a photographer and creativity-communication consultant from Peaks Island, said he found the presentation a little choppy, but “intellectually, it’s very powerful.” The presenters, he said, gave people the space to play around with the idea of the jazz-business relationship.
Eric Piskura, a social studies teacher at Marshwood High School, said he thought the concepts were valuable to him as a teacher in a system that’s going through accreditation.
So many of the metaphors people use for business tend to be sports-related, he said. Jazz is a refreshing change from that, proving that sports “is not the only modality.”
Rogers and Laurino said they were hoping to do more such seminars in the future; different takes on how to communicate leadership concepts.
“People have many avenues to where they learn — a lot of people don’t learn well by being talked at — we want to display a practical application,” said Rogers. “Listening to music, talking about concepts; it goes by the barriers.”