Jack Chambers: a passion for language and learning

May 20, 2010 by

This is the first in a series of posts introducing people who have endorsed the Jazz Process book.

To those in the world of jazz he is Jack Chambers, jazz biographer and journalist, perhaps best known as the author of Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis, the definitive biography of the pioneering jazz trumpeter. The book was first published in 1983 and 1985 by Beech Tree Books and was instantly a classic. Intricately researched, rich in detail, superbly organized and thoroughly engaging, the book is so good that copious parts of it somehow ended up in the autobiography penned by Davis and Quincy Troupe. Chambers addressed this issue in a new introduction he wrote for the book when it was republished in in 1998 by Da Capo Press. His latest jazz literary masterwork, Bouncin’ With Bartok: The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik, is a biography of jazz pianist, Richard Twardzik. Unlike Davis who is possibly the most well known of jazz legends, Twardzik is known by few and his brilliant career was cut short at the age of 24 when he died of a heroin overdose while on a European tour with Chet Baker. To accurately recount the short career of a little known figure is no small feat but Chambers did it as brilliantly as he does everything else.

Chambers’s knowledge of jazz is far-ranging and over the years he has written about many other jazz musicians including Duke Ellington and Gil Evans. I was fortunate enough to have Jack present at a Gil Evans tribute concert I presented a few years ago. He contributed to the programme notes and I took the opportunity to have him sign my copy of Milestones. That was the first time, and to date the only time, I have asked an author to sign a book and I look forward to returning the favor soon.

As notable as Chambers’s contributions are to jazz, writing about his favorite music is not his only gig. As J.K. Chambers he is known as a professor, researcher and author in the field of linguistics. He has pioneered research in Canadian English and has been a visiting professor at universities throughout the world. He has also parlayed his expertise into linguistics into a third career as a forensics consultant, testifying as an expert witness on such esoteric topics such as the language of pornography at obscenity trials.

Whether it’s jazz or linguistics, Chambers has excelled through his passion for learning and sharing knowledge. His response to the question, Is there a connection between language and music for you?” posed in a 2005 interview, is insightful:

But music and language do have common ground. Both have syntax and phonology, and if I am good at talking about them it is because I can use the same analytic skills on both. Linguistic structure is, of course, hard-wired and irrepressibly human. Musical structure is not hard-wired but learned, and learned with great effort for the greatest practitioners. But it is also uniquely human, and I suspect that it takes its form by spinning off our language faculty, like a kind of satellite. And jazz is especially language-like, because musicians use the syntax and phonology to construct motifs (phrases and sentences) and melodies (discourses) that no one has ever heard before, and they do it spontaneously, just as speakers do in ordinary conversation, except that at its very best it is more like a poem than like ordinary conversation. And how they do it, no one knows. Every three-year-old can do that with language. But only the most gifted musicians can do it in music.

It’s always a pleasure and a learning experience to read anything that Jack has written. Of course the subject matter is usually of great interest but the man knows his way around words as you would expect him to and his turn of phrase is always artful. I actually found it quite daunting to contribute to programme notes alongside his writing. It was similar intimidating to ask him to review my manuscript with the thought of providing an endorsement. Ever the gentleman he not only provided a testimonial but with just a few simple words, “Adrian– You write as well as you do all those other things,” he encouraged a budding author.

If you’ve not read Milestones, I encourage you to put it on your reading list as it is simply one of the best jazz biographies around and everyone can do well to know about Miles Davis. If you’ve read Milestones, check out Bouncin’ With Bartok for a rare insight into the lost talent of Dick Twardzik. You can also find Chambers’s jazz writing in Coda magazine.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

The book cometh

May 15, 2010 by

Last Friday I was in London, Ontario speaking about the Jazz Process at a PMI Symposium. After my talk I offhandedly tweeted that the book would be out soon. A number of people asked me for more details and I thought it would be good to share them on this blog.

The camera-ready manuscript was sent to the printers on May 6th. Books are due to arrive in the publisher’s warehouses on June 3rd and should be available from booksellers shortly thereafter. If all goes according to schedule a special shipment will be sent to the IBM Innovate conference in Orlando, Florida. The book is being published by Pearson Education under the Addison-Wesley imprint. Pearson Education is a division of Pearson, the largest publisher of books in the UK, India, Australia and New Zealand and the second largest in the USA and Canada. Although the Addison-Wesley imprint is typically employed for information technology titles, this book will carry suggested categories of Innovation/Collaboration/Management on the back. On a related note, the Library of Congress cataloging information lists the following as the book’s subjects: 1. Teams in the workplace, 2. Diversity in the workplace, 3. Organizational effectiveness, 4. Communication.

It took me about 18 months to write the book. Based on initial velocity I had estimated that I might have it done early last year but I ended up getting sidetracked by many other projects. From the outset I was adamant that I would not write anymore than was necessary. I really dislike reading books with fluff and filler. Consequently I was a bit concerned that I might not have enough words to present a volume of substance. I ended up with about 110,000 words. The initial book design was a larger format with minimal white space. This was the complete opposite of what I wanted. I pushed for a smaller, more portable format with enough white space to ensure a high degree of readability. Based on these design changes they had projected the book would come in at 390 pages but it’s just under 300 with all the front matter, bibliography and index. That’s a perfect size in my mind so I’m very happy with the result. The book will be published in a 6 x 9″ paperback format with 264 pages of content (not including the front matter), 20 figures and over 10 pages of cited works.

The process of writing the book was not unlike a jazz performance. In the chapter entitled Maintain Momentum, I make the point that you must have form in any performance or project. From the outset I knew all the points I wanted to make and I had detailed the purpose of each chapter in my initial proposal to Pearson back in 2008. Despite all of this structure, the process of populating the form with content was very organic and very improvised. In the course of making my points and expressing my perspective on various matters I found myself writing about all kinds of topics that I had not expected. It was very much a journey and one that I enjoyed immensely. One benefit of all the writing and researching was that I was able to further develop many of the important points. This has made it a easier for me to present a compelling argument and that’s useful for my presentations and other writing.

I feel very fortunate that I was able to secure a contract with a good publisher. I know people who have self-published and it didn’t take me long to rule out that option. In my mind, whatever additional in-hand revenue I might have given up was more than worth it to get a polished product and widespread distribution. Pearson supported me through the entire process, ensuring that things were just the way I wanted them. They had a great team working on all aspects of the book including editing, illustrations, copy, layout, cover design, proofreading, promotion and so forth. That said, even with a good publisher, an author must take responsibility for finding and fixing errata just as a software developer should take responsibility for finding and fixing bugs in his or her code. Even after Pearson were done with proofreading, further passes on my end (with help from friends and family) found over 70 mistakes. It’s possible some minor bugs still exist in the text but we deemed it good enough to ship. The editing process really was very much like delivering a software project. After delivering a “feature complete” prototype we went through many iterations of testing (proofreading) and fixing. There were seven iterations in fact and with each pass we found and fixed less bugs. There were occasionally regressions, especially in the first iteration of editing. As a result of fixing one thing, other bugs were inadvertently introduced.

An important part of publishing a book is obtaining endorsements. They are considered to be an essential element in the marketing of any book. To be honest, this was not something that I was looking forward to as I didn’t want to get drawn down the wrong path. Many books have a large number of endorsements but I wanted quality over quantity. Most of all I wanted genuine testimonials. I read so many book endorsements that are over the top. In many cases more importance is given to the public identity of endorsers than what they write. None of the endorsers I chose are household names but they are people whose work I greatly respect and their affirmation means a great deal to me. I look forward to writing about these thought leaders in the near future.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

Top talent and decentralized leadership

May 9, 2010 by

In their quest for greater productivity many teams look to tools and technology when the greatest resource they have, or should have, is already within the team. The United States military is the best equipped fighting force in the world with hardware that soldiers in many other countries can only dream about. One would think that if any U.S. military units would have easy access to that hardware, it would be the elite Special Operations Forces (SOF). While the SOF might find it easier to get access to advanced equipment and weaponry, they realize that their most critical success factor is not technology but people. This basic principle is encoded in four rules known as the “SOF Truths.” General David Baratto, the first chief of operations of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in the late 1980s, defined the first of these truths as follows: “Humans are more important than hardware.” As Linda Robinson, author of Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces noted, the Special Operations Forces “view the individual soldier and his brain as the key factor in the fight.” General Wayne Downing wrote in the foreword to Special Operations Forces: Roles and Mission in the Aftermath of the Cold War:

“[T]he most important component of success in all our missions is the people we commit to them. We are continually seeking new and innovative ways to select the right people, to train them thoroughly, and to develop them professionally throughout their career. We know that the best equipment in the world without the right person operating it will not accomplish the mission. On the other hand, the right person will find a way to succeed with almost any equipment available.”

While their missions might not be critical to the security of a nation, successful musical leaders also understand the importance of employing top talent. They understand that a group comprised of regularly rehearsing average musicians will never match the capabilities of a team of great musicians even if those musicians are working together for the first time. Jazz leaders know this especially because improvisation, the ability to deal with the unknown and to adapt, plays such a large part in their music. General Downing wrote, “The challenge to Special Operations Forces is to prepare for an uncertain future while operating in an ever-changing present.” Jazz leaders know that experienced and skilled jazz musicians can adapt to almost any situation and deliver a dynamic performance packed with spontaneity, creativity and energy, even if they have never before performed as a collective. Established but fundamentally weak groups performing packaged material might be able to dazzle with a handful of well-rehearsed tunes, but give them something new or unexpected and their weaknesses will be revealed.

The idea of hiring the best people is embodied in Employ Top Talent, one of the most important rules of the Jazz Process. Strong practitioners not only do great work, they allow teams and organizations to apply Lead on Demand, a principle that enables agile teams and ultimately agile organizations.

Even before the SOF Truths were defined, fighter pilot, aircraft designer and military strategist, Colonel John Boyd, proclaimed “People, ideas, hardware – in that order.” One of Boyd’s influences was his study of Blitzkrieg. There are many myths and controversies surrounding the Blitzkrieg concept and its use by German forces during World War II. Many have propagated and continue to propagate the false notion that Blitzkrieg was primarily a strategy of repeated “shock and awe” tactics that relied on overwhelming force directed through military hardware such as the armored divisions of the German Panzerwaffe. Newsreels portrayed the German army as a mechanized juggernaut, when in fact, the German army had 3,350 tanks and 650,000 horses when it attacked the Russians in 1941. The real advantage of Blitzkrieg, which is German for “lightning war,” was speed and mobility.

At the end of World War I the Treaty of Versailles imposed strict restrictions on German military forces, limiting them in both size and scope. The task of reorganizing the German military within these restrictions fell to Hans von Seeckt. A General who had served in numerous high-level positions in the German army during World War I, Seeckt realized that agility was the key to success. By giving unit commanders more autonomy, German forces were able to improve agility. Instead of waiting for explicit orders, they were made aware of the strategic intents of their superiors and expected to use their own creativity and initiative and make their own decisions to help implement the strategy. In this way German forces were able to make decisions and act more quickly than their opponents. The actions of individual units were less predictable and they were able to adapt more quickly in response to the specific threats or conditions they encountered.

Decentralized leadership is leveraged widely in jazz circles. It is quite common for jazz musicians to work variously as leaders or as sidemen and they alternate between these roles frequently and regularly. Busy musicians who are both in-demand sidemen and leaders of their own projects may find themselves fulfilling both roles in the course of a week or even a day. Jazz leadership changes not just between gigs but also during the performance of a single piece of music. While the leader of the gig might choose the tune and count it off, at various times during the performance, different musicians will take on leadership roles and others will follow as necessary. This happens most obviously when jazz musicians take turns performing as soloists and then provide accompaniment for other musician’s solos. However, the reassignment of leadership occurs even more frequently and less obviously than that. There are times when even for just an instant, a musician who is currently playing as accompanist may take on a leadership role to direct a specific change in the music. A musician may initiate a change even without knowing precisely where it will lead, trusting that the other musicians will lead on demand in order to develop the new direction. Jazz musicians simply cannot let leadership roles remain statically assigned if they wish to create interesting, innovative music.

If you want an agile and highly capable organization, begin by hiring top talent, communicating an intent and vision and trusting your people to carry out the necessary work in their own way.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

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