John Goldsby: collaborating from the bottom up

Jun 14, 2010 by

This is the second in a series of posts introducing people who have endorsed the Jazz Process book. The first post in this series introduced jazz biographer and linguistics professor, Jack Chambers. For this post I have the pleasure of writing about jazz bassist, John Goldsby.

Goldsby was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1980 he moved to New York where he stayed for almost fifteen years, performing and recording with many great musicians as both a sideman and a leader. In 1994, he moved to Cologne, Germany to become the resident bassist in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Big Band (Cologne Radio Big Band), a position he still holds today. The Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) is the television and radio station in the Nordrhein-Westphalia area of Germany. It is run as a “public” radio station but has a much broader scope than PBS in the United States. In addition to the Big Band, the WDR also employs two full-time symphony orchestras and a choir.

For the reasons that I will outline in this post, I asked John Goldsby to write the foreword to my book. When I first read what he had written, I was genuinely moved and impressed although not surprised. The purpose of any foreword is to make a case for the book. One of the most effective approaches is to riff on the book’s themes. This is, in essence, what a jazz musician does when collaborating in a musical performance. When jazz musicians formulate original statements they draw on ideas that others have put forward or passed on. In some cases they do this deliberately and in others they may not realize or recall their source of inspiration. In his literary performance, Goldsby identified many of the key themes that I offer up in the book and combined them not only with his own ideas but with the ideas of others that he has picked up over the years. For example, in riffing on the theme of trust he recalled something that legendary bassist Ron Carter had explained to him about Carter’s experience playing with Miles Davis. Just as he would in a musical context, Goldsby drew on a collective of ideas and crafted an engaging statement that compels the reader to tune into the sections of the performance that follow. As an author I could not have asked for more.

Goldsby is one of the foremost jazz bassists of our time. He’s certainly a virtuoso of his instrument but there’s far more to this musician than just great bass chops and tasty solos. Whether he’s leading his own innovative projects or supporting and reinforcing the efforts of others, Goldsby’s reputation is that of a consummate collaborator. Karolina Strassmayer, a superb alto saxophonist, has worked with Goldsby in a wide variety of situations, from the WDR Big Band to Goldsby’s quartet to Strassmayer’s quartet and everything in between. She was effusive when describing her experiences working with Goldsby:

John is one of the most supportive musicians I’ve ever played with. He always seems to know what the music needs and knows how to lift the music. He can shine in such a variety of musical contexts without ever sacrificing his individual style. He’s a fantastic bandleader, he knows what he wants to get from his tunes but leaves plenty of freedom for the players to express themselves.

What makes Goldsby such a great collaborator? Listen to him perform and you’ll hear how well he plays a supportive role. His bass lines are always anchoring the ensemble, giving others the freedom to explore uncharted territory. He’s ever mindful of what the soloists and the ensemble are doing, responding to their improvisational forays and on occasion, urging them to greater heights. When he takes his turn out front, he plays delightfully groovy and lyrical solos that increase the value of the band’s offering. More impressively and importantly, he moves effortlessly between leading and following as the music demands. The ability of individuals to transition smoothly between these roles allows a team to exploit decentralized leadership and act with greater agility. I wrote about decentralized leadership in a recent post: Top talent and decentralized leadership.

Goldsby is particularly knowledgeable about the history of jazz and the role of the bass in jazz. His book, The Jazz Bass Book — Technique and Tradition, is the definitive study of jazz bassists. I was at a talk Goldsby gave in Toronto some years ago where he was introduced by Todd Coolman, another world-class jazz bassist. Coolman is himself somewhat of an authority on the jazz bass tradition and he was quick to point out that much of Goldby’s success comes from his knowledge of jazz bass history. In 1993, shortly before moving to Germany, Goldsby released Tale of the Fingers, a quartet album in which he assumed leadership duties. The album pays tribute to many of the great jazz bassists of yesteryear, demonstrating Goldsby’s respect for the jazz bass tradition. Knowing history is important. It gives you the opportunity to repeat past successes and avoid past mistakes. It’s also an essential path in innovation. You can’t be original without knowing what has already been said. This is particularly true in the business world, where innovators use patents to keep others from exploiting their novel inventions. Novelty of a patent is determined by searching for prior art, the body of knowledge relevant to the patent’s claims of originality, including other patents and publicly accessible descriptions or demonstrations of other inventions. If a patent is granted and it turns out that prior art was overlooked, the patent may be invalidated or reduced in scope. In some countries, inventors even have a duty to disclose pertinent prior art with the relevant patent office. Goldsby’s ability to craft a compelling foreword to a book or a compelling solo leverages his knowledge of what others have said and done.

Goldsby’s appreciation for jazz across time is matched by an appreciation for jazz across cultures. Jazz blogger, pianist and fellow Ottawan, Peter Hum, identified Goldsby’s insightful thinking about the global nature of jazz in a blog post written late last year. Why is this so noteworthy? Empathy for the experience and perspective of others is essential to effective collaboration and it is the hallmark of a truly great leader. Empathy also has great value in understanding and conquering competitors. U.S. Army officer, Major Brian L. Steed notes this in his book, Piercing the Fog of War: Recognizing Change on the Battlefield: Lessons from Military History, 216 BC Through Today. Steed writes: “One area of particular importance in contemporary conflict is developing empathy for the opponent.” In noting how the U.S. has conducted international relations he makes this important point:

Seeing the world from a single perspective and making assessments from that perspective have resulted in failure after failure in the U.S. experience. This is especially true when the conflict occurs with an opponent from a culture significantly different from U.S. or European cultures. Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq are all examples of areas that have presented and are presenting difficulties.

In making the move from New York to Cologne and the WDR, Goldsby not only crossed cultural divides but gained unique experience as a member of a large ensemble. Nowadays there are only a handful of jazz orchestras active enough that they can afford to retain a complete complement of full-time musicians and each of these bands employs just one bassist. In his position with the WDR Big Band, Goldsby is part of an organization employing hundreds of musicians but he also has the freedom to pursue his own small-group projects. Some of Goldsby’s notable albums featuring him as a leader include Viewpoint, a 2000 release featuring a sextet, Space for the Bass, a 2009 album featuring a quintet, with each musician hailing from a different country (Strassmayer plays on this one), and The Innkeeper’s Gun, an exciting bass-drums-alto-trio excursion released just this year. There are many musicians who shun large ensembles just as there are people who do not wish to work for large companies. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s important to understand that both small and large teams have their upsides and downsides. At least in the purely acoustic realm, no small group can match the huge range of dynamics and timbres that a large ensemble can generate. When I started out in the software industry, I consulted to a number of large companies including my current employer, IBM. Dealing with such bureaucracy, I swore I would never work for a large organization again. Years later, the small company that I worked for was acquired by IBM. I came to realize that there are many things we simply could not have done without the resources of a large corporation.

A strong practitioner, an innovative and inspiring leader who knows when to let others take the lead, an appreciation for the old and the new, an understanding of cultural differences, and the ability to excel in both small and large teams. In business, this kind of experience would make John Goldsby an ideal CEO. I was not surprised when John told me he reads a lot of business books. John is truly one of the best jazz musicians around and his music is engaging and highly approachable. This is no doubt helped by the fact that his skills as collaborator allow him to attract top talent and inspire them to deliver great performances. Check out some of his recordings to hear the results.

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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