Learning from the jazz masters and the importance of situational awareness

Apr 24, 2010 by

The Jazz Process book is currently in final proofreading and on schedule for release at the end of May. In fact I’m going through the final PDFs this weekend. I’m excited to see early interest in the book and I’m looking forward to when people can get it in their hands. IT professional Bob Lambert has blogged about his interest in the book and this dual-topic post is a response to his post. Before I get to Lambert’s interesting points I do have to correct him for writing that I play jazz at the highest level. That’s definitely not the case. I am, however, over the moon that John Goldsby, who definitely does fall into the category of playing at the highest level, has taken an interest in the Jazz Process. John wrote a truly wonderful foreword for the book and I hope in time that other jazz musicians will also check it out.

Lambert writes about the important of knowing history. I love his words “Those who don’t know history don’t know how to repeat it.” I did write about this topic in my book in the chapter entitled “Exchange Ideas.” My main point is that innovation rarely happens in isolation. The myth of the lone inventor has been well-debunked by innovation authorities such as Scott Berkun (Scott is also an endorser of my book – in fact his blurb is going on the cover). Most innovation happens through an exchange of ideas but that doesn’t necessarily have to be an exchange with someone who is alive and present. Before even stepping into a group performance situation, every good jazz musician has listened to and absorbed what the jazz greats have had to say. This begins with studying the masters of a musician’s specific instrument. Trumpet players, for example, listen to what Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Harry James, Miles Davis and so many others said through their instruments. They are also taught that they shouldn’t just confine themselves to those masters but should listen to the greats on any instrument. Listen to Miles Davis for his economy of notes, Johnny Hodges for his luscious tone and control of pitch, Thelonious Monk for his dissonance and angular melodic lines, John Coltrane for his complexity and intensity, and so forth. Jazz musicians learn about the evolution of playing styles as well as the evolution of the music. Modern jazz musicians learn about the further evolution of the music by studying today’s great musicians. All of this study consists of activities such as listening to live performances and recordings, transcribing solos, reading and playing transcriptions. 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 protect their novel inventions from being freely exploited by others. 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. I should also add, especially since I have already mentioned John Goldsby in this post, that John is a strong proponent of knowing the tradition. His book, The Jazz Bass Book, is a comprehensive study of notable jazz bassists throughout history and it’s the bassist’s bible in this respect. I truly believe that one of the reasons John is such a great player is because he has such a great knowledge of the tradition to call upon and to build on.

Lambert’s other important point is that jazz musicians must not only listen to each other but to what’s happening in the space around them. In my book I wrote quite a lot about the concept of awareness especially in the chapter entitled “Listen for Change.” Awareness is broken down into individual awareness, team awareness and situational or contextual awareness. It is the latter that Lambert refers to. Individual awareness is listening to one’s self. Team awareness is listening to collaborators (those we work with). Situational awareness is listening to consumers (those we work for) and competitors (those we work against). Unless there are hecklers in the room, most jazz musicians are fortunate enough not to have to deal with competitors during a jazz performance. However their consumers are the entire audience. Jazz musicians are really lucky because they have the ability to alter what they play as they perform. Such an opportunity is not afforded to classical musicians or others that perform from a pre-composed script of music. When jazz musicians are sensitive to the room, it affects what they play. In a gig I played earlier this evening, the room was very dry so I found myself playing more notes in solos since the longer notes didn’t have much sustain in the room. Since we were playing in a restaurant and we were in close proximity to diners, we also had to be sensitive to their experience. In business, any company that does not pay attention to the business environment including what its competitors are doing and what its consumers think of its products or services, is doomed.

Back to the proofreading…

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