Leadership And All That Jazz

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[Another one from the Archives – originally posted in July 2003 at GottaGettaBlog!]

My son attended a week-long jazz camp offered by the Midwest Young Artists. Each night, starting around 9pm, the students would gather for 90-minutes or so of improv. They’d come on stage as a combo 7 or 8 person combo – trumpet, a sax or two, trombone, guitar, piano, bass, drummer – pick a song … and play it. What was particularly interesting to me was that many of these combo players never actually played together before, yet … they each knew exactly what to play, when to play it, and how long to play it for.

Combo Jazz songs, like Tenor Madness (Sonny Rollins), A Night in Tunisia (Dizzy Gillespie), and Watermelon Man (Herbie Hancock) to name just a few, are a fascinating in that they allow for such total improvisation. But they do it within a predetermined, formalized structure. I don’t know how to explain it really.

Unlike professional jazz musicians, the students at the jazz camp made all sorts of mistakes – missed notes, wrong keys, off-tempo. But no matter how messy things got, the combo would always bring the song home in the end. No one ever got too far adrift that the song couldn’t be rescued. No one ever got left out on a limb.

Jazz as Metaphor

It really is an interesting metaphor to play with.

Think about your job, as example, and the people you work with:

  • They’re YOUR Combo.
  • They’re the ones who you need to be able to rely on when your solo goes sour.
  • They’re the ones who will be there to celebrate your great solo with.
  • They’re the ones who will be there to back you up and for you to back them up.

The unexpected is an essential ingredient of jazz, yet one thing you can count on is that every player will know where the song is at any given moment.

Who do you know on your work team that may not know where the song is and what can you do – caringly, respectfully, and maybe even discretely – to help them get back on track?

Similarly, who do you know that’s playing in a surprising, if not unusual way – and maybe just needs a few more bars or a little more space to bring it on home?

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