Most students of jazz will not go on to be professional players. And few students turned on by the creative arts in school will go on to be professional artists. And that's OK. Knowledge and understanding of the arts and the experience of pursuing excellence with, say, an instrument or a brush, etc. can teach students a lot about life and the value of focused effort, patience, teamwork, perspective, creativity, problem solving, and a million other things. All things that will serve the student well no matter what profession(s) she ends up dedicating herself to.
I made barely enough money with music to pay for my college years. Though music is not my profession today, jazz still inspires me in my professional life as well as in my personal/spiritual life. Jazz, of course, is about dialog and a kind of conversation with other musicians and a connection with the audience. Jazz is inspiring to me; it's lessons can be applied to other aspects of life, even the art of presentation. Below, then, are eleven quotes by jazz greats of yesterday and today which I find particularly inspiring and applicable. Following the list is a short video clip of a gig I did in Osaka last year with some very accomplished musicians.
(1) “The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen.” (Duke-Ellington)
The best communicators in the world are almost always the best listeners. Talking is easy; any dope can do that. But listening is hard. The lessons learned in life come more from when we open our ears not our mouths.
(2) “Writing is like jazz. It can be learned, but it can’t be taught.”
I'm not sure I've ever been taught anything about making presentations, but I have learned a ton from observing great presenters, from people like Steve Jobs to scores of people far less famous, such as college professors, etc.
(3) “Don’t bullshit… just play.” (Wynton-Marsalis)
Audiences today are busier than ever and have developed built-in "crap detectors" to filter out anything remotely insincere or shallow. They may not interrupt you or walk out of the room, but that doesn't mean they have not stopped listening. Guy Kawasaki has some good tips for those presenting to venture capitalists. If you're asking an audience for money, it is a safe bet that they will have zero tolerance for any overly optimistic views of future results unless you have strong evidence.
(4) “If they act too hip, you know they can’t play shit!” (Louis-Armstrong)
With practice we can become more polished. But too much polish turns a presentation into a TV-like infomercial unworthy of an audience's trust. Presentation is a very human thing. Practice, rehearse and make it great. But keep it real. Keep it human. And remember that it is about them (the audience), not us.
(5) “Master your instrument. Master the music. And then forget all that bullshit and just play.” (Charlie-Parker)
Studying design and presentation, communication, etc. is crucial. But when we present, all that matters is that moment and that audience. Get to the point. Tell us something memorable. Quit worrying and just inspire us or teach us (or better yet, both).
(6) “It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play.” (Dizzy-Gillespie)
Most presentations are too long or filled with information that was unnecessary and included for the wrong reasons (such as fear). Knowing what to leave out takes work. Again, anyone can include everything and say everything, it is the master presenters (or writers, etc.) who know what to cut and have the courage to cut it.
(7) “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.” (John-Coltrane)
In most situations, you don't need the latest technology or the best equipment in the world. Showing that you are well prepared and ready to present naked is far more important. A poor presentation is not any better simply because expensive equipment is used to project images. Sincerity and respect for the audience matter far more.
(8) "When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them."
Many books give prescriptions for the "best way" to present. There is no "best way" or "the correct way" to make a presentation. There are only two kinds really: good ones and bad ones. You know the difference because you've seen them both. Don't be afraid to be unconventional if you think "unconventional" will work best for your situation. Conventional wisdom is often the unwisest choice of all. "Conventional wisdom" about presentations is at best a prescription for mediocrity.
(9) “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.” (Charles Mingus)
This is my favorite quote of all. Many presenters -- very smart people -- either take something essentially simple and confuse an audience or simply fail to make their more complicated material meaningful to their audience. Simplicity ain't easy. In fact it's hard.
(10) “I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession. If you can, then it ain’t music..." (Billie-Holiday)
Even if you have the same set of slides or the same key points from one night to the next, every presentation is different because every audience is different. We must avoid the "canned presentation" or the "canned pitch" at all cost. If we focus on the audience and place priority on their needs, we're on the right path.
(11) “A great teacher is one who realizes that he himself is also a student and whose goal is not to dictate the answers, but to stimulate his students creativity enough so that they go out and find the answers themselves.”
My best teachers as a child and my favorite presenters of today have this in common: they inspire, stimulate, motivate, provoke, and lead...but they do not dictate.
Live in Japan
Below is a piece recorded in a club in Japan off a simple SLR camera featuring my buddies Dr. Hanagan (p) and Taku (b) and me on the (d). I am really looking forward to playing with Dr. Hanagan again on his next trip to Japan soon.
Here's something slower from the same gig.