Slide:ology: My favorite presentation book of all time
Ken Burns: going inside the photograph

More lessons from jazz

Album on the Amazon page A few days ago Mental Floss (the blog) ran a nice post that was an extension of an article they ran in their Mental Floss magazine on Miles Davis and his 1959 album Kind of Blue. Young jazz students learn early that Kind of Blue is one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded and is required knowledge for all aspiring jazz players. I said many times before that the parallels with jazz and presentation run deep and wide. The Kind of Blue album is a great example of what's called modal jazz. It's difficult to explain what modal jazz is: according to " a modal jazz song, improvisations are based on individual scales or modes rather than on the overall key of a piece. The result is a song that contains fewer chord changes and allows more time and freedom for melodic improvisation. In essence, it's about a return to melody." Modal jazz has a simpler presence and a more organic feel to it, and it allows the players more freedom for expression. We can relate presentations at least in spirit to what Miles was going for with music and expression in the early '60s.

Miles knew it took a very special kind of musician to deal with this lack of structure — it's harder and scarier. Likewise, in our world of presentation, it takes the kind of person who is willing to get in front of slides that are minimalistic and let the words come from both his mind and his gut, from both his reservoir of knowledge of the material and the compelling energy of his imagination which together follow a theme and are in sync with the visual. You need some structure and you need a theme, but often storytelling (and that's what jazz is at its core) is enhanced with minimal structure, allowing for greater amplification of meaning.

Ken Burns' Jazz on Kind of Blue
Interesting discussion below on Kind of Blue from Ken Burns' documentary called Jazz. (Note also how Burns mixes in still photography, voice over, and interviews; presentation lessons here too.)

The power of economy
A lot of the big keynotes at tech conferences seem so unnatural — lots and lots of stuff, but the most basic question — "so what?" — is never answered. It's interesting that one of Miles' most famous songs is So What. So what indeed. If you can not answer this, all is lost. It's not about more "stuff" — often there is more meaning, and even more beauty, in doing more with less. There is beauty in economy. This is true in art, music, design, ...and in presentation. The legendary jazz players, it is said, were great economist — they understood the concept of economy and could do amazing things with just a single note, and they certainly knew the power of silence or "the empty space." Young musicians too often feel that the music is about the dazzle and bedazzle and making an impression. The great, wise jazz musician knows, though, that it's about the story — this story right here and right now — a story that is never expressed exactly the same way twice. (Hear a live version of So What from 1959 below.)

So what?
Sure, public speaking and presenting with visuals may seem very far removed from the diverse and complex world of jazz, let alone modal jazz. But that's just it: the lessons found in jazz are life lessons. They are the lessons — as in all great art — about self-expression and of meaning and of truth, the naked truth. Nothing is more real and more naked than the kind of messaging Miles Davis and his fellow musicians laid down on the Kind of Blue album. Here on the Amazon page you can sample the tracks from Kind of Blue. This is some good stuff that will make your brain happy.

PZ Jazz posts
11 Jazz quotes (and an old video of me playing in a club in Japan).
Jazz & simplifying complication.
Steve Jobs & all that jazz.



this is so true!
i mean the simple "so what?" question, the "story" and to be just yourself in a presentation. It's all "Jazz".

I just had two speakings last weekend. One about "new media" and how to use them as marketing instrument, one about photography. Different listeners, different expectations. All no problem if you make the connection to your audience and "play improvisation". You KNOW what you like to say - if the "So What?" is clear in your mind - you can choose slightly different ways and stories to get this "so what" out to your audience - depending on who is listening to you.

It's a bit of reading in the faces and body-language of the audience too and then react on them - and let them react on you. Once you have build up this connection (hopefully in the first minutes) it's just great fun and success - for both sides.... just like good Jazz.

T. Benjamin Larsen

So let me guess Garr - Your next book will be called 'Presentation Jazz'? Right? ;)


If you like this thread, you may also find interest in the old Max Depree book from the early 90s called Leadership Jazz. I also think IEEE published a Communication Jazz book if I recall. Yes, it is a very powerful theme that helps us understand quite a bit about communication. Enjoy, and thanks for the entry. I had not thought about this connection for a very long time.


I highly recommend "Miles from India" - which is a tribute to Miles featuring Miles Davis alumni (McLaughlin, Corea, and many more) with India's maestros (such as Vikku, Zakir, Srinivas).

Something I have noticed about modal jazz compositions from Miles to Metheny: even though modal jazz allows the soloist to focus on melodic improvisation, the things that stick with me on are the vamps and the ways they quickly create a cohesive and memorable theme. Simple, Concreteness ("Soooo What?") really work here. So even though I can't remember past the first few bars of Miles' trumpet solos, when a bass player starts with just the first few notes of the "All Blues" vamp - even casual jazz listeners know the standard.


Here's a link about the possibility that mental illness was a factor in the development of jazz:

And about the neuroscience of improv:


The way Miles recorded Kind of Blue is legendary. The musicians were only handed sheets at the sessions with the briefest of guides to scales and the entire album went down in only two days in 1959. It's generally held to be one of the greatest (jazz) albums of all time

Almost ten years later another musical genius followed an eerily similar path to produce another classic album. Although not a smash hit at the time, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks is now widely considered a masterpiece.

Although known at the time as rocknroll/folk artist, Van hired jazz musicians, played them the songs on guitar in the studio and then said, "Play whatever you feel is appropriate". Van's own instrumentation was quite structured and pre-recorded. Then the band jammed to his base tracks and he improvised his vocals along with the live playing of the other artists. To Van his voice has always BEEN an instrument. Of course he has since recorded a lot of jazz. Indeed his live at Montreaux album is another benchmark, this time for live albums

At least every other month or so I have to sit down late at night with the headphones on, few fingers of scotch and listen to Astral Weeks straight through or I'm 'not quite right' ;-)

Although they are at first glance the two albums have nothing to do with each other, separated by time, artist, and genre ... I'm surprised they are not linked more often.

- Dean

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