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 ModalJazz.com "...in 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.)
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.