2009: The year of "the designful company"
Structure & spontaneity: Lessons from the art of jazz (part II)

Moving to higher ground: Lessons from the art of jazz (part I)

HighergroundbookOne my favorite reads of 2008 was Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life by Wynton Marsalis and Geoffrey Ward. The lessons found in jazz — its meaning, its history and its relevance for life, business, and education — run deep and wide. It's really quite amazing. Every student should have a good exposure to jazz (and classical music for that matter) in their education — music education is not a nicety, it's a necessity. Organizations and schools are always talking about the need to foster creativity and innovation, the need to encourage dedication and self-discipline, and the importance of developing skills for collaboration. Yet the arts — especially jazz — teach all these things. In his book, Wynton illuminates the deep beauty that is found in jazz and why and how it's relevant for us all. Here's a line from Chapter seven:

"Our desire to testify through some type of art is unstoppable. A palpable energy is released when inspiration and dedication come together in a creative art. The energy is transformative in an individual who is innovative, but it is transcendent when manifested by a group. There are no words for the dynamic thrill of participating in a mutual mosaic of creativity."

                                                    Wynton Marsalis

I found the book so relevant to my world that I could barely get through a page without underlining every other sentence. Good nuggets of wisdom in there. (Snapped in an Osaka Starbucks.)

Musicians at Google: Wynton Marsalis

I recommend the book, but first I suggest you set some time aside to watch this Musicians@Google interview with Wynton Marsalis and Geoffrey Ward below held at Google a few months ago. I discuss a few of Wynton's thoughts from the interview below.


On technology
Wynton Marsalis reminds us that technology is great because it allows us to do some amazing things, including coming closer together. But technology is only a tool. Technology itself does not offer any panaceas. PowerPoint, for example, has gotten better over the years but presentations with the software have largely not improved (though things are getting better...slowly).

"I don't think we should feel that because our tools have become more advanced, we are more advanced. The technology of the soul has not changed for a long time. Many times we use technological advances to stand in for *we* are more advanced. Jazz is not like that. You can come up with all the synthesizers you want, it's still not going to be able to swing....This music celebrates human beings and *our* creativity."  
                                                          Wynton Marsalis

Marsalis: Jazz adds the sticky-sweet to the dry facts of history
Wynton1 Data itself is always dry without meaning. Yet, you can add the spirit of jazz to it in a presentation. By "spirit of jazz" I mean the complete opposite of how people usually use the term jazz as in "jazz it up" (that is, decorate it up). If the intent is pure and the message clear then that is all you can do. Jazz means removing the barriers and making it accessible, helping people to get your point (your message, your story). This does not necessarily mean you will always be direct (though this is often the clearest path). Hint and suggestion are powerful too. The difference is hint and suggestion with intent has a purpose and is done with the audience/user in mind. Hint and suggestion without intent or sincerity may merely result in simplistic, ineffective ramblings or even obsfucation.

If you approach the presentation of the data like a jazz musician approaches a piece of music then you will indeed be true to the message and the meaning of the data and you will make it "sticky and sweet" and not dry in the sense that you are understood. You will know you are understood when you see the heads nodding just like the musician sees the feet tapping. The audience may not agree with you — but they understand you. Understanding is the first step in persuasion. It's OK if people disagree with your results or interpretations — that's all part of the conversation, part of the process. What is not OK is for people to be confused by your words.

Hans_pic Presentation example
A good example is Hans Rosling (see his TED talk). It's not just the visualization of his data that are compelling. More importantly, he is compelling. He's "adding the sticky-sweet" to data by adding context and meaning and by emphasizing and pointing the way.
Rosling also shows his passion and engages the audience with the data by the way he speaks: "Do you see that? Look here! This is amazing! What do you think happens next? Wasn't that surprising?" and so on. It usually is not enough just to show numbers. If you are in front of us, tell us what you think they mean and why, and compared to what? etc.

The power of naturalness
Wynton2 Jazz is smart and it's deep but also simple and accessible. Jazz makes the complex simple through profound expressions of clarity and sincerity. It has structure and rules but also great freedom. But above all, jazz is natural. It is not about putting on a façade of sophistication or seriousness, in fact humor and playfulness are also at the core of jazz. You may be a dedicated, serious jazz musician or you may be an appreciative fan, but either way you also understand that to be human is to laugh and to play — play is natural to us and natural to the creative process. It's only through our formal education that we begin to doubt the "seriousness" of play. When this happens we begin to lose a bit of ourselves, including our confidence and a bit of our humanity. I've found through my parallel studies of jazz and the Zen arts that both have structure and practice at their core, as well as a strong component of playfulness and laughter.

"It's sophisticated but it's down home too, [jazz] celebrates a naturalness."

                                                  Wynton Marsalis

The importance of being a good listener
I wonder how many leaders could be better leaders if they listened more than they spoke. As Wynton points out, jazz is about listening. Much of the music is improvised so you always have to be listening to the logic of what the soloist, for example, is playing so you will know how to respond. You can not be a good jazz musician and be a bad listener. Can't you say the same thing for a leader or anyone giving a presentation?

"It's the blues and it tells a story...and it leaves more room for responding than for talking. That's another tenet of jazz — what other people have to say is equally or more important than what the person soloing has to say."

                                                     Wynton Marsalis



Absolutely true about Jazz - as I have been getting deeper into Jazz playing many others things have become clear, and I'll definitely read this book, *BUT* Marsalis has some very weird (and historically incorrect) ideas about Jazz so I will be reading it with that in mind.

Ed Brenegar

I'm a big fan of Wynton. I love the way he brings such a high intelligence to articulating the beauty of jazz. His XM radio show is a great primer on music in general. I just picked up his book. I'm excited about reading it. Thanks for your review.

Greg Thomas


I agree with your assessment of the value of Wynton's most recent book on jazz. I happen to host an online jazz video series titled, Jazz it Up!, and I can assure you that our take on jazz is more than decoration!

I particularly find your linkage of Zen and jazz insightful. Several years ago I gave a presentation called "The Tao of Jazz" which investigated the connection between jazz, Taoism and even fractal geometry. Such analogies are thought-provoking to your readers.

Keep up the great work, and have a happy holiday!

Keep swingin',

Greg Thomas

PS: To the person who claimed that Wynton has weird and historically inaccurate ideas about jazz, specifics would serve better than an ad hominem attack.

Ben Ziegler

Thanks for this post. As a follow-on, I went out and got Wynton's book. Great stuff. I saw his Blood on the Fields show in L.A. in 1997. I was in the nose bleed section, still the sound was pretty good. Another of my jazz heroes - Jon Hendricks was singing in that performance. Never found much on YouTube re: Hendricks, yet here is my favorite clip involving his vocalese trio Lambert Hendricks and Ross - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anrXYEAkg8U
- they were the most swinging vocal group ever! Wynton would be proud of them.

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