What Business Can Learn From Jazz


If you google the words jazz, creativity, and business you will get 6,510,000 results. Many of these results will repeat platitudes similar to this quote from a Forbes article titled, Your Business Should Be Like A Jazz Combo; “Companies that win in the future will function more like jazz bands. They will constantly reinvent their work and seek fresh, new approaches. They will reward risk taking and originality. And while leaders will still exist, they will ensure that everyone has a voice.” That may make a good soundbite, but, people and organizations rarely value risk taking and originality. A good recent article on this subject was published last month in Slate and was partly based on the paper titled, Why No One Really Wants Creativity, by Barry Staw.

I have a completely different idea about what business can learn from jazz that has nothing to do with paying lip service to originality and innovation – an idea that can be implemented by even those who think ‘inside the box’. I was reflecting on the plight of many bright young men and women who have tried to enter the workforce since the beginning of the great recession and on into the continuing not-so-great recovery. As I thought about how even college graduates have been stymied by the utter lack of willingness of employers to perform even a modicum of training on the job, I mused on stories heard about young jazz musicians getting their start in the field.

After studying, either formally or informally, a young musician would join a band. This is where he would gain experience playing before people and operating as part of a team under a leader. He did not come to the band with this experience already under his belt. For example, Lionel Hampton hired young, self-taught, Wes Montgomery not because he had gone to the right school, had impressive internships and three years experience, but, because he could play Charlie Christian solos note for note.

However, today if a young graduate wants to avoid underemployment she must have, in addition to stellar grades, internships, and industry experience, hands-on experience with myriad software tools and techniques that read like an alphabet soup. I recall that when Gary Burton was starting out, first with George Shearing and then Stan Getz, that his instrument the vibraphone was quite new to jazz. What if Getz had turned him down because he didn’t play a more popular instrument or didn’t have experience with Bossa Nova?

Jazz musicians rarely go straight from their initial education to genius. They travel first through apprenticeship and, if fortunate, mentorship. Burton actually knew more than his boss Stan Getz, as Getz improvised by ear and not by any understanding of music theory. Other musicians such as, Art Blakey, went beyond being bosses and became mentors, training generations of young artists.

In short, if the jazz world had been as lazy as the corporate world and erected the same kind of barriers to entry as human resource departments have done today, we may never have heard the invaluable contributions of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins… and I could go on and on. None of these geniuses came to their first gig fully formed. They did not come with years of experience in the music business or experience in specific techniques, nor were they ready to provide ‘insight and actionable intelligence’ to their employers. They came with raw talent and because they were given a chance to prove themselves they evolved and eventually made great contributions. This is the lesson that business can learn from jazz.

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