Hot corporations know how to swing

Leading a company is often compared to conducting an orchestra. But organizing a jazz band may be a more appropriate analogy. That’s because business leaders increasingly want to set free the creative juices of individuality while maintaining the discipline to make music, not noise. USA TODAY’s Del Jones went to Wynton Marsalis, 45, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who was named one of America’s Best Leaders in 2006 by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and U.S. News & World Report.

Q: Does a jazz stage really have anything in common with the typical workplace?

A: When you listen to great jazz musicians, you hear the respect they have for each other’s abilities. During a performance, most of the musicians’ time is spent listening to others. You see the trust they have for each other because they are always making adjustments and improvising based on what someone else does. I think (drummer) Elvin Jones articulated it best when he said, “In order to play with somebody on a profound level, you have to be willing to die with them.” You might not like your colleagues that much, but that is jazz and that is feeling.

Q: What can ruin jazz or business?

A: Lack of integrity. Jazz music always stood as a fortress of integrity. The musicians’ skills were so hard-earned that they did not easily sell out. Once the musicians decided to be less — for notoriety, publicity or money — our art began to face challenges: dearth of leadership, reducing human labor to a line item on a budget, and so on. We have control over how we choose to confront our challenges and reconcile contradictions.

Q: The roots of jazz go back to slavery. Do the best leaders have to experience a level of pain to be their most creative? For example, can a company thrive under a CEO born of privilege?

A: The farther away from the sun we are, the colder it gets. To know the essence of a thing requires us to go back to the origination of that thing, because time erodes meaning and enthusiasm. The originators of jazz were a second generation out of slavery and victims of rigorous forms of segregation in which humanity was routinely and institutionally denied. You would think that they were thinking about getting revenge, but in actuality, they were thinking about sharing and communicating with all kinds of people, and they became masters of achieving balance with others. These early jazz musicians worked out a perfect way to co-create using improvisation and a basic unit of rhythm called swing.

Q: What is “swing,” and how can a business get it?

A: Swing is a rhythm, an era in American history, and it is a world view. In this world view, there is a belief in the power of a collective ability to absorb mediocre and poor decisions. When a group of people working together trust that all are concerned for the common good, then they continue to be in sync no matter what happens. That is swing. It’s the feeling that our way is more important than my way. This philosophy extends to how to treat audiences, consumers, staff or dysfunctional families. This may seem idealistic, but think about how church congregations recite, nearly together and completely unrehearsed. They proceed by feel. Swing is the single objective. It is the core that makes us all want to work together.

Q: How can we unleash creativity and spontaneity on the job?

A: When I was younger, just beginning to play jazz and getting publicity, almost every critic and older musician came out of the woodwork to say that my playing was inauthentic — lacking soul and feeling. They said it was too technical and young. I had not paid enough dues to play with meaning or feeling. The great jazz trumpeter Sweets Edison, who played in Count Basie’s 1930s band, asked me “Where are you from?” I said, New Orleans. He said, “What did you grow up doing?” I responded, “Playing.” Then he said, “Why are you trying to act like what you are? Be what you are.” This was a profound lesson in creativity. It’s about being yourself, valuing your own ideas, mining your own dreams. You can be creative inside or outside of tradition. Outside of tradition, you create a new world. Inside of tradition, you create a new way to do the old things much better. Both can be innovative, because in one you reinvigorate a tradition. In the other, you counter-state it.

Q: The originator of jazz, Buddy Bolden, combined church music with music played in houses of ill repute. Is that the ultimate lesson for thinking out of the box?

A: Everybody knew the church music and they knew the whorehouse songs, but they didn’t have the courage to put these two opposite genres together. But the innovator understands how things that appear to be opposites are in fact the same. Bolden invented a way of singing the melodies through his horn that made the trumpet, the clarinet, the trombone, sound human.

Q: Every company longs for creative employees. How does a jazz band get swing without chaos?

A: Jazz is the collective aspirations of a group of musicians, shaped, given logic and organized under the extreme pressure of time. When we work together, the music is swinging, and when we don’t, it’s not. The perception of jazz is that we all get along. In actuality, we’re always trying to get along, and it is the integrity of that process that determines the quality of the swing. A business that swings will definitely be successful.

Q: On stage, what’s the difference between a leader and a follower?

A: Children are only responsible for themselves. As adults, we find ourselves responsible to and for more people, our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, our country, our world. Our ascension to a mature level of citizenship is directly related to the responsibility and size of things we choose to take on. In the arts, this ladder leads from your personal artistry to your art form, then on to all the arts and finally to humanity itself.

Q: So, is there a boss in a jazz band who takes charge?

A: In jazz, hierarchy is determined by your ability to play, not your position in the band. The philosophy of jazz is antithetical to the commoditization of people. It is rooted in the elevation and enrichment of people. The reason that jazz is the most flexible art form in the history of the planet is because it believes in the good taste of individuals. It believes in the human power to create wonderful things, and it embraces that instead of attempting to administrate it away with senseless titles and useless hierarchies.

Source: USA Today

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  1. Today, 1-29-07, I substituted for a band teacher at one of the local middle schools near where I live. My assignment was to play a video to each of the classes. This video was one narrated by Wynton Marsalis back in 1995 where he actually taught students about jazz music and more. Prior to showing this video I had never heard of Wynton. As I watched this video all day long I soon began to want to know more about Wynton’s music because I was really beginning to love what I was hearing.

    I can say Wynton has a true gift from God and he is using it to bless others and especially the children who is reaching with his teaching videos in the schools. I hate to say I have really missed out on his great music since I really don’t venture much out of a certain style, but I do plan to make up for lost time.

    I truly hope one day my husband and I will be able to go to one of his concerts and to especially meet him. Great music, great guy…Mae Augustine

    Mae Augustine on Jan 29th, 2007 at 6:32pm

  2. One of Wynton’s best interviews. It’s interesting to consider the musical pendulum that swings between individual and collaborative thinking.

    gloria on Jan 16th, 2007 at 11:10am