What Jazz Soloists Know About Creative Collaboration

In jazz, creative input is egalitarian and meritocratic. If you can “blow” you can play regardless of background, personal style, or anything else. Miles Davis famously wrote in his autobiography, “I don’t care if a dude is purple with green breath as long as he can swing.” Do you add spice to your creative team? Do you contribute to the process of the whole?

One of the defining elements of jazz is improvisation, the act of composing on the fly.  Anyone who’s heard a classic Miles trumpet solo knows the potential beauty of individual improvisation within the group setting. The team depends on each person to contribute his unique skills, ideas and views to the collaboration, and the individual relies on the team for support, guidance and judgment.

Since it depends on improvisation, jazz is highly interactive.  A player must be responsive to the moment-by-moment actions of the other musicians. Like a properly tuned creative team, jazz is above all a collaborative pursuit in service to the composition (the agreed upon goal), and the individual voices in the band (the members of the team).

To enrich your skills as a team member, mimic the great jazz soloists:

1. Practice until it’s intuitive.

One of the greatest soloists in jazz, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker once advised, “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then you practice, practice, practice.  And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”  The only way to learn improvisation is by doing, and the only way to become great is by doing repeatedly.  Working with a team is no different. It takes practice and experience to maximize your contributions to a team, and, hence, to realize the team’s potential.

The only way to learn improvisation is by doing, and the only way to become great is by doing repeatedly.

2. Listen.

Pay close attention to those around you. Notice the small things like tone and body language. While others are talking there’s a tendency to be thinking of what you might say next. Resist this urge. Try not to respond until others have finished.  Heightening the skill of listening, if you do nothing else, will have a significant impact on the team.  According to pianist Lennie Tristano, “The hippest thing you can do is not play at all. Just listen.”

3. Try not to repeat yourself.

There’s a bit of the ego that latches on to your best ideas and tries to shoehorn them into multiple contexts.  Make an effort to constantly develop new approaches and angles. Charlie Parker was a relentless harmonic innovator, constantly editing his solos in real time at blistering speeds and changing the jazz vocabulary in the process. The level of engagement in his solos reflected a willingness to always play to the room, to use the information at hand and see what would arise instead of repeating familiar patterns. Fresh perspective (and hard work) begets innovation.

4. Spur others into action.

In jazz it’s called “comping” (an abbreviation of “accompanying”) when one instrumentalist plays a phrase or group of notes to support or provoke the soloist. There’s a point in a live version of Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven” (at 4’39″) when the drummer Tony Williams, listening to George Coleman lay down an unremarkable tenor sax solo, abruptly cuts the tempo in half, briefly turning the song into a drowsy ballad. Coleman steps up his game, plays with more invention, and is on high alert for the rest of the concert.

Encourage (and sharpen) the ideas of those around you. Bringing out the best in others improves the team as a whole. By transferring energy to others, you grant ownership and investment in the process and the team.

There’s a bit of the ego that latches on to your best ideas and tries to shoehorn them into multiple contexts.

5. Fail admirably.

When describing the evolution of his playing, free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman said, “It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something.” Sometimes solos just fall flat. Not for lack of effort but they have no juice. It happens often in live jazz settings and it’s usually noticeable. The thing is: nobody cares. Missteps are part of the path to greatness, and those solos that do become classics sound that much sweeter.According to the piano player Oscar Peterson, “It’s the group sound that’s important, even when you’re playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That’s jazz.” That’s team collaboration, too.

What Jazz Soloists Know Mini-Mix

  1. Miles Davis – “Seven Steps to Heaven”
  2. Charlie Parker – “Koko”
  3. Oscar Peterson – “Cottontail”
  4. Lennie Tristano – “Line Up”
  5. Ornette Coleman – “Lonely Woman”

More insights on: Collaboration, Failure

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
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