Biz Lessons from Jazz: The Power of Listening, Nonverbal Cues, Storytelling and Respect!
On Saturday evening, Jeff and I went into NY City to hear a classic jazz trio – piano, bass and drums — of the highest caliber at the intimate jazz room in the Kitano Hotel. The trio was led by George Cables on piano, who has played with everyone from Art Blakey to Sarah Vaughan to Sonny Rollins. He was joined by the best rhythm section in the business, Peter Washington on stand-up bass and Lewis Nash on drums.
That evening’s performance reminded me again why I love jazz. It is the single most intelligent and creative art form I’ve ever experienced – and when it’s melodic, rhythmic and it swings, it’s heaven on earth. At the highest levels, it demonstrates improvisational qualities that we can all seek to emulate and bring into our work lives. If we’re able to do that, we will surely elevate our business games.
Let me explain. I’ve heard many hundreds of live jazz sets over the years. Every once in awhile, one stands out as spectacular — beyond special. That happened on Saturday. The jazz musicians we heard this weekend have their skills honed and fine tuned to the max – as many of us do in our chosen fields. When they play their solos, their virtuosity is unmistakable. That’s job one for all of us: get our chops up.
It’s what they do in the ensemble environment that provides awesome lessons for business – and, in this political season, for government, too.
We observed the epitome of active listening. There was an intensity to it – although it seemed effortless. You could see – and hear the result of — the three listening to one another. It enabled them to pick up on a musical phrase played by one and allowed the others to echo it or bend it or transform it.
Do you think this level of listening could boost the results of corporate teams, small businesses and the US Congress? It’s not about what power I can gain by pushing my idea, but what we can all achieve together by listening to each other’s ideas to synthesize new and exciting solutions.
There were also non-verbal cues: a nod, a gesture, fingers held up in a silent count. The trio picked them all up and used them to create a polished performance that has never before or will ever again be created. It was seamless and precise. It sounded like they were reading from a score, but they weren’t. They were playing from a basic set of chords and improvising on the fly.
It reminded me of a moment a while back at a meeting with a prospective client, the owner of a business. He had invited key staff members to join us and provide their input. When they got too far from his vision and tolerances, I saw his expression change.
I chose that moment to make eye contact with him to express that I was happy to engage with his staff, but that I recognized that ultimately he was the client and decision maker. In that brief instant, he and I communicated how we would proceed together.
In an hour of music, there was also a lesson in story telling. Several of the tunes were George Cable compositions. Original works by jazz musicians fill the jazz repertoire.
Young players feel compelled to follow in this tradition but don’t really understand what makes a great tune. They think that if they write a theme — a few notes — and improvise on those notes seemingly endlessly, they’ve composed a song worthy of recording. Not!
There is only a handful of musicians who are also great composers; whose songs, in my opinion, are worth recording. Dave Brubeck is one and George Cables is another. The reason they stand out is that they know how to tell a musical story.
Their stories are about something that we can relate to. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. Go to www.georgecables.com. You’ll spontaneously hear part of one of his compositions called Song for Helen. He wrote it for his life partner, a woman whose love saw him through a liver and kidney transplant. You’ve probably never heard it before. But you’ll want to hear it again. You’ll get what their relationship is about. We who create content need to keep story telling top of mind.
The final business lesson from jazz in this post is that none of the above could happen without respect. It all started with musicians who respect one another’s talents and skills. Without that they could not have listened without ego, subjugating their own needs to what they could create as a group. Nor could they have trusted their nonverbal cues to be understood and acted upon.
The story telling part comes from self respect, which allows us to honestly communication our life experiences. I hope you enjoyed this story of a Saturday night out that led to some thoughts that could propel me into a more effective Monday.
What are your passions that give you lessons for your work life? And thanks for sharing one or two.