Biz Lessons from Jazz: The Power of Listening, Nonverbal Cues, Storytelling and Respect!

Posted on August 22, 2011. Filed under: Business Strategy, Communications, Marketing Strategy, Small Business | Tags: , , , , , , , |

George Cables

George Cables, Jazz Pianist and Musical Story Teller

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.


Jazz bassist Peter Washington

Peter Washington - Listening Enhances Playing

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.

Non-Verbal Cues

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.

Story Telling

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 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.


Jazz Drummer Lewis Nash

Lewis Nash and Other Great Jazz Players Have Respect for the Talents of Those They Play With and Their Own

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.


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4 Responses to “Biz Lessons from Jazz: The Power of Listening, Nonverbal Cues, Storytelling and Respect!”

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Truly an enjoyable post. Very well thought out. Listening is such a great skill. Unfortunately a lot of people are poor listeners these days. Asking questions is a good form of listening. They either fail to wait for the answer to their question because they are off to the races or they fail to ask that second or third question.

Jim, thank you for your comment. And great point about the role of asking questions. I’ve been trying to improve my own questioning abilities lately, so I appreciate the good reminder.

Hi Ellie,

My friend Jim (who left the previous comment) brought my attention to your piece knowing how I’m a fan of Jazz and I’m glad he did. I think you did a wonderful job drawing some important lessons businesses can gleam from the world of Jazz. I myself wrote a piece as well about how leaders can gain some valuable insights on leading others from Jazz, one of which I’d like to share here to complement your piece.

In addition to appreciating the art of effective listening and communication, another element that Jazz teaches us is the importance of defining a key message behind your vision. One of the reasons why Jazz musicians can so effectively improvise is because they each have a clear understanding of what emotions, sentiments and impressions they want to leave on their audience with any given piece. As such, while it might sound random to us, there’s a very clear rationale behind those solos and improvs, and why the group members are able to support each other because they share a common understanding of what they want to achieve together.

Again, a wonderful read, Ellie, one I might add was accompanied by the music of a local Jazz trio CD playing in the background.

– Tanveer.

So glad to meet you Tanveer. On Jim’s recommendation I visited your beautiful blog and had the pleasure of reading some of your insightful posts. Thank you for adding to the comversation here. I’m wondering if you know of Adrian Cho, a Canadian jazz bassist who conducts the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra. He’s also an IBM’er and author of the business book Jazz Process: Collaboration, Innovation, and Agility. I have a feeling you’d enjoy it. If you poke around in the archives of my blog – earlier than June of this year, you’ll find that every post is accompanied by a related jazz tune from my collection. I’m trying to blog more frequently so I post a tune now only when I have extra time. But it’s fun to share the music when I can. Glad you read my post to a suitable accompaniment. ;-D Look forward to more conversation.

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