Sunday, March 21, 2010

Jazz and Resiliency: A Lesson From Wynton Marsalis

For years business pundits have been telling us to improvise and innovate like jazz musicians.   This would be excellent advice except for the simple fact that few of us listen to jazz, and almost none of us know how to play it.

We might as well be encouraged to structure our competitive strategy around string theory, or our leadership styles around Descartes's Theory of the Mind.

So I was delighted to finally find a real life example of how jazz, as both a tool of communication and of improvisation, can  inform how we behave.  It's a story about Wynton Marsalis, set at the Village Vanguard in August 2002.  This was an especially difficult period for Marsalis, who had for two decades, according to author David Hajdu, “ruled the jazz universe, enjoying virtually unqualified admiration as a musician and unsurpassed influence as the music’s leading promoter and definer.”

But by 2002, some of the wheels had come loose on the wagon.  Marsalis had parted ways with Colombia.   His work running Jazz at Lincoln Center was coming under fire.  And he himself was being roundly and increasingly criticized for his seemingly narrow definition of jazz.  On the bandstand that evening he looked “older and heavier. . .[like] there was a weight upon him; he didn’t smile, and his eyes were small and affectless.”

Marsalis and his trumpet were being showcased with the ballad, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” easily one of the most plaintiff, melancholic songs ever written.  Hajdu wrote, Marsalis “performed the song in murmurs and sighs, at points nearly talking the words in notes.  It was a wrenching act of creative expression.  When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer.  “I don’t stand. . .a ghost. . .of. . .a. . .chance. . . .”

The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone’s cell phone went off, blaring a rapid sing-song melody in electronic beeps.  People started giggling and picking up their drinks.  The moment—the whole performance—unraveled.”

At that point, Marsalis might simply have stormed off stage, raged at the audience, or disappeared into the night.

Instead, he "paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched.  The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder.   Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation--which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo--and ended up exactly where he had left off: “with. . .you. . . .”

The ovation was tremendous.

That's all about seizing the darkest moment.  Improvisation as resiliency.  Innovation that turns disaster into triumph.  

At your worst moment, when the ringtone of disaster threatens the solo of your life, may you improvise the way Wynton Marsalis did that night.  

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Soundtrack of Life: Edison’s 1921 Music Survey

All of us have a soundtrack to our lives. 

For me, Three Dog Night’s Joy to the World means breaking my leg playing baseball in junior high.  America’s Sister Golden Hair was on the radio the evening of my high school graduation.  Steely Dan’s My Old School was blasting from the third floor of my dorm at Brown University as I was laying my dirty socks out on the window sill, letting them “air out” in the breeze so I could avoid doing laundry another weekend.

I know you have a soundtrack to your life as well, because Apple reported last week that its 10 BILLIONTH song had been downloaded from iTunes.  That’s a lot of music, and a lot of memories.  As I was pondering this enormous number, I bumped into one of the most interesting marketing studies I have ever seen.