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.  

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Greatest Diss Yet

The competition among Microsoft, Google and Apple is fun to watch because not only are they three great competitors, and not only do we all end up with cool technology as a result, but because they are really expert at dissing one another.

Remember Steve Ballmer’s classic smackdown line regarding competing operating systems: "[Apple has] done a very good job of marketing to their 3.5 percent of the market.  I’m glad we’re doing a great job with the other 96.5 per cent.”

Or Bill Gates’ more gentle quip about Google, round about the time it was planning to launch, well, just about everything: “I hear they’re coming out with a robot that will cook hamburgers, too.”

How about Steve Jobs’ more recent response to Google’s Adroid: “We did not enter the search business.  They entered the phone business. . .This don’t be evil mantra: It’s a load of crap.”

And remember when Jobs first saw Microsoft’s Zune: “I've seen the demonstrations on the Internet about how you can find another person using a Zune and give them a song they can play three times. It takes forever. By the time you've gone through all that, the girl's got up and left!”

And how about when Google’s Eric Schmidt saw Microsoft’s Bing; he dismissed it as another search engine effort that Microsoft makes "every year." 

But my favorite affront thus far appeared this week when Tim Bray joined Google from Sun to focus on the Android operating system.  About Apple’s vision for the iPhone, Bray wrote: “It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers.”

Wow.  By my count he dissed Apple, Disney, masons, gardeners, lawyers and carnivores, all in one line.  Pretty darn impressive.    (Undoubtedly, too, “wall” was not meant to be taken literally for “masons,” but referred generally to anyone in the construction trades.)

Fear not.  This internecine warfare has been going on for decades among Coke, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper, yet just the other day I saw all three in the same commercial, in the form of three delivery people removing high calorie soda from schools.  Nice.  And most of us would have thought that impossible a few years ago.

What worries me, of course, is that if technology convergence continues and we see Google, Apple and Microsoft in the same commercial one day, it’ll be all three logos sewn on the shirt of one person.  If and when that happens, we’ll be missing more than the occasional brilliant diss.  

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.

It was 1921.  The idea of consumer markets, marketing, and actually asking customers what they might want were all still novel ideas.  It would be two years before Alfred Sloan became president of General Motors, and longer still before he came up with the startling innovation of “lifestyle marketing” around the development of Chevrolet (Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac) concepts.  There was no easy access to consumer information and no incessant polling of consumer tastes. 

Into this world stepped the Edison Recording Company.  At the time, Edison was in a pitched battle with the Victor Talking Machine Company and Columbia Phonograph Company for a share of the skyrocketing record business, riding the success of their affordable home phonographs.  And Edison had carved out a segment of the market that considered music to be uplifting and edifying—a high-brow approach that emphasized classical, the best European ethnic music, and “hearth and home” recordings that pulled the beloved songs of the nineteenth century forward into the twentieth century, everything from Swanee River to My Old Kentucky Home to Abide with Me, Rock of Ages and The Old Oaken Bucket.

The other musical genre that got lots of Edison support and home play in 1921 was military marches.  Despite John Philip Souza’s well publicized ambivalence to recorded music—“When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabies, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?”-- his marches could be heard emanating from phonographs all over America.

What Edison specifically avoided was jazz, blues and the so-called “race records” that were being embraced by youth and filling the air in urban areas.  This kind of “vulgar,” “out of control” music, produced by great old labels like Okeh, Gennett, Vocalion, Brunswick and Paramount was, in the minds of many, turning the Victorian “Cathedral of Culture” into a supermarket.

So in 1921, against all odds (and with inspiration from a group of psychologists from the Carnegie Institute), Edison, Inc. sent 20,000 surveys to the record-buying public in 43 states asking them to list their “favorite tunes.”  A wondrous 2,644 responses were received.  And, upon reading them, I concluded that we have all been building soundtracks to our lives for as long as there has been music.  In fact, the ability to repeat meaningful music at will, with a phonograph or cassette tape or an iPod, allows us to relive our past in a comforting, almost healing way unavailable to anyone before 1890.

See what I mean.  Here are some of the responses to Edison’s 1921 survey:
One man loved I’m in Heaven in My Mother’s Arms, writing “I loved Mother as well as one could love and I had to part from her about two months ago never to see her in this world again.”
Another adored a certain folk song because “It used to be sung by a loved one.  It recalls a love one who is no more.”
Another favored an old popular song he associated with “my brothers before we were all married and away from home.”
Still another felt moved by patriotic marches: Just as the Sun Went Down, and On the Banks of the Wabash, Faraway. . .”I heard them during the War with Spain and I never hear one but what I’m thankful for the quick work we done.”
Surprisingly, many people personalized their phonograph, or their response, writing to “My Dear Mr. Edison.”  (Edison lived until 1931.) 
One woman wrote, “I really can’t find words strong enough to express my love for my Edison.  I have had my life made worth living since it came into my home.  I am a poor widow with five children.  My husband died 2 years ago this month.  My baby was only ten days old.  I know the comfort this invention has given me is beyond explanation.  It is the best tonic I ever had.
Others talked about the emotions it created, or quieted.
One female respondent noted that Edison’s recordings “strengthened family ties in those tired irritable hours late in the afternoon when relations became brittle.”  Another got her children to dance to The Home Dances.  Another mentioned that when “someone looks blue or a little peeved I go in and start Henry Jones’ Your Honeymoon is Over and at once everybody smiles and the white flag waves.”
One man said that he and his wife enjoyed When I’m Gone You’ll Soon Forget after they had had a “row.”  Another liked Dardanella and Laughing Trombone because “they make old Folks young and young folks crazy.”
Another woman wrote, “We love our machine so much.  If we had to part with any piece of furniture in our home, we would give our bed up before we would part with our Edison.”
There may be more to that last answer than meets the eye.  In any event, it appears women were the primary purchasers of music, and would set aside discretionary money each week to purchase one or two new records.

And it seems clear that Edison’s records, in the words of author William Howland Keeney, “stirred the kinds of memories that for significant numbers of Americans reinforced. . .the Victorian sense of cross-generational continuity in family, community, ethnicity and nationality.”

Kind of like old Steely Dan and dirty socks still do for me.


NB: My source for much of this material is William Howard Kenney’s Recorded Music in American Life

Those interested in the rise of “repeatable culture,” including the phonograph and camera, should see Daniel Boorstin’s brilliant The Americans: The Democratic Experience where he talks about “mass-producing the moment” and the rise of “consumption communities.”  Foreshadowing the Web, Boorstin (in 1973) described these “consumption communities” as “quick to form, nonideological, democratic, public, vague and rapidly-shifting.”  Sounds like a meetup via Twitter!  It’s further proof that the technology may change, but human beings are awfully consistent.

Or, as Claude S. Fischer wrote, “As much as people adapt their lives to the changed circumstances created by a new technology, they also adapt that technology to their lives.”