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Why Jazz is so Important to Understanding Leadership: Lessons from Brian

September 30, 2010

Updated August 25, 2011

Herbie Hancock live in concert playing the keytar.

Herbie Hancock

Too many of those in positions of managerial authority are obsessed with their self-perceived brilliance. I saw this too many times to count during my three decade public sector career. The day you say to yourself “Hey, I finally got it right and am the consummate leader” is the day you need a reality check. Go down to your local bar or pub and express this to the bartender. He or she will give you a rude awakening.

NONE of us are ever “there.” But what does “there” mean? I’ll use an analogy from the world of Jazz, of which I am a passionate student, both as a listener and as a piano player (pianist to the snobs among you–yeah, yeah, I used to play classical).

My teacher Brian Browne has played professionally for some 50 years and is widely respected for his interpretive skills and incredible ability. Brian is still continually learning. He’ll sit down and let loose for a couple of minutes of something he just invented to make a point to me. It’s been painful and slow for me to lose those “bad” classical habits and learn how to create and play with passion, and not just technically. In particular, learning to move away from sheet music to playing by ear has been challenging.

One day I entered the studio to find Brian playing Bach. Of course I had to tease him, since part of our relationship includes mutual teasing. “What the heck are you playing?” I asked him. Of course, I love Bach, plus a vast selection of classical composers. He replied that he was learning, since he was never a strong sight reader. In contrast, my background was classical sight reading. However, I was pathetically horrible when it came to playing by ear and inventing. That’s slowly changing with Brian’s help.

But Brian’s most astounding advice came to me recently when we were discussing two Jazz standards I was learning. He talked about getting deep into a Jazz piece, and how some Jazz masters have said it takes 20 years to really learn a piece of music, to make it your own. I thought he was talking nonsense at first, but now I understand what he meant.

(Photo of Dave Brubeck, Ottawa Jazz Festival, July 2010)
I’ve had the privilege of driving some of the Jazz greats during my volunteer work at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival: Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Renee Rosnes and a long list of others. I can tell you unequivocally that these people are very down to earth and exceedingly grateful to be driven around by some dude with “Volunteer” on his T-shirt.

Brian’s wisdom and what I have learned from reading about Jazz greats (read Miles Davis’ wonderful 1989 autobiography) have instilled in me that I will be learning Jazz piano to the day that one of my hands is sticking out of the grave desperately trying to find that just-so-sweet voicing.

So I ask you:
Are you as a “consummate” manager still learning and improvising?


If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.

– Yogi Berra


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2010 7:02 pm

    What a wonderful analogy between being a great musician and becoming a great leader, Jim. Your point is well taken. In any significant undertaking, there’s always room to learn and grow. Adopting that open-minded attitude will help you fare better in all your endeavors.

    • October 3, 2010 9:07 pm

      Thanks Susan. It’s incredible to watch a jazz group play together, especially if they’re new to one another and are jamming, or haven’t rehearsed a piece. As much as there’s a “leader” of such a group, leadership is also shared (an area where I did my Masters) among the musicians. Improvisation is a cornerstone to jazz, and in today’s roller coaster of an economy leaders need to continually improvise, learn and share the leadership within their teams and groups.

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