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4 Secrets Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Jazz

How improvisation, rhythm and syncopation represent more than just musical genius

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BY Alain Sylvain - 02 Dec 2017

4 Secrets Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Jazz

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Jazz emerged a century ago as a radical testament to the American identity. It reflected the ingenuity and work ethic of the moment and was deeply rooted in the racial divides that defined the time. It's very similar to the modern allure of entrepreneurialism. In the same way Louis Armstrong was a pop star of his time, our collective admiration for people like Elon Musk reflects a mutual and modern appreciation for entrepreneurialism. It is no surprise that much of what we see in Jazz music itself can be applied to our modern understanding of entrepreneurialism - creating something new by blending the strict conventions of discipline and order with magic and creative gumption.

The lessons for the entrepreneur lie in the music of Jazz itself:

Improvisation

As a genre of music, spontaneity is the bedrock of Jazz. There is a ruthless and unapologetic pursuit of fresh sounds that may or may not relate to the original outline of chord or melody. Inherent within Jazz is the unknown. It's an adventure where you will never hear the same thing twice.

Charlie Parker, arguably one of the most influential soloists in Jazz history, was notorious for his total disregard for the standard four-and-eight bar divisions. And Ella Fitzgerald essentially invented "scat" and used her voice in the same improvisational manner as many of her instrumental bebop counterparts.

But, Jazz improvisation isn't about chaos for the sake of chaos. The freedom of improvisation allows the music to cater to its environment, and to reflect the pulse of its audience on a more visceral level. In short: Jazz improvisation teaches us that context trumps content, that time and place matter more in the end than the content of the music itself.

The takeaway: The absence of structure can be an advantage. Remain open and responsive to the pulse of the times in a way that more established businesses can't.

The Groove

Jazz is as much about chaos as it is about synergy - either with one's self or with others. More than in other genres, Jazz musicians have their own unique, inexplicable style of communication; in a sense, they've mastered telepathy. They can develop a shared energy that ultimately creates a groove or a flow. And it's at its best when the groove works on an individual basis, where the Jazz musician is lost in his/her own mind.

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra was perhaps the greatest of all Jazz bands. The group stayed together for over fifty years, and produced some of the greatest, uniquely American, music. What made Ellington such a spectacular band leader was his exceptional sensitivity to the tonal nuances of each of his soloists. He wrote specifically for them. Ellington, among others, teaches us that "harmony" is also key to innovation.

The takeaway: Behind every successful venture is an inexplicable synergy, with a purpose and a team. It is trust in that purpose and team that fosters something new and exciting.

Rhythm

Jazz as an artform tells a story of growth - it's rooted in modernism. Though often unfairly cast as old-fashioned or elevator music, Jazz rhythms can still be found in most pop culture hits today. At the core is a sort of "swing" that gives Jazz its sense of forward momentum.

As a bassist, Charles Mingus manipulated time signatures to fight complacency - for Mingus, the struggle to keep up with rhythm fueled progress. As he famously put it: "He must use what time he has creating now for the future and utilize the past only to help the future." Jazz teaches us that stasis and comfort are our worst enemy. Chasing rhythm is committing to progress, one beat at a time.

The takeaway: Stay committed to time as a directive. Embrace progress as the constant.

 

Syncopation

Jazz is notorious for its elements of surprise. In parallel to the pure freedom of improvisation, Jazz musicians are trained to look for opportunities to zig where the audience expects them to zag. Thelonious Monk is famous for syncopations: His melodies have been described as "angular" and his harmonies "full of jarring clusters". He not only worked his magic on notes, but also leveraged the absence of notes in unexpected ways. His very technique on the piano was off beat: Monk would regularly use his elbows, or flatten his fingers on the keys to generate the exact sound he wanted.

The takeaway: Leverage the element of surprise. Chase not only new ideas, but also new processes: there's infinitely more white space to be found in the 'how' than in the 'what".