Innovating Through Artistry

Jazz band brings a lesson in improvisation

In Creativity and Innovation on February 16, 2009 at 4:38 am


ji1Awwww, git it, accounting.

Solid, sales.

If you think a corporate meeting and a jam session are two different things, then Jazz Impact, a project that involves several North Jersey musicians, wants to blow your top, pop.

IBM, McGraw-Hill, Johnson & Johnson, General Dynamics and Starbucks are among the Fortune 500 companies that have hosted seminars where jazz musicians teach business people how to exchange ideas, run with concepts and alternately take and yield the spotlight – all with the fluency of bandmates trading licks.

“You have to deal with fellow employees the way a band deals,” says Steve Johns, an Englewood drummer who has been involved in the program since 2000.

He’s one of 70-plus musicians tapped by Michael Gold, a bassist originally from New York City (he currently lives in Minneapolis) who spent years in the financial services industry, and who found a unique way to fuse the two halves of his life.

“I think it’s a very worthwhile thing,” says John Eckert, a Jersey City trumpeter who has played with Benny Goodman and Maynard Ferguson. “To do a musical thing in a non-musical setting gives you a different perspective on your playing.”

For these veteran players, Jazz Impact is not – to say the least – the usual gig.

Instead of a dim basement jazz club, they do their riffing and bopping in a well-appointed corporate meeting room or auditorium (Jazz Impact has played before audiences of up to 2,000).

And instead of patrons loudly ordering a vodka gimlet in the middle of the tenor sax solo, the audience of buttoned-down business people are attentive and – almost always – appreciative. After all, how often do they get to hear a hot live band play “Perdido” in the middle of a workday?

“I feel like I’m bringing something to them, and I’m also getting something in return,” Johns says. “When you’re a musician, any time you’re in front of an audience performing it’s a wonderful experience.”

He and Gold go way back – they’ve known each other since their student days together at Berklee College of Music in Boston. When Gold asked Johns, a veteran performer (he’s played with Randy Brecker, Jimmy Heath and Billy Taylor, among others), to be in the program eight years ago, Johns was there. “He has it all planned out, meticulously,” Johns says. “He’s an expert.”

Jazz Impact, Johns says, is a lot of fun. But it’s about more than just showing the sales force a good time.

“Leadership is not a static position,” Gold tells audiences in his finger-snapping seminar, a mix of concert, group exercise and PowerPoint presentation, in which three to six musicians demonstrate how jazz players alternately take the lead and “comp” along — enabling the musical conversation to flow in a fair, relaxed and constructive manner.

No reason the 3 o’clock meeting shouldn’t be run along similar lines.

“We demonstrate how you balance other people’s ideas, especially when you deal with fellow employees,” Johns says.

What else can employees learn from musicians? Improvisation, yes. Also teamwork. Gold sums it all up in the acronym APRIL (Autonomy, Passion, Risk, Innovation and Listening).

“Everybody has to be able to listen beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone,” Gold says. “They have to get to the point where they can not only listen to those ideas, but pick them up and run with them.”

Gold is not the first to notice the unique dynamic of the jam session – one of the few forms of human interaction where competing egos can work fruitfully together.

Louis Armstrong, singing on a visionary 1961 Dave Brubeck album called “The Real Ambassadors,” talked about inviting world leaders to a “basement session” to work out their differences.

“How can they all agree on one melody? Won’t each one call his own tune?” asks Trummy Young. But Armstrong insists: “It’s the only session of its kind/Where harmony you’re sure to find.”

Of course, there are hard-liners who might view the teaching of jazz techniques to the corporate world as, in effect, using the tools of the angels to do the work of the devil.

“There’s that danger,” Gold says. “I’ve got some nasty e-mails from jazz musicians who won’t sign their names, saying ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ”

But Gold, who has done his Jazz Impact seminars internationally, sees a paradigm shift in the world – one in which creativity and on-your-feet thinking will be crucial, in or out of the boardroom. And jazz musicians can lead the way.

“We’re trying to use this art form to help business people discuss some really important ideas that workplace language doesn’t really have a means of addressing,” Gold says.

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