"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Sounds
January 25, 2007

Leadership And Jazz

I’ve decided to withold the follow-up to yesterday’s comments on leadership, for the time being. In it, I’m trying to consider why we feel the need for leaders in the church and how this need is invariably framed by the existing church structures and their need to be justified and supported. It’s a potent set […]

I’ve decided to withold the follow-up to yesterday’s comments on leadership, for the time being. In it, I’m trying to consider why we feel the need for leaders in the church and how this need is invariably framed by the existing church structures and their need to be justified and supported. It’s a potent set of questions, but what I have written is just too negative and soaked deeply in pessimism.

However, while taking a break from another round of trying to edit some hope and creative momentum into the piece, a post from the Jazz Theologian linking an interview with Wynton Marsalis came though. The USA Today article asks how corporate leaders can learn from the art of Jazz improvisation and in many ways, it addresses a number of the practical concerns I was trying to highlight. The whole article is worth reading, but here are some quotes.

Q: Does a jazz stage really have anything in common with the typical workplace?

A: When you listen to great jazz musicians, you hear the respect they have for each other’s abilities. During a performance, most of the musicians’ time is spent listening to others. You see the trust they have for each other because they are always making adjustments and improvising based on what someone else does.

Q: The roots of jazz go back to slavery. Do the best leaders have to experience a level of pain to be their most creative? For example, can a company thrive under a CEO born of privilege?

A: The farther away from the sun we are, the colder it gets. To know the essence of a thing requires us to go back to the origination of that thing, because time erodes meaning and enthusiasm. The originators of jazz were a second generation out of slavery and victims of rigorous forms of segregation in which humanity was routinely and institutionally denied. You would think that they were thinking about getting revenge, but in actuality, they were thinking about sharing and communicating with all kinds of people, and they became masters of achieving balance with others. These early jazz musicians worked out a perfect way to co-create using improvisation and a basic unit of rhythm called swing.

Q: On stage, what’s the difference between a leader and a follower?

A: Children are only responsible for themselves. As adults, we find ourselves responsible to and for more people, our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, our country, our world. Our ascension to a mature level of citizenship is directly related to the responsibility and size of things we choose to take on. In the arts, this ladder leads from your personal artistry to your art form, then on to all the arts and finally to humanity itself.

Q: So, is there a boss in a jazz band who takes charge?

A: In jazz, hierarchy is determined by your ability to play, not your position in the band. The philosophy of jazz is antithetical to the commoditization of people. It is rooted in the elevation and enrichment of people. The reason that jazz is the most flexible art form in the history of the planet is because it believes in the good taste of individuals. It believes in the human power to create wonderful things, and it embraces that instead of attempting to administrate it away with senseless titles and useless hierarchies.

[tags] Leadership, Wynton Marsalis [/tags]

Paul 17 years ago

like it – for awhile i have mused on jazzy church, this will add some more fuel to the fire!

grace 17 years ago

I am looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts about leadership in the church. I followed your link here from John Smulo’s recent post. I was glad to see that I am not the only one whose reimagining is more extreme than many people are ready to embrace.

grace 17 years ago

PS, loved the jazz analogy.

Christy 17 years ago

As a lover of Jazz, I was intrigued by your analogy. The content rings so true to my feelings of leadership in the body of Christ. I appreciate your insights!

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Paul, thanks. There are quite a few people thinking along the “jazzy” church lines, which is really encouraging.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Grace, thanks for reading the blog. There are lots of people willing to be daring in their reimaging of the church, which is why the blogosphere can be such a source of inspiration.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Christie – thanks! I’m glad you found this analogy resonated with your understandings.

brodie 17 years ago

Fernando – Wm McClendon has written on links between Jazz and Theology – I’ll look the ref out.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Yes, he has a section in Sys Theol., Vol 3, entitled “Grooving with the Gospel.”

BTW, one of the most interesting articles I ver read on Homiletics (Theology of Preaching), was a piece comparing the art of Jazz Improvisation with Afro-American Gospel preaching. I think it was in American Baptist Quarterly – I should try and track it down again…

Phil Reilly 17 years ago

I like this but still trying to get my head around it. As a lover of jazz music and the art form that it is I understand the spontaneity and attentiveness (both to him or herself and the group) a performer requires. This is also true of leadership – but I guess where I’m getting stuck here is that jazz is at its most basic form performance… I need to look into this further. But i like it…

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Phil thanks for your comment. I’m curious why the performance thing would be an issue in this case?

Phil Reilly 17 years ago

Hmm, good question Fernando and stick with me here. Keep in mind I haven’t read the Wm McClendon article nor much else on this particular subject and it’s been a couple of years since I last read Nicholas Wolterstorff and Dorothy Sayers who have some very helpful insights into the role of the artist, so I may be little out of sync. As much as Wynton Marsalis would describe himself as a jazz musician I’m pretty sure that he would also describe himself as a performer – one who lives to perform, to draw people into the delight of his music and the simple complexity of its form. He is then an artist. Begging the question – is leadership an art form? Yes, I would say that in may ways it is. But then, ought leadership to be a performance – the displaying of the art form?? This is where I think I may (I say ‘may’ because I’m working through this) take a different path.

This is a very insightful interview on the many links to jazz (both appreciation and performance of) and leadership. However I’d like to see a reimagining of what a subversive leadership model might look like. One that doesn’t rely solely on the ‘charisma’ (or performance) of a man or woman and their ability to draw people toward themselves, but looks radically different – upside down – subversive…

Like I said, I may be all over the place here. These are just some thoughts you’ve stirred – thank you.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Phil, I think your comments are a very good caveat on this stuff.

However, when it comes to performance, I think Wynton is being both a musician and an artist. Sure, as an artist we admire his skill and maybe that is not great as a model for thinking about leadership.

But I also think musicianship can be as much about service as it can be about artistry. Not all music serves a “look at me” function. Consider the role of music in film, or ballet, or theatre. There the music exists not to excel in and of itself, but to help the other perfomance or act to shine.

Moreover, when I think about playing music, in relation to Wynton’s comments, there is an element of “doing something together.” In Wynton’s case this doing is art and performance, but in some ways the principles still hold true if we want to talk about other constructive and creative tasks.

Phil Reilly 17 years ago

Fernando, thanks for the reply. In terms of musicianship – I’d agree that it is both-and (service and artistry) – mind you it depends who we are talking about here. Many so called musicians lack both!

I think your most recent post is taking this discussion a little further.

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