The Rhythm of Management: What Jazz Can Teach Startup Executives

Opinion

“Jazz stands for freedom. It’s supposed to be the voice of freedom: Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don’t be a perfectionist – leave that to the classical musicians.”
— Jazz great Dave Brubeck

Playing in a jazz ensemble and leading a business are very, very similar. And my experiences both as a jazz fan and a trumpet player have had a significant influence on my philosophies as an executive, currently as the CEO of Austin’s Spanning Cloud Apps.

But jazz and management? Similar? Allow me to explain.

Jazz is one of the more misunderstood musical genres. To the casual listener, it sounds like a cacophony of improvisation without a framework, where everyone is doing their own thing. Mind you, it’s a broad genre which can run the entire gamut—from straight blues and “hard bop,” perhaps two of the easier forms to understand, to more complex “fusion”—literally, the conjoining of jazz and rock, to even more complicated forms, like the seemingly unstructured work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Yet even that is built around a foundation, and all of this is relevant for leadership.

I grew up around music. My dad was a high school band director and music teacher, and I was a trumpet player who spent my younger years playing jazz—good enough that I was actually paid to play while in high school. Music was a big part of my life growing up. That is, until college, when I found economics and business to be more to my liking. As I moved from the world of jazz to the world of business, one thing I recognized is that two aren’t as divergent as one might first believe. There are tremendous similarities between great jazz and great organizations.

Even the most “free-form” of jazz has a framework that allows each musician the freedom to push boundaries through improvisation while staying within pre-set parameters in order to create excellence. I’d like to cite three classic albums that, despite their inherent differences, truly illustrate my point.

First is John Coltrane’s “Blue Train”, the first solo record, and a masterpiece, from one of the greatest alto sax players of all time. The listener’s first reaction: “This is something special.” And it was, because Coltrane wasn’t afraid to surround himself with the best talent. He purposefully identified up and coming “employees” and gave them critical roles in executing his vision. On this historic album, the onetime Miles Davis sideman included musicians that would go on to serve as Davis’ bandmates as well as members of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The management lesson here? Take your time to find extraordinary talent, and then nurture it. This certainly isn’t exclusive to the genre of jazz, mind you, but it is an important lesson—in music and management.

Next up is Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out”, the artist whom I quoted at the start of this piece. The album is challenging yet catchy. And this is because Brubeck was messing around with complex time signatures—such as 9/8 and 5/4—that were atypical in music composition. And it became a huge hit—peaking at #2 on the Billboard album chart and becoming the first Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)-certified platinum jazz album. So while the song constructions were unorthodox, the end result was a huge success and is considered a modern-day classic. The management lesson here? Take chances, and challenge the status quo.

Finally, the controversial Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” the album that literally created a new sub-genre of jazz: fusion. Listeners were perplexed, to say the least. According to jazz critic Bill Meyer, “With the release of the original double LP, Miles Davis drew a line in the sand that some jazz fans have never crossed, or even forgiven Davis for drawing.” Yet others praised it as a masterpiece and the beginning of new opportunities for jazz. The management lesson here? Take the one from Dave Brubeck, and multiply it by 10: Don’t just challenge the status quo. Set the new standard for others and push employees to try new things and explore unchartered waters. The results may not always work the first time, but they just may. Purists were confused by “Bitches Brew,” but it opened Davis up to an entirely new audience and became his first gold record.

So are jazz and management different? Yes … and no. If you provide a solid framework of trust and give your employees the tools to both innovate and succeed—and aren’t afraid of a few negative reviews from “purists” now and then—you can truly draw a straight line between the two.

Jeff Erramouspe is CEO of Spanning in Austin. Follow @jefferramouspe

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