The Gary Burton Trio

Lessons on business from a jazz legend.

It sounds right: The Jack Welches, Andrew Groves, and Bill Gates are the Toscanninis, Bernsteins, and Stokowskis of the Fortune 1000. The young Netscape is like a hep jazz band turning university software riffs into Internet hits.

After that, the metaphor took off. Large companies all need to be on the same page, following the same musical score, under the baton of a strong, focused leader. Teams need to play together like a jazz combo, listening to each other, improvising in free-form expression. Business people in companies of any size can learn the art of creativity and innovation by opening up like a jazz musician: letting the feeling flow, catching the spirit of play, finding the swing in work.

Of course, you can't manage by metaphor alone. When you actually talk to someone who knows both jazz and management, it turns out there really is a lot to bring to the world of business from the world of music. It also turns out that most of what really applies is the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom.

Fast Company found out by talking with jazz vibraphonist and educator Gary Burton. Winner of "Down Beat" magazine's "Jazzman of the Year" award, a member of the Percussion Hall of Fame, and Dean of Curriculum of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Burton is known worldwide as a musical innovator and master improviser. In a career that has spanned three decades, he's recorded with jazz legends like Stan Getz, George Shearing, and Quincy Jones, pop and rock stars like k. d. Lang and Eric Clapton, and lead the Burton Quartet. He's also given talks and demonstrations on the art of improvisation to business and technology audiences in the United States and doctors and educators in Japan.

Here's Gary Burton answering the age-old question, "What makes good jazz?" (The answer isn't, "If you have to ask.... ")

Strong Leaders Want Strong Sidemen

Conventional wisdom says that jazz combos are free and spontaneous, and symphony orchestras are dominated by autocratic conductor/CEOs. Do those images correspond to reality?

Unless you've been inside a jazz combo or an orchestra you can't know how they really work. For example, there's a very strong leader in the jazz group. For all the talk of openness and spontaneity, a jazz group can't adopt a communistic attitude: "We're all equals here. " There's a need for vision and concept, and only one person can effectively establish and define a vision. Once you have this vision, your job as leader is to bring out the best in the people who're working with you. I want my piano player to have as much input as I can stand -- as long as it doesn't bump into the vision. I need to communicate to him what my vision is, so the stuff he contributes fits it.

Just how collaborative are jazz combos really?

If it's my group my judgment is ultimate. I'll talk with my musicians about how I see the song. Each song is like a little play that we've been given. Usually it's about 30 seconds of information -- a chord sequence, a tempo, a mood, and a concept. We're going to take that and spin it into a story for the next 8 or 9 minutes.

I'll say to the group, "Here's the script. It's set in Argentina, and it's got a melancholy feel to it, and this is what I see happening. " I describe this to the group in two ways: I play it for them myself and say, "I hear it at this tempo, and I hear a crescendo in this section, and then it tapers off in this section. " So I'm showing them how I feel the tune should be played, and I'm also describing it in words as much as possible.

Within the context of that vision, individual players start to contribute their ideas. Occasionally, I have to say, "What you're doing there doesn't really work. Could you try something else?" Everybody makes suggestions, we discuss them, eventually we work it out. If we have a standoff, the leader makes the decision and everyone goes along with it.

The jazz leader I most admired was Miles Davis. That may come as a surprise, because he had a reputation as an eccentric. The way he looked was absolutely intimidating, and he was mesmerizing to watch and hear in action. But he was also the most creative and daring musician. The best jazz musicians wanted to play with Miles because they knew that he could get them to go places musically that otherwise they wouldn't be able to go. He would sign up the biggest stars to play with him, encourage them to do their best work, and be strong enough himself to bring them all together and meld them into a cohesive group. As demanding and intimidating as he was, it was worth it.

That's more like what you hear about conductors of symphony orchestras. Is a conductor more like a CEO who defines a vision and then makes sure everybody executes it appropriately?

That's certainly the general image. But there's a dark side of orchestras that most people don't know about -- a strange political battle between orchestra members and conductors. The members of the orchestra are constantly harassing and challenging the conductor, doing anything they can to try to mess him up, including very childish things. It's almost like they defy the conductor to make them tow the line. It's very common.

Is that the musical equivalent of corporate alienation?

One of my classical friends, a violin soloist, experienced this when she was guesting at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic.

She went to rehearsal and there was Zubin Mehta conducting and the players were being incredibly disrespectful. They weren't paying attention, they were talking to each other, listening to the ballgame on the radio. She turned to one of her friends and said, "I had no idea things were this bad. " He said, "We're all on good behavior tonight because you're here. "

Gamesmanship like that is fairly familiar in corporations. What accounts for it in orchestras?

I guess it's a psychological thing: because the conductor literally has all the control, the players then abdicate. They've been disempowered, as they say in the business world. I know it sounds exactly like the corporate environment : "I just type whatever they give me. It's none of my business whether it's all wrong or not, or whether I could make a suggestion. Every time I make a suggestion, nobody cares anyway, so let them stew in their own juice. " It turns out the same thing applies to a large corporate structure or a symphony orchestra.

Can an Old Manager Learn New Riffs?

Businesses say they want their traditional management teams to become as spontaneous and improvisational as a good jazz combo. How hard is it to teach a classical musician to feel comfortable improvising?

It's a very difficult transition for someone who has been a typical classical musician for decades. A lot of my classical music friends say to me, "I'd love to be able to improvise. Tell me how to do it. You're a teacher -- help me out. "

It's not out of the question. But I have to tell them, "You'll learn a process, you'll understand it, but you'll have to unlearn or replace a lot of ingrained habits. "

It turns out that classically trained musicians are the toughest ones to teach. It's easier to teach somebody who's a beginning musician. Performing music -- or managing in a company, for that matter -- is all about developing habits and ways of doing things that your unconscious mind controls. A very modest example of this would be the way people learn to play the piano. You don't start out for the first year saying, "This year we're going to start using just these two fingers and get good at that, and then next year go to four fingers. " You don't work your way up to ten because that would mean relearning your concept of how to function on the instrument all over again. You learn one way of doing it and that becomes your natural, spontaneous physical connection to the process.

The Discipline of Spontaneity

One of the paradoxes of improvisation is that it's a mixture of two opposites -- tremendous discipline and regimen balanced by spontaneity, listening, and playing in the moment. We spend countless hours going over and over things, trying to learn parts, trying to get our playing perfected. We practice exercises, we play the passage repeatedly until we can get it right, and then as soon as we get that one right we move on to another one and start doing it over and over again. Every musician puts in anywhere from an hour to several hours a day for years just to get their basic craft organized. Now that kind of experience is highly regimented -- it's totally lacking in spontaneity.

At the same time, musicians have a highly developed instinct to be spontaneous. When something in us says, "Do it!" we're able to just go ahead and do it. As a musician you have to be able to live by those spontaneous instincts or you simply become nonfunctional. One of the things I suspect about the colorful behavior of musicians, whether classical, jazz, or rock, is that it's a way to shake off all that regimen and get back in touch with the raw emotion of music.

Are there techniques you use with students to try to teach them to be spontaneous?

I tell them to use their ears instead of their brains. If I'm working with a student, I'll play something and tell them to play something back to me. Respond to it. React to it. Don't stop and study it. Answer it. Make musical conversation happen.

Gradually what happens is that you let your unconscious mind make the decisions. This is the essential element for the jazz musician. When I'm playing, my mind has to make thousands of little decisions incredibly quickly. I couldn't possibly think about each one, consider each one, and make the decision. My unconscious mind can weigh all these alternative possibilities, pick the right one, time it exactly, Coordinate the muscles, and make it happen.

As I start to play a song, in those first few moments of playing I step back from the process mentally, and the playing starts going on its own. I start watching it as if I'm an observer. The unconscious mind is now doing it. It's very natural for me now, after doing it for years. It wasn't so natural in my early days when I was much more conscious about my playing. But you learn to trust your unconscious mind.

Michael Schrage (schrage@media.mit.edu) is a research associate at MIT , and the author of "No More Teams! Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration" (Currency/Doubleday, 1995).

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