Jazz and teamwork

Posted by jlubans on February 07, 2011

What does a jazz group have in common with a classical orchestra like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra? Well, besides not having a conductor, a few other things come to mind, like the essential need for intense - in-the-moment - communication among the group. And from time to time, for soloists to take the lead and assume much of the responsibility for the music.

And, when done soloing, the player has to step back into his or her player role and support, intuitively it seems, the creative sound of the next soloist. While the players know there will be solos for each of them, the exact shape and sound, even duration, are not planned out. So, while support is essential to rounding out the sound of the soloist, it is not until the solo is underway, that the support players figure out how to offer their support. While our work world routines are planned out and predictable, the exciting and innovative pieces - the creative are not. How do we support each other during those moments of uncertainty? Does the music stop?

On one of my first nights in Riga, I observed a jam session in the student club at the Jazeps Vitols Latvian Academy of Music featuring my Fulbright colleague, Chris Beaty, pictured here taking the lead as the middle saxophone:
20110207-Chris Beaty.jpg

The combo, which sounded great, was composed of five saxophones, one drum set player, one electric bass guitar, and one keyboard player, a total of 8, a good size in my experience for any team. Four of the saxophonists were faculty members, the remainder were music students, including one high school musician.

Chris told me the group had practiced twice, but not as a complete group. True, each knew the agenda Nic, the faculty member saxophonist on the left in the picture took on the role of organizer and the equivalent of first chair, or first violin. In keeping with the extemporaneous nature of certain kinds of jazz, he was a laid back leader even though at the start and end of each piece he was the lead communicator.

The drummer, Chris told me, has an equally important role because he controls the tempo, the beat. Obviously, Nic and the drummer would have to be in synch (sharing the leadership) for the music to be as good as it was. So, who was leading? With a conductor, theres hardly any question its the guy (more often than not) who does not play an instrument.

With a jazz group, the turn taking and distribution of musical roles that I observed, makes the leaders role ambiguous and more challenging than being the up-front leader of an orchestra. It is less easy to lead when your leadership encourages others to take the lead. Perhaps that is what Max De Pree was referring to in this quote from his Jazz Leadership, published by Dell in 1992:

A jazz band is an expression of servant leadership. The leader of a jazz band has the beautiful opportunity to draw the best out of the other musicians. We have much to learn from jazz-band leaders, for jazz, like leadership, combines the unpredictability of the future with the gifts of individuals.

At that Riga jam session, I only got to see the peripheral aspects of the teamwork and shared leadership, but I came away with wanting to know more about jazz organizations and their kinship to work groups that produce their own versions of great music.

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