What Can Free Jazz Teach Us About Working on Teams?

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

My friend, Karl Berger, was artist in residence at The Stone last week. The Stone is a New York club dedicated to the experimental and avant garde. I got to perform in his improvisational orchestra on the final night, and it was a great experience!

I’ve been thinking about what Karl does and why it works. And I think there is a connection for those of us who work in organizations.

Imagine this: 25 people on stage; no sheet music. (Hel did teach us two melodies, but we ended up not using them.) There was no set plan, other than the set would last about an hour. We would just play.

When I explained Karl’s approach to a friend, he said, “It sounds like an adventure in narcissism.” That type of egocentric free-for-all certainly could occur, but it doesn’t. Quite often there is a spontaneous and phenomenal blend of harmonies and solos, and each performance is different. On Sunday, there was no bass player. That limited the type of rhythmic pulses available. So, in Karl’s words, he approached it more symphonically – and it worked.

But why does it work?  At the top of the list, it seems that everyone shows up because they have tremendous respect for Karl — and they like him. Next, he selects people who know how to listen and how to follow. In other words, they are willing to step out of the spotlight and make way for someone else’s solo or improvisation that’s starting up in another section of the orchestra. Karl’s hand gestures provide general guidance regarding volume, articulation, who should solo and who should drop out for a while. I rarely see musicians showing off or failing to follow his lead. Next, there is an “in the moment” acceptance of what’s going on. For instance, a few months ago, Karl pointed to me to solo, and I pretty much stunk. There was nothing wrong with my solo except that it was just plain boring. And the more I tried to unstinkify it, the worse it got. Karl and the orchestra seemed unperturbed. The solo ended, and life went on. And I kept getting invited back. Another time when it was my turn to solo, I heard myself start to play a blues motif. When he heard this, Karl signaled for me to hold the last note of that phrase, and he pointed to another musician to complete the call-and-response.  Blues, as you may know, relies on call-and-response. So my opening phrase influenced the response of the trumpeter, and his playing inspired my next phrase. And on it went. It was pretty cool.

I think of the simplicity of Harrison Owens’ open space technology, and I think there is a similarity between that and Karl Berger’s work. Both combine the safety of a basic structure with a lot of freedom to support or build on the ideas of others. I’d love to get your reactions to this post.