Three centuries ago the French philosopher Voltaire wrote “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position but certainty is an absurd one.” I believe his words ring equally true for the emergence of the current “Enlightenment.” He speaks to us about our relationship to one another in a digital world where the nature of time and structure is radically changing.
Jazz is an art form that explores our capacity to improvise with time and structure.
Improvisation is both an ancient and ultra modern idea in regards to our use of language. Language is reflexive. The way we use it changes our world. Language is procreative – you combine two ideas and get a hybrid of the two – a new idea that opens new possibilities. In this way we generate new thoughts in the world.
Improvisation is at the core of all human interaction. The fundamental act of translating thought into language is an improvisation.
We have always lived in “the flow of time.” The nature of temporal existence is that things are always changing. Life is change – every breath, every thought, every decision in our day is an event that influences the direction of change for the entire world. It is not only absurd to expect certainty but, as history has shown, very dangerous to create environments that purposely try to eliminate uncertainty. Let me qualify this statement. Eliminating uncertainty is desirable when the outcome must be completely predictable as in the functioning of a nuclear power plant or the mass production of individual cans of Coca Cola, or cars or iPads.
But we are now in an age where these processes can and should be completely automated. We have been freed from the technological weal. We have, in a sense, returned to the drawing board stage where we are squarely facing some primary existential problems. We are challenged with re-inventing (improvising and innovating) indeed colonizing our own future.
The process of Jazz is relevant because it emerged at a time of existential crisis for both disenfranchised African Americans and for the creative process in the world of music itself. It is this latter aspect that holds very powerful messages for the world of business.
At the turn of the last century the crisis in European composed music centered on a consensus that the tonal system of music some 1200 years old could no longer produce any really new ideas. The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg led a movement that turned to atonal methods of composition – a process that called into question all assumptions and hierarchical rules of the tonal system. He developed a system called 12 tone composition that was brilliant in it’s schematic and mathematical complexity but created music that was cold and without human sentience – at least to the ears of the world at that time.
The emergence of jazz in the first decades of the 20th century broke open the siloed world of European through composed music. In so doing jazz forecast the democratization of information and knowledge that would occur with the internet 70 years in the future
Jazz did not seek to abandon the tonal system but rather to redefine the structures and rules around which music could be made and delivered. The siloed roles of composer, performer and conductor are all fused together in jazz into a new role: the role of the improviser. Jazz standards, the underlying structures and strategies that guide the collaborative musical performance, are structures that draw from the legacy of knowledge and information of the past. The designs use fundamental constructs that underlie all of tonal music – architectural principles that provide guidelines to coordinate the improvisers in time and intention. But because the musicians are challenged with creating the music rather than simply interpreting what has already been created, these structures are simplified to allow for experimentation, ambiguity and the latitude to make and learn from mistakes.
Jazz could not have evolved without the “unexpected.” There would have been no learning without mistakes and if uncertainty were eliminated there would have been no realm of new possibility.
This is precisely the place that business finds itself in today. We’ve run the gamut of market paradigms and maxed out most of the possibilities inherent in our approach to business from the past two centuries. In fact we have lost sight of the real power of commerce – to create new ideas.
Business holds the solutions to mediate the tremendous economic disparity that exists in our world. As such business becomes a supreme artistic force capable of re-inventing or improvising new solutions to very old problems.
We use the model of jazz not to suggest business “like” art, but rather business “as” art.