Miles Davis played a concert in the late 1960’s- in Italy I believe- that provides some interesting insight into the dual identities that an organization has to balance between its internal sense of creative identity and its relationship to the market. People had come expecting to hear the type of music that Miles had been recording in the early 60’s with his stellar group of associates: Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. This ensemble consistently produced exciting, innovative music that took significant risk in pushing boundaries yet was still deeply rooted in the traditional format of symmetrical, contrasting song structures with each instrument taking turns soloing over the “tune”.
What the audience heard at this concert was shockingly different. Onstage with Miles was an electric bassist playing a very simple repetitive rock drone over a static harmony (one or two chords) and a rock drummer laying down a funky groove to the bass line. Miles had his trumpet amplified through gigantic speakers. With his back to the audience, he would utter a short blast followed by long silence and then arbitrarily another blast- quite ambiguous and without the linear logic that traditional “jazz trumpet solos” were expected to follow.
The audience sat with their mouths open while Miles and his associates sustained this same idea for well over 30 minutes. Then suddenly. . . they just stopped. Miles walked off the stage. People were aghast. They actually booed and quickly retreated to the lobby where they all began to share their confusion and despair over the totally unexpected direction that Miles had taken- he had disrupted their expectations.
This wasn’t new behavior for Miles Davis. He’d done something similar less than a decade earlier after the tremendous success of Kind Of Blue. This recording represented a radical shift from the complexity of bebop to a much more simplified context that, in turn, demanded a higher level of risk, originality and collaborative design than required by the complex frameworks of bebop. The timing of this shift was brilliant because the legacy value from the past 4 decades of jazz was beginning to hinder the process of innovation in jazz. Simplifying the harmonic structure liberated and reenergized the creative spirit of the art as a whole. In the early 60’s Miles et all were practicing what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.”
What made “Kind of Blue” such a success was “authenticity.” And for Miles that value was always associated with blazing a new trail in the world of jazz. So he disbanded the group- one of the greatest jazz bands of all time- and started again with Hancock, Carter and Williams- younger players unaffected by the gravity of that past success. I don’t mean to imply that the creative abilities John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Wynton Kelly and the other stellar jazz figures that made “Kind of Blue” were in anyway tainted or diminished by the success of the record. But as an entity, an innovative organization, it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to create anything with the same vitality and authentic energy they felt when recording “Kind Of Blue.”
Miles’ new group reinterpreted the standard jazz repertoire giving much more harmonic and rhythmic freedom to the ensemble than had ever before been imagined. The driver in this group was the drummer Tony Williams whose brilliant capacity to superimpose different rhythmic feels expanded the rhythmic dimensions of jazz as radically as Charlie Parker had expanded the harmonic possibilities 20 years before.
The audience at this particular concert had come with expectations. They wanted to hear music that pushed the boundaries of the conventional format but still remained within the domain of convention. For Miles Davis, though, the real “product” was not the what but the “how.” For Miles the how always meant breaching the boundary- the process of extracting core value and reinventing it in ever-changing ways. That’s what constituted innovation in jazz. Adhering to convention for Miles meant the abdication of authenticity.
There was one critic in the audience that night who understood the significance of the change. At the intermission he rushed to a payphone in the lobby (no one had cell phones in those days) and called a major jazz publication to describe what had just happened. In a voice loud enough that most people in proximity could hear he reported that Miles had once again changed the organizational structure of jazz- evolving the concept of the traditional soloist and the traditional rhythm section; merging the roles of leading and support; democratizing responsibility and the subsequent gratification and autonomy of each of the artists within the ensemble.
People listened to what he’d suggested and over the next 20 minutes, the critic’s perspective spread like wildfire through the mezzanine. At a certain point, someone noticed the music had started again. Everyone rushed back to their seats. The trio had picked up again exactly where they had left off, oblivious to the fact that no one was even in the hall. They played the exact same groove with Miles uttering dissonant blasts through the huge amplifiers for another 30 minutes without stopping. When they finished . . . the crowd went crazy.
A year later Miles released “In A Silent Way” and reshaped the trajectory of evolution in Jazz. Critics were at first mixed about the radical transformation implied by “In A Silent Way.”
One critic, Phil Freeman, wrote:
“It didn’t swing, the solos weren’t even a little bit heroic, and it had electric guitars… It was the soundtrack to all the whispered conversations every creative artist has, all the time, with that doubting, taunting voice that lives in the back of your head, the one asking all the unanswerable questions.”
Another critic, Lester Bangs, wrote:
“It is part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away and, while using musical devices from all styles and cultures, is defined mainly by its deep emotion and unaffected originality.”
Miles understood something important about the relationship between the emerging global market for jazz and the product he put into that market. While it was an accepted fact that one had to produce product for a specific market, Miles perceived that if the core value of the product was authentic he would be able to influence and change that market. He sensed the market would not only respond but would redefine its expectations and tolerance for change within the idiom of jazz.
Looking back on the results of “In A Silent Way” and then the hugely successful “Bitches Brew” of the same nature, these works did not destroy the traditional foundations of jazz but rather opened and expanded all of the different niches within the tradition that had yet to be explored. Perhaps it was the “simplification” and democratization” that Miles so boldly demonstrated with “In A Silent Way” that generated the global fusion of all the different ethnic influences that characterize jazz in the 21st century.
I’m not suggesting that business take the type of bold risks in the market that Miles was able to take as the leader of innovation in the world of jazz. I am pointing to the need to recognize the reciprocal relationship between those who produce product and those who consume. Business has tremendous artistic influence and capacity because it creates the “things” of the world. The creative courage needed to remain authentic will be as different for each organization as it is for each individual- but it is nonetheless one of the most important considerations for innovative businesses today.
The problem is authenticity is hard to measure and quantify- and most in the business world are of the mindset that recognizes value only if it can be measured and quantified. Rightfully so given the level of uncertainty in the world. If, however, we create arts-based initiatives within organizations that give people an opportunity to explore the visceral quality of authentic creative experience then we can use those experiences to identify a shared language that a community can use to describe it’s own sense of authenticity. The quality then becomes tangible enough that it can be connected to measurable results.