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Jazz Requires Systems Thinking – and Living at the Edge of Chaos


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The other day I was talking to a friend who loves jazz, and it got me thinking.

One of the many things we touched on is how, unlike classical music, which is played pretty much as written on the page, jazz is by nature improvisational. This means that players weave an ever-changing tapestry around a single theme. It is a group discussion, where participants take turns talking. Like a group discussion, it works best when all of the participants listen to each other and respect each other’s turns.

I was reminded of how I recently saw a foursome comprised of McCoy Tyner, Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, and Francisco Mela, and how I was struck by how smoothly they managed the transitions between full-on playing by the group and solos supported by the others. The solos were long and far-ranging, sometimes played with clear intention and sometimes with wild abandon. The four clearly listened to each other playing, they played to support the others when it was not their solo, and they watched for signals about the transitions.

Jazz musicians enjoy a great deal of freedom but, like freedom in other contexts, it works best when that freedom is exercised with awareness of and respect for the other members of the group and for the group itself.

And within that context, magic can happen.

It occurred to me as we were talking that jazz requires systems thinking. It requires awareness of the system, and awareness of how changes affect that system.

It requires agreement from the participants to support the system and each other.

When participants don’t support each other and the system and they focus only on themselves, indulging in tunnel vision, the result is noise. Chaos.

And yet – jazz also requires living at the edge of chaos.

How aware are you of the systems of which you are a part? Whether the system is a work group, an organization, a committee, your family, or a sports team, how well does that system work if the members don’t think beyond themselves? At the same time, how flexible are those systems? Do they support creativity, innovation, improvisation?

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2 Responses to Jazz Requires Systems Thinking – and Living at the Edge of Chaos

  1. Connie Harryman July 17, 2010 at 10:32 am #

    Susan, you are so right about working together within a system; yet still retaining our ability to be creative and innovative.

    When we show respect and openness to the input from our team members, it is amazing what we can accomplish.

  2. Susan July 17, 2010 at 9:57 pm #

    Hi Connie, thanks for the comment!

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