Leadership Through the Jazz Paradigm

by Dr. J.B. Dyas, Institute Vice President for Education and Curriculum Development

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of JazzEd Magazine.

Jazz is being performed all over the world in every kind of venue imaginable – jazz clubs, concert halls, festivals, universities, high schools, coffee shops, shopping malls, hotel lobbies, restaurants, art museums, and more. But who would have thought that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would be among them? Turns out that besides loving the music for the aesthetic enjoyment it provides, the FTC powers-that-be realize the important lessons in leadership that can be procured from jazz. With a mission of protecting the consumer via the elimination and prevention of anticompetitive business practices, monopolies, and false advertising–along with over 1,000 employees from investigators to attorneys to specialists in information technology, public affairs, financial management, and public policy–the FTC recognizes that effective leadership is paramount.

The FTC’s chief learning officer, Mark Kern, contacted me as the Commission was organizing a three-day Leadership Academy for their highest level employees. Apparently, there’s some infighting in Washington, D.C. these days (Really? I hadn’t heard!), including at some of our federal agencies, and Kern thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if the FTC ran more like a jazz group?” They were interested in, “learning from the jazz space how to build better coalitions and partnerships on teams in their space.”

This all came to fruition at the FTC Headquarters in Washington, D.C., where the Herbie Hancock Institute National Peer-to-Peer Jazz Quartet–comprising four of the most impressive high school jazz musicians in the country–along with renowned jazz trumpet recording artist Sean Jones and I presented a workshop entitled, Leadership Through the Jazz Paradigm.

After performing a couple of tunes, we gave our “What is Jazz and Why It’s Important to America” presentation, demonstrating how jazz works and how jazz exemplifies our most deeply held American values: teamwork, unity with ethnic diversity, the correlation of hard work and goal accomplishment, democracy (individual freedom but with responsibility to the group), persistence and perseverance, respect for one another, tolerance, and the vital importance of really listening to one another. This was followed by our describing leadership in jazz and what might be gleaned from it to inform current and future leaders at the FTC and others outside the music realm.

Following is a synopsis of six exemplary leadership lessons found in jazz that we examined and demonstrated:

Jazz musicians…

1. Know how to overcome problematic working conditions. For example, if the stage is too small, the piano is out of tune, the acoustics are bad, the pay is way light, and/or whatever else, we still have a great set! If the hi-hat doesn’t work, or the drummer doesn’t show up, we still have a great set. And if a couple of players in the band don’t see eye to eye, we not only have a great set, we just might create some of the most beautiful music in history like jazz greats Miles Davis and John Coltrane did in their 1950s group. There you had two musicians who had such totally different philosophies on the “right” way to play jazz (Miles using space, Trane filling up every space, et cetera), and no one would ever accuse them of being best buddies. Yet, that group has gone down in history as one of the most exquisite pieces of art (irrespective of genre) of all time–right up there with da Vinci, Beethoven, Mozart, Picasso, Baryshnikov, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Spielberg…And, from a business standpoint, the album, Kind of Blue, that Miles and Trane recorded in 1959, is not only a masterpiece, it’s the best-selling jazz record of all time.

2. Take turns leading. Even when there’s a designated leader in the group (which is most often the case), each member of the group will take turns leading, depending on the moment and the situation. For instance, at any given moment during a performance, the soloist might be in charge, or the drummer, or the rhythm section collectively, or whoever. Everyone in the group acknowledges this and goes along, enjoying the different leadership of the moment. For example, although piano luminary Dave Brubeck was certainly the designated leader of the iconic Dave Brubeck Quartet, leadership changed hands continuously among Dave, saxophonist Paul Desmond, and the rhythm section (bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello) throughout every performance. Collective leadership can be heard on their extraordinary recordings as well. The superlative results are legendary.

3. Know that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that the goal is more important than anything else. In the case of the jazz combo, the goal is to make great music. So, once on the stage, we ignore any personality conflicts, we check our egos at the door, we work together and enjoy the experience regardless of whatever–all in order to achieve our goal of making great music. No matter what, jazz musicians always “maintain civility in the workplace”–something that all those in government agencies, business, higher education, healthcare, and everywhere else should do.

An excellent example of two jazz icons whose personalities couldn’t have been more opposite, but who worked together successfully for years are, again, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. Dave was a devout Catholic, faithful husband, and family man who took care of his health and didn’t indulge in drugs, booze, or cigarettes. Paul was a confirmed bachelor, infamous womanizer, avid drinker, drug user, and chain smoker (he died of lung cancer at age 52). Yet, this duo, too, is universally known for recording some of the most groundbreaking albums of all time, including the fifth best-selling jazz album in history, Time Out, featuring the chart-topping single, “Take Five.” Offstage, Dave and Paul may have butted heads and argued about everything under the sun, but once they hit the downbeat, they were of one mind, one purpose.

4. Recognize the contributions of others. Jazz musicians revere the masters of the past and so enjoy listening to those of the present. We’re always talking about how great someone else plays. We love to help and encourage up-and-coming players. And we’re quick to point out when someone in the band has done something cool and compliment them (“Loved the substitutions you played on the bridge… Man, you sound better and better every time I hear you… Love what you did at the end of ‘Cherokee’ – can you show me?”).

5. Really listen to each other. Jazz musicians can only function if they’re actively and intensely listening to one another. Wouldn’t it be great if Congress were made up of all jazz musicians!

6. Improvise. Often in government agencies, business, and everywhere else, things don’t always go according to plan. Here, improvisation is key – making something that went awry into something better than if it hadn’t gone awry! Piano legend Herbie Hancock tells the story of how once when he was playing with the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960s, he spaced out for a second and, while Miles was soloing, he played not only the wrong chord, but the “worst chord possible.” Miles immediately changed his note and made it fit beautifully – better than if Herbie had played the “right” chord. This became somewhat of a common occurrence in that group and it, too, has gone down as one of the most successful and influential in history. Miles encouraged his “employees” to experiment, be creative, and lead him as much as he led them.

By the reports, the presentation was well-received by all in attendance. “The reaction to the jazz informance was extremely positive,” wrote Kern in an email regarding the evaluations submitted by the FTC Leadership Academy attendees that included such sentiments as, “Just incredible; I haven’t appreciated jazz until today and the related leadership points were truly illuminating” and “The leadership found in jazz is so very relevant [to our work at the FTC] and brought to the topic a new point of view.”

“The participants came away with a keen understanding of how jazz relates to leading in our agency in an enlightening and permanent way,” Kern continued. “Perhaps our best lesson was on individuals able to do their own thing while positively contributing to the overall good.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of JazzEd Magazine. Click here to download the full article.

Dr. Dyas in DownBeat: Tour Etiquette for Young Musicians

The following is an excerpt from the article “Road Rules: Tour Etiquette for Young Musicians” by Institute Vice President, Education and Curriculum Development Dr. JB Dyas, which appears in the October 2019 issue of DownBeat Magazine.

Touring can be an exhilarating and rewarding experience–if you are prepared for it. But if you’re not prepared, being on the road can be a drag for the entire band and crew.

For the past 14 years, I have had the pleasure of annually taking combos comprising the nation’s top performing arts high school music students on National Peer-to-Peer Jazz Education “All-Star” tours on behalf of the Herbie Hancock Institute. Through this initiative, young musicians tour for a week with an eminent jazz artist, presenting jazz “informances” in public schools. These talented young musicians help develop future jazz audiences while simultaneously honing their own musical and professional skills.

Besides schools, the combos have performed from coast to coast in the nation’s top jazz clubs, such as the Sequoia Room, the Jazz Showcase and Blues Alley. They’ve also appeared at prestigious venues, such as the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

Our guest artists have included luminaries such as Ambrose Akimusire, Bobby Broom, Gerald Clayton, Sean Jones, Steve Wilson, Bobby Watson, Antonio Hart, Don Braden, Kellylee Evans, Lisa Henry, Ingrid Jensen, Delfeayo Marsalis, Christian McBride, Terell Stafford and Charenée Wade.

Being selected to participate in one of these tours can be a life-changing opportunity. Maximizing it not only helps each student grow as a musician, but as a person as well.

I provide these teenage musicians with useful “on-the-road” tips—the kind they aren’t likely to learn in school. These young players go on tour with artists who are in a position to help jump-start their careers, and perhaps offer a college scholarship. I frequently remind students that the manner in which they comport themselves is just as important as how well they play. Being regarded as “such a pro” at a young age is the best; being regarded as “such an amateur” is the worst.

Simply put, “a pro” is someone who has their act together. He or she is always prepared and on time, and needs to be told things only once. As honor bands—such as the Herbie Hancock Institute National Peer-to-Peer Jazz Sextet, the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra and Carnegie Hall’s NYO Jazz—embark on tours, I offer the following advice to the participants to help them attain the stature of “a pro.” Admittedly, besides playing jazz with integrity at an advanced level, the goal is to be as impressive as possible on and off the bandstand, prompting all those who have the potential to help you succeed in this business to take notice.

Know the Music

Before the tour begins, make sure you have all the music “down.” If you’ll be playing in a small group, this means the music should be totally memorized: heads, changes, harmony parts, backgrounds, hits, everything. Make a playlist of the definitive recordings of all the tour tunes and listen to them continually. Make sure you know the personnel as well.

I also recommend you practice along with the recordings, copping the phrasing, groove and feel. And transcribing a few phrases from your favorite soloists not only will increase your jazz vocabulary, but give you credibility when you quote them, subtly letting the guest artist and your band mates know that you’ve done your due diligence.

For standards, I advise you to practice them daily with an Aebersold play-along recording from the first day you memorize them up to the day the tour begins, emulating a seven-nights-per-week gig. This way, when it comes time to perform with the guest artist and your fellow bandmates, you’ll be ready. Again, all tour tunes should be completely committed to memory.

Five-Minute Rule

Always be at least five minutes early for everything. If the itinerary says to depart the hotel at 7 a.m., then you should be packed up and seated in the van no later than 6:55 a.m. For rehearsals, it’s the 15-minute rule, meaning that if a rehearsal is scheduled for 4 p.m., you should be set up and ready to play at 3:45 p.m. Unexpected delays can arise, and things can take longer than you anticipate. Keeping your bandmates—and especially the guest artist—waiting is unprofessional and, frankly, disrespectful.

Proper Attire

Look sharp, put together and clean. On our Herbie Hancock Institute Peer-to-Peer tours, our male performers wear jackets for our school concerts, and jackets and ties for our nightclub gigs. Naturally, this includes nice pants and clean shoes. Our female performers wear a dress or pants with a nice top. Because the concerts are pretty intense, I also recommend the stu-dents bring a different shirt for each day, making the long van rides ever so much more tolerable. And, of course, nothing should look disheveled. (An iron and ironing board are available at most hotels.)

Before bringing in and setting up equipment, it’s a good idea to hang up your jacket or place it on the back of a chair, keeping it from getting wrinkled during the rigorous setup and sound check process. And when you’re not on a stage but still in public (in restaurants, hotel lobbies, etc.), keep your clothing neat and present a positive image. In those situations, casual attire is OK; sloppy clothing is not. Take a cue from the masters: How would Wynton Marsalis or Maria Schneider look?

Read the full article in DownBeat Magazine.

Learn more about the Institute’s Peer-to-Peer jazz education program.

Institute leads free workshop for talented South Central music students

Music students at the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center in South Central Los Angeles benefitted today from a pair of Institute-led workshops designed to hone critical skills and help them succeed in competitive university music programs. Dr. JB Dyas, the Institute’s Vice President for Education and Curriculum Development, worked with the Center’s Junior and Senior Jazz Bands on tune memorization, audition preparation, and other practical techniques. 

A man, standing, talks to a group of young seated students holding musical instruments
Institute Vice President Dr. JB Dyas works with students at the Pullum Center on January 22, 2019.

Following the workshop, Dr. Dyas recruited three talented students from the Pullum Center bands for the LAUSD/Herbie Hancock Institute All-City Jazz Band, which comprises the best high school jazz musicians in Los Angeles. The Institute administers the All-City group in partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Beyond the Bell after-school initiative. As All-City Jazz Band members, guitarist Cesar Gandara and saxophonists Ronnie Heard and Christopher Powe will have the opportunity to study and perform with nationally renowned jazz artists and educators at some of LA’s highest-profile venues, including the Hollywood Bowl.

As part of its decades-long commitment to Los Angeles, the Institute regularly leads free jazz education and outreach programming in schools and community-based organizations like the Pullum Center. Programs include daily and weekly in-school and after-school instruction with renowned teaching artists, as well as public performances and workshops at LA institutions like the World Stage and the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

A man, standing, and a group of seated students holding musical instruments all laugh.
Dr. Dyas shares a laugh with students at the Pullum Center during the January 22 workshop.