The Conceptual/Jazz Age

Stephen Baker, in a Businessweek Blogspotting article, asks if we are entering a new Jazz Age.
In the article, Bob Guccione, founder of Spin and now publisher of Discover Magazine, reportedly said that jazz is ‘a pretty small niche in music’ that preceded television. Those facts in themselves are true but he interpreted it too literally. Rishad Tobaccowala, the originator of this jazz concept, meant that today’s workers should be more like jazz musicians and not expect to be given fixed, safe roles in large orchestras. He was speaking metaphorically.
I have quite a bit to say about this because of what I do at work and at play. At work, I am greatly involved with new media. At play, I am a jazz student and am the leader of an aspiring fusion jazz band. The two may not seem to have much in common, but that’s only at the surface. I’ll expand a little on this to tell you my story of learning classical music versus jazz music.
When I learnt classical piano, everything was fixed and pre-determined with little room for variation, if any at all. When I learnt my exam pieces, there were specific notes or bars where I had to play louder, softer, staccato and legato. And of course, at the end of each piece we usually had to slow down. Translated to the old-world working style, as long as you got your job done, you could clock in your hours, collect your pay and go home.
When I became a teenager, I started writing my own songs. I was heavily influenced by pop and contemporary jazz/soul acts and started figuring out the chords they used. They sounded nicer than the rigid arrangements in classical music. However, I learnt the hard way that we were not allowed to change the tune or style of classical pieces. This was emphasised very clearly to me when my piano teacher called in the vice principal of the music school, after I attempted another variation that was deemed unacceptable.
“If YOU were the composer, how would you like it if someone else came and played your music in a different way?” He asked, in an aggressive manner.
Being Singaporean, I knew what the model answer was. I muttered meekly that no, I would not like it myself.
“THEN PLAY IT THE WAY IT IS WRITTEN!!!” (He really did roar.)
That was the end of the story and I never tried to modify a classical piece again.
I was like a worker who tried to innovate, but broke the status quo and all societal norms. This was an affront to the company. In such situations, the worker gets duly reprimanded, and because he needs to keep his job (in my case, stay in music school!), he goes back to conforming with the big corporate plan.
After I completed Grade 8, I discharged myself from further ‘duties’ and switched to jazz piano.
I have never played in an orchestra before, so am not qualified to talk about the rigidity of finely-synchronised emsembles, which the Businessweek article mentions. However, I do play in jazz bands and jam sessions and can tell you what it feels like. When you read it, think in metaphors and see how it compares with the new world order.
When you play a jazz piece, you aren’t expected to stick to the main tune, note for note. You play the main melody and chorus (variations are fine but the tune should be recognisable to the audience). Then you improvise. Ideally, you should work out with band members who gets to improvise and at which stage. Finally, someone gives a signal – drummers are usually good at doing this – then we know we’re going back to the main theme and completing the song.
When I quit my “old world job” and joined this “new age company”, I was at a loss. I could play the main theme of each jazz piece, as that was in the scoresheet. However, when it was my turn to improvise, I had no idea how to do it. My classical background was good at teaching me techniques and theories, but it taught me nothing about creativity and being spontaneous. (Does that sound like a certain education system?) Gradually I built up musical ideas and confidence, and am more confortable with improvising now.
So in a jazz band, there is flexibility without absolute chaos. We’re given a basic framework (the “company mission statement”) and are familiar with our main roles (the “organisational chart”). Everything else requires creativity, which is something you cannot memorise. The beautiful thing about jazz is that every performance has a unique tune. And chemistry is very important as each player has his/her own style, which can either complement or clash with others’.
Jazz musicians are better prepared for the unexpected. A change in key, tempo or rhythm doesn’t upset the pro. He adapts to it and comes up with something new and mind-blowing. That is the whole point of improvising in music. Today’s workers cannot expect to have an iron rice bowl (ie, permanent employment). Times and tunes are changing fast. We have to sing for our supper.
In the new world order, communication is especially important between team members. In jazz, there may be a band leader but different players can give signals to each other. In an orchestra, however, there tends to be a more obvious hierarchy ( or “organisational chart”). The conductor controls the orchestra in a top-down manner. A ‘star performer’ such as the solo violinist may get extra attention, with the rest of the members supporting him. But that’s about it.
In jazz bands, there is also a bit of composer in every one of us. Each of my members can give feedback to change the way we play a certain piece. Try doing that in an orchestra – I couldn’t even do that in my music school. [Off-tangent thought: Each time we play a piece it’s like a blog post. My band members post comments on it. Then we revise the piece, and the cycle repeats.]
Jazz musicians who are in a good team and know their roles and timings can produce beautiful music. This can be compared to workers in the Conceptual Age – a term derived from Daniel Pink‘s book, A Whole New Mind. I’ve blogged about his book before but I’ll repeat the main message: The IT age is over, in the sense that it is generally taken for granted in our world (as with stone, bronze and industry). Basic IT jobs can be outsourced cheaply and we must adapt or become redundant (Also see Thomas Friedman‘s The World Is Flat). The real value for today’s workers, therefore, is the ability to conceptualise new ideas through various means such as play, design, empathy and story.
I hope I haven’t offended classical music buffs because I am speaking mainly in metaphors. I warmly welcome comments and further discussions via trackback.
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  1. coolinsider

    Nice piece here Van. I like all the analogies and metaphors (which is something I am quite addicted to if you read my posts!).
    To add on, jazz and classical music are also played at different venues to vastly different sets of audiences. A symphony normally commands your 100% attention in a formal acoustically-enhanced concert hall (think Esplanade or VCH), with rigid intervals for intermission, toilet breaks etc. A jazz club, on the other hand, is normally a far more casual and chill out venue, where people talk, drink, mingle, sing along and jive along with the musicians.
    The acid test would be the degree of familiarity with the performers. It is probably far more common for the audience to fraternise with jazz musicians, maybe try a little gig on the ivories or do a brave solo act (fueled by alcohol of course). They probably know the members of the band individually too. I can’t imagine that happening with our SSO!

  2. vantan

    Thanks for adding on that comment! It got me thinking: So, if you want to engage your audience more, then what “genre” should you be employing? 😉

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