Creative Sparks from the World of Jazz – Part 1 of 6

If there was a PhD for creative sparking, jazz musicians would graduate with high distinction. Smoke-filled, late night jazz clubs are hotbeds of spontaneous creativity. I’m going to post a six-part blog series on techniques from the jazz world that can be easily translated to driving business creativity.

Having studied jazz improvisation for nearly 30 years, and having played thousands of gigs all over the world, I can tell you that instantaneous sparking is the language of jazz. Jazz is a real-time art form; there’s no going back to re-do or touch-up your work. It is intense, fluid, and high-energy instantaneous creativity. Let’s take an inside look at some of the best jazz musician secrets, and then apply these techniques to helping you unleash your own fresh thinking.

1) Trading Fours. There’s a fun improvisational technique in which jazz musicians alternate short, four-measure solos appropriately named “trading fours”. This round-robin is separate from the longer, more involved solos from each of the musicians. As a backdrop, think of a jazz solo as telling a story. Rather than one musician telling her story with her own extended solo, the group works together to tell a collective story by handing off the story-telling every four measures in the trading fours process.

Trading fours sessions work best when each musician listens carefully to the other player who is soloing, and then tries to take the ideas from that solo and build on it when it’s their turn to solo. To better understand the concept, think about gathering a group of five people with the plan to tell a story. One person begins by sharing an opening sentence out loud. Instead of continuing on his own, the next person in the group invents the next sentence, taking the initial idea and expanding on it. The third person takes it from there, and the group continues to go in a circle – one sentence at a time – as the story unfolds. You might call that ‘trading sentences’.

This legendary jazz improvisation technique can be a powerful way for you to spark your own creativity. Sit in a circle with your group, and give it a try. Instead of four measures of jazz melodies, you’ll be trading ideas and concepts around your Creative Challenge. Start with a single creative spark – It could be anything from a vague thought to an image to a vision of the completed project. It could also be something totally unrelated and random. For example, you could be working on designing a new computer chip and you may start with “skiing in Aspen”. From there, let the natural creativity of the group unfold and try to build on the initial idea and weave back to your topic. The ski lifts could end up becoming an inspiration for a new type of vertical assembly line for your computer chips. Or the pattern made by skiers in the snow could be a new imprint architecture on the silicon. Trading fours has inspired jazz musicians and their audiences for 70 years, and can certainly help you spark your own imagination.

Look for Blog post 2 of 6, entitled Contrast, coming next.