Creative Sparks from the World of Jazz – Part 4 of 6

Earlier this week, I launched a six-part blog series on techniques from the jazz world that can be easily translated to driving business creativity. Jazz music is all about spontaneous creativity and improvisation – skills that are critically important in the business world. The first post covered a technique called Trading Fours. The second post was on Contrast. Next, I covered a technique called Mixing it Up. Now we are on to the fourth approach, Lean on the Masters.

Lean on the Masters. When learning the art of jazz, students not only learn technique but spend a significant portion of their study learning from the masters. Understanding how Dexter Gordon crafts his solos, or how Sonny Rollins builds excitement, or how Oscar Peterson uses the special technique of playing in unison octaves helps an up-and-coming jazz musician gain both perspective and inspiration.

Studying other musicians helps in three ways: it provides a context and broad understanding of the past which gives you a platform on which to build; it offers a source of inspiration and ideas; and it provides specific concepts that you can use and adapt to your own musical challenges.

You can benefit greatly in the same way jazz musicians do by looking to the masters. How would Edison have approached your product design challenge? If you’re not sure, you can easily find dozens of examples, books, diagrams, whitepapers, and artifacts at your fingertips thanks to Google and Wikipedia. How did Einstein approach his research? What did Henry Ford do when he was stuck on a problem? Where did Picasso go when he needed a fresh perspective? How would Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) attack your new social media strategy? What would Apolo Ohno (currently the American with the most Olympic gold medals) do when faced with a challenge like yours?

Through free and ubiquitous access to information, you can easily answer these questions and more. In addition to examining what specific approaches various masters would have, you can learn from them just by understanding how they think. I’ve read biographies on business legends ranging from railroad baron Henry Flagler to Andrew Carnegie to Steve Jobs. Besides their amazing stories, you can start to see patterns in their thinking which can be applied to your own situation. Grabbing a book, article, or online story about masters in any field is almost like having the ability to sit down and have a conversation with them.

Jazz musicians often use a favorite musical quote or approach that they learned from a master. I have a few riffs that I learned by studying jazz guitar virtuoso Wes Montgomery, for example. Sometimes when I’m stuck in a solo, I will play these licks to not only regain my footing but also to spark ideas. I also know that McCoy Tyner used something called “quartal harmony”, which was an unusual and creative way of voicing chords. When I am looking for ideas, I sometimes try using this technique to see if it sparks something fresh for me.

To apply the age-old practice of leaning on the masters, try to discover some patterns or approaches that you can use as part of your overall creativity arsenal. Start small by learning one or two approaches or ideas from only one legend in any field (business, art, science, politics, etc) and see if you can apply the same approach to your own creative challenge. As you continue to build your creativity muscles, you can keep adding to your repertoire and before you know it you’ll be creating like the masters.

Finally, when you need a spark, are frustrated with the blank page or stuck on a problem, try stepping away and look to the masters. I have been in situations with my eyes glazed over and completely unable to get moving, only to read a story or article about a legend and become instantly inspired with a fresh approach. As you continue to build your creative career, you may just be a master to someone else in the future as they look to you for ideas and inspiration.

Look for Blog post 5 of 6, entitled Substitutions, coming next.