Innovation Techniques from Jazz Musicians (Part 1 of 3)

Having studied jazz improvisation for nearly 40 years, performing thousands of times all over the world, I can tell you that instantaneous creativity is the language of jazz. Jazz music is a real-time art form; there’s no going back to re-do or touch-up your work. The improvisation is intense, fluid, and dangerous. Let’s take an inside look at some of the best-kept secrets from jazz musicians in order to unleash our own fresh thinking.

Technique #1: Trading Fours

One of the go-to techniques of grizzled jazz pros involves passing the musical baton back and forth, every four measures. 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 trading fours techniques requires the group to work together to tell a collective story. This is done by handing off the real-time creation every four measures, from one jazz master to the next.

Trading Fours sessions work best when each musician listens carefully to the other player who is soloing so they can build upon the concepts to move the piece forward. To better understand the concept, think about gathering a group of five people with the goal of telling a single story. One person begins by sharing an opening sentence out loud. Instead of continuing independently, the first person pauses so the next person in the group can continue.  This next person picks up by adding the next sentence, building upon the initial idea. The third person takes it from there, and then the group continues onward – 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. Instead of four measures of jazz melodies, you’ll be trading ideas and concepts around your own creative challenges. 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, building on the initial idea and weaving back to your topic. The ski lifts may become 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 over 80 years and can certainly help you spark your own imagination.

Technique #2: Contrast

One of the most engaging elements of a great jazz performance is contrast. If a trumpet solo, for example, was simply a barrage of unending 16th notes played consistently from beginning to end, it would be painfully boring and uninspired. Great solos are not turned on and off like a switch; they develop and build, weaving in and out while telling an exciting story. It is often the contrast created by the musician that creates the most beautiful solos, and the most appreciative audiences.

Great business improvisation is no different. By exploring contrasting elements, you will find a wellspring of creative inspiration. Yet most business leaders miss the subtle beauty of contrast while trying to tackle a pesky problem or seize a new opportunity.

When harnessing your own innovative ideas, you’ll boost results (and have more fun) by employing the jazz concept of contrast. A jazz guitar solo may start slow and quiet, for example, and gradually build to a peak that is fast and loud. Once the peak has been reached, the solo may begin to retreat as if climbing down a mountain, until it ends in a quiet and slow fashion just like it started. Throughout a sax solo, a musician may weave in and out of many crowded notes to open measures that are sparse. A piano player may choose to go from harsh to delicate, and then from intense to mellow. A bass solo may build tension with dissonant notes that make you squirm in your chair, only to release that tension to create a feeling of being grounded and calm.

Try putting contrasts to work for your own creativity. Rather than thinking of creativity as an on/off switch, begin with a simple, easy idea and then explore the contrasts. For example, your creative challenge may be to “increase the closing-rate of our sales team.” Using contrast, you would first begin with an idea such as “provide better training to the salespeople.” From there, play around with the idea using contrasts. This may inspire thinking such as:

  • Start with two weeks of intense training, then taper it down to three hours a month for six months, then bring the team back for another intensive week-long workshop.
  • Alternate trainers. For the first day, use a warm and nurturing trainer. Next, use a drill sergeant type that shakes the group up. End with a motivational trainer that pumps up the team to hit the market hard.
  • Break up each two-hour training session into four equal 30-minute parts: product knowledge, role-playing exercises, overcoming objections, and competitive insight.

Even if your initial spark is totally unrelated to the problem at hand (the best creativity often flows from random, unrelated concepts such as Italian dining, stamp collecting, or youth soccer), try using contrast to play around with the idea and see if you can solve your challenge in a non-traditional and more compelling manner.

Tune in next week for Part Two, as we continue to explore Innovation Techniques from Jazz Musicians.