Improvisers As Innovators
by Caleb Chapman, JEN President
I spend an equal amount of time in my role as a business executive as I do playing, producing, and teaching music. As a matter of fact, I will admit that I am just as passionate about business as I am music. This dual-career aspect of my life has served me well and really influenced the way I approach my role with JEN and the jazz industry in general. While I love the passion behind the music, I am also always looking for ways to fund the music I love, grow the market, and improve jazz education offerings, ensuring a future for the rich tradition of improvised music.
While many skills are critical to success in business, one of the most valued is the ability to innovate. Thanks to the fact that the heyday of jazz was decades ago we risk getting stuck in patterns of education, marketing, production, and business that could handicap our efforts. Many of my friends who are jazz musicians and educators are some of the most creative people I know musically, but get stuck when it comes to carving new ground in programming, technology, or the many other aspects that impact our careers. I believe that an injection of innovation in our approach to the education and business side of jazz can only help our cause.
I have found that some of the skills that inspire musical creativity on the bandstand can have the same effect when we apply them to our educational programs, marketing, and audience development efforts. Here are a few concepts borrowed from jazz that have benefitted me in the quest for creativity:
- Limit your options – Although it might seem counterintuitive, sometimes restricting options actually opens up a slew of possibilities we might not have seen. It’s the same idea as working on a tune and limiting your solo to a mode or even just one note. Restricting time, financial resources, contributors, style, geography, space, or any other number of factors involved with a project might be just what you need to spur your next genius idea.
- “Reharmonize” your assumptions – Some amazing things happen when you reharmonize an old standard – melodic elements pop differently and new ideas emerge. That familiar tune now takes on a different meaning and opens the door to thrilling possibilities. In the same way, many tasks we have done the same way for years can take on new life when we change up the assumptions we have held, often without realizing it. Things that are so easy we can do them with our eyes closed are also the things that blind us to opportunities. For example, if you are a performing musician, are there new ways to monetize your music, new venues where you can perform, or new avenues for distribution of recordings? Just because you have done it a certain way for years doesn’t mean there’s not a better way.
- Find a hero – Musically, we often ask players who their biggest influences are. They easily name those who have inspired them in their musical journey. We should be able to name off those who influence us in the other aspects of our careers as well. Need to improve your teaching and communication skills? Find someone that gets your juices flowing in that regard. For example, I base much of my approach with my bands on the writing of Mike Krzyzewski, the basketball coach of Duke University. Find “heroes” that inspire you in the many aspects of your day to day – innovators, leaders, artists of different disciplines, executives, brand leaders, educators, etc.
- Put your “dream band” together – When you are picking a group of musicians to play with you generally find those that not only sound great but make you sound your best as well. Great ideas rarely happen in a vacuum. Finding friends or colleagues you can bounce ideas off of and encourage to try new things can pay big dividends. Think of some of the wonderful musical conversations that happened between Miles and Trane or Louis and Ella. I guarantee they unleashed ideas that wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t crossed paths. Find individuals that encourage you to be your best, hold each other accountable, challenge each other, and watch some incredible results unfold!
Whether you are a student, a professional musician, an educator, or a fan of the music, I challenge you to apply these concepts in those critical aspects of your efforts outside of the music you make. If we want to see jazz continue to reach new audiences, we need to be open to thinking differently and constantly exploring new possibilities, technologies, and ideas. I firmly believe that the jazz community – the greatest improvisers on the planet – have an opportunity to also be the greatest innovators!
I’m already looking forward to January for the opportunity to connect with you in Dallas at our annual conference!
In addition to his role as JEN President, Caleb Chapman is Founder and President of Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse, Director of the Crescent Super Band, and Artistic Director for Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts. He serves on several boards including the Utah Arts Council, and is an award-winning musician, producer, educator, author, and speaker. To learn more about Caleb, please visit www.ccsoundhouse.com.