Jazz Improvisation and Organizing: Once More from the Top

Michael H. Zack
Northeastern University College of Business Administration, 214 Hayden Hall, Boston, Massachusetts 02115 m.zack@nunet.neu.edu

This is a response to the special issue of Organization Science on Jazz Improvisation and Organizing (Vol. 9, No. 5, 1998). It is a call to unpack the jazz metaphor by extending the notion of jazz, and thereby the value of the metaphor, beyond the limited definition described in the issue. In that issue, jazz was described as a process of improvising within a highly constrained structure and set of rules. Other genres of jazz, however, have gone beyond those constraints. Jazz improvisation has occurred within forms, with forms, and beyond forms. Perhaps organizational improvisation may as well.

(Improvisation; Innovation; Metaphor; Organizing; Organizational Forms)

As a former jazz musician1 and a current organization scientist, I read the Organization Science special issue on Jazz Improvisation and Organizing (Vol. 9, No. 5, 1998) with great interest. I, too, have been using the jazz metaphor for many years. I found the issue to be enlightening and exhilarating in many respects. It was exciting to see the spirit of innovation and improvisation played out in this forum. Hopefully, more of us will be encouraged to improvise in the creation and delivery of the knowledge of our field. However, in other respects, I found the material to be inconsistent with many of its own assertions.

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ORGANIZATION SCIENCE, ᭧ 2000 INFORMS Vol. 11, No. 2, March–April 2000, pp. 227–234

This is not unlike a job shop in which a limited set of predefined processes.. Sanchez and Mahoney 1996). New Orleans jazz (1890s to 1920s) represented the precursor of swing (1930s and 1940s). depending on the genre being referred to. ZACK Jazz Improvisation and Organizing Improvisation Is Represented as a Highly Constrained Process The term “jazz” can refer to a wide range of improvisational behaviors and can be appropriated in many different ways. For the jazz neophyte (the primary audience targeted by the authors of this issue). Bebop musicians made use of chromatics (notes halfway between other notes) as “passing tones” in much more complex tonal sequences. Platforms are an accepted approach for enabling organizational flexibility and variation while maintaining some degree of structural stability and routine (Kogut and Kulatilaka 1994. We often “improvise” similarly in organizations by behaving in ways that are marginally or incrementally unexpected but well within the bounds of the grander scheme of socially. especially those not frequently exposed to jazz. . in particular. Jazz Improvisation Has Evolved Well Beyond Structured Swing To place the structure of swing jazz in context. Both were structured music forms in the sense described by Barrett and Peplowski (1998). Therefore. is a key element that varies with genre. then we may be selling short the jazz metaphor and the notion of improvisation in general.2 The swing form of jazz described by Barrett and Peplowski (1998) is a highly structured. Barrett and Peplowski (1998). . rule-bound activity. No. capabilities. However. and organizationally expected behaviors. 11. p. and resources is dynamically mixed and matched to provide an extremely wide (although bounded) range of products and services in a responsive yet efficient way. fully determined). There were “good” notes and “bad” notes (Barrett and Peplowski 1998). However. overemphasizing the structure of traditional improvisational genres may limit the power of using jazz as a metaphor for innovation. Swing improvisation emphasized the notes of the chords forming the basic structure of the tune. Bebop extended the notion of what could be considered good music by using those notes formerly considered bad to create new and interesting harmonies. the musicians improvised the chords as well as the notes. p.” secondary chords that linked the primary chords of the tune. They created more complex rhythmic emphasis than merely staying to the straight swing groove. let’s look at a brief (and admittedly oversimplified) history of jazz. They improvised notes that implied “passing chords. If by jazz we mean the traditional genre as played and described by 228 ORGANIZATION SCIENCE /Vol. the focus was on more traditional structured forms of jazz such as swing. even highly structured forms can sound chaotic. . March–April 2000 . then flexibility comes from treating the basic form of the tune as a structured “platform” from which can be derived many outcomes (tune variations) as combinations of existing resources and capabilities (i. to those familiar with the tunes. to demonstrate to this audience that some forms of improvisation do exhibit manifest and latent structure. 559). the next major genre. . To play outside of those chord changes is to break a rule. politically. were able to enjoy the Swing jazz performance because it challenged their ear to some degree (the improvised solos were not completely predictable). They reharmonized tunes by Most of the audience at the symposium conference performance.MICHAEL H. [J]azz is guided by a non-negotiable framework that constrains what the soloist can play (Barrett and Peplowski 1998.e. Finally. You can’t do that (Barrett and Peplowski 1998. made several important breaks with swing. Lewin (1998) described the special issue as focusing on jazz as a metaphor for the flexibility of human capital at the individual and organizational level. Bebop (1940s and 1950s). sequences of notes) within that structure. in later bebop. 2. The degree of improvisational structure. if we accept the job-shop view of improvisation. yet was well within the tonal language they were familiar with and could make sense of (the chord sequences and tonal resolutions were highly predictable and. Meyer and Lehnerd 1997. 558). Jazz improvisers follow those chord changes like they’re a road map.

their basic structure was no longer fixed.” the musicians increasingly used outside notes and broke with the notion of fixed harmonic structure (Hatch 1998). notes. In the introduction. In fact. So where does the evolution referred to by Lewin (1998) come from? Not necessarily from within the structure or performance of swing. Oliver Lake. Where Davis truly disrupted routine. but starting on notes different than do. but provided even wider opportunity to improvise notes. While the tunes were still precomposed.3 Within this genre. especially within the freer forms of jazz improvisation). Neither unrehearsed songs nor odd keys represent much of a challenge for an experienced musician. No. Hatch (1998). for example. characterizing musical structure as a safety net for improvisation. likened free jazz to “working without a net. proponents of particular jazz idioms can become quite entrenched in their own worldview. While certainly a catalyst. Rather. and Ornette Coleman continued to push the notion of what was considered a “good” note or harmonic structure. To expand the metaphor. no key is more difficult than any other. jazz groups like The Fringe began in the 1970s to base their improvisation on a few notes or a tonal concept and improvised essentially their entire performance. as all are based on the same formulaic Western scale.MICHAEL H. 539) makes reference to the need for theories of organizational evolution. March–April 2000 229 . their descriptions of what constitutes jazz improvisation primarily to structured swing. Miles Davis. Lewin (1998. mutating. rather than as one particular jazz group improvising.” as in “outside the norm” or “outside the accepted musical structure. several authors in the special issue described examples of jazz improvisation.” As jazz became more “modern. to some. 11. for this particular audience. Eric Dolphy. however. structure. the key question to ask is what are the musicians improvising? Barrett (1998) suggested that to spark improvisation. With practice. Yet. structure became one more field for improvisation. Swing dismisses possibilities for improvisation that have become accepted within other jazz genres. ZACK Jazz Improvisation and Organizing spontaneously substituting a new and usually more complex set of chords that not only changed the sound of the basic tune. The musicians are spontaneously and simultaneously improvising the rules for improvisation as well as the performance itself. but from musicians like Charlie Parker and Ornette Colemen who hear the music differently. was in his ORGANIZATION SCIENCE /Vol. Taking improvisation to its limit. Sonny Rollins. in the modal jazz style pioneered by Miles Davis. However. musicians such as John Coltrane. as Barrett and Peplowski (1998) suggested (and demonstrated in their unrehearsed performance). or that those jazz groups mutate in any significant way within a given performance.” Playing “Outside” May Be the Truest Form of Improvisation To evoke the metaphor. 2. Miles Davis surprised his band and disrupted routine by calling unrehearsed songs and choosing “foreign” keys. The evolution from New Orleans jazz to swing to bebop to postbop freer jazz forms can truly be viewed as a paradigm shift. the effectiveness of these examples was mitigated by those authors having to limit. and harmony emerge spontaneously. There are no harmonic or scalar constraints on what notes may be played. or renewing itself over time (although this does happen. Breaking the improvisation rules of the current genre is typically called playing “outside. p. produce what is often considered to be interesting and. breaking the rules regarding which notes are appropriate to play results in “noise” (Barret and Peplowski 1998). for example. They even challenged the basic concept of harmonic structure itself. Standard music training has students playing extensively in “difficult” keys. Sun Ra. or mutation. Those same “wrong” notes. The tunes have been played over and over. and form a shared language. there is very little to suggest that the performance of traditional swing jazz represents anything evolutionary. renewal. Even the “odd” modal tonality used by Davis in his prefusion period used the same scales. In swing jazz.4 The ability to transpose tunes among keys on the fly is considered a standard skill. beautiful dissonances as heard. Beginning in the 1960s. these disruptions more closely represented minor variation within a familiar structure (consistent with a swing-jazz notion of improvisation). however.

March–April 2000 . a skill he also applies to complex tunes.” However. it is the ability of Sonny Rollins to reharmonize that gives new life and meaning to these simple tunes. but he was able to construct a virtually infinite number of different combinations of those elements. Weick (1998) similarly suggested that discontinuity in the form of unusual harmonic structures applied to standard tunes may spark improvisation. or the rules of improvisation themselves as in postbop? While improvisation is grounded in forms and memory (Weick 1998). spontaneous act of creation of form rather than the individual creation within form. compare his albums Miles Smiles or Bitches Brew to his early bebop recordings). In some genres perhaps.” tunes not typically used for improvisation and which do not follow the standard chord progression of the tune “I Got Rhythm” (IGR). these tunes are as—or more—harmonically predictable and mundane than the standard IGR chord changes. or outside those forms? Variation on a theme. No. It takes a true master like Rollins to get anything new out of tunes like IGR or “Home on the Range. Barrett (1998) suggested that errors are an improvisational spark. therefore the range of improvisational behaviors may be greater than that suggested by Weick. Parker redefined improvisation by playing every conceivable combination of notes that fit within the harmonic form. Bebop experimented with those forms by extending the notion of what constitutes good harmonic structure. its harmonic structure. Improvisation. That is. Charlie Parker’s solos. Embellishment is the stuff of structured jazz—improvisation within a set of strong rules. and the actual sounds played. There is no “groove” in the traditional sense of jazz. While this is a good example of improvising the basic harmonic structure of a tune. 11. But the embellishment typified by swing jazz is just one limited form of variation. The pretext for improvisation becomes improvising a pretext for improvisation. it is not the simple tune that sparks the improvisation. He cites the example of Sonny Rollins reharmonizing tunes such as “Home on the Range” and “Tennessee Waltz. Bebop’s contribution to improvisation at that point was that within an accepted chord form there were many more notes that could sound good (if you were able to hear it that way) than were being played by more traditional musicians. But. he spontaneously improvises the harmonic structure (chords) as well as the notes. and transformed under the special conditions of performance. regardless of tune. is one notion of improvisation. But key questions that must be asked are: What is it that is unexpected? What is it that is being spontaneously composed? What is the depth to which the materials are being reworked? Are we talking about improvising notes over chords as in traditional jazz. 230 ORGANIZATION SCIENCE /Vol. The melody may be left unstated and remain open for improvisation. but it still acknowledged structure. an old concept used even within classical composition. would refer to the maximal innovation that comes from improvising the entire composition spontaneously: its premise. The groove comes from band members having a deep sense of oneness with the mutual. Taking the limited view of jazz expressed in this issue constrained Berliner’s (1994) interpretation of Konitz’s four stages of improvisation (cited by Weick 1998). Variation is the stuff of bebop—extending the notion of harmonic structure and the rules for picking good notes. 2. what does it mean to break the rules imposed by structure when you are improvising the structure and the rules themselves? There are no chordal structures by which to define a “bad” note. Thus improvisation does not always come out of a melody as pretext for real-time composing. as suggested by Weick (1998). There is no regular beat by which to define disorientation to the rhythm. new chords and harmonic structures as in bebop. its tonal language. ZACK Jazz Improvisation and Organizing postbop period by challenging the language and rules of improvisation themselves (for example. composing at the moment. Weick (1998) endorsed descriptions of improvisation that included working with the unexpected. and reworking precomposed material and designs in relation to unanticipated ideas conceived. Berliner did not conceive of improvisation as encompassing the basic structure of the tune itself. Perhaps this could be considered metaimprovisation. each improviser must determine to what extent they want to improvise—within those forms. shaped. Parker had phrases and statements he often repeated. for example.MICHAEL H. were not formless. Others went even further to challenge the notion of form itself. then. Interpretation is a matter of closely recreating a composition. with those forms.

or that order does not evolve from improvisation. The contention is around what we mean by “unprogrammed opportunity. and for some. No. Rehearsing the same old tunes using the same old chord changes does provide an ability to spontaneously create embellishment. not unlike the improvisational actors described by Mirvis (1998). and confusion that may merely represent unfamiliarity rather than chaos. and an understanding of the group’s purpose. Mirvis (1998) suggests that groups ORGANIZATION SCIENCE /Vol. exhilaration. 2. making fast. The speech may change slightly depending on the context and the speaker.” In traditional jazz and. and to accepting what they don’t know. And that may be quite appropriate to a particular jazz performance or business process. but find it to be a source of beauty. requires practicing communication that builds a deeply shared language.e. dedicated to innovation and the creation of novelty (p. interpreting that prescription depends on what we mean by improvisation. and creative freedom. Often the listener is not able to immediately make sense of the performance. Some like their music to be highly predictable. This is not unlike Barrett’s (1998) description of jazz groups as a model of diverse specialists living in a chaotic turbulent environment. that is a source of delight. Jazz Improvisation Is Like Conversation If organizations are like jazz. obstacle or hazard” seems to be right on target. highly interdependent on one another to interpret equivocal information. mission. But the Metaphor Needs Strengthening Weick’s quoting of Ryle’s (1979. while more conversational. 1992). represents a highly structured and predictable conversation guided by strong rules and expectations. given what they know about harmonic structure. 11. one part of which is to abhor complacency. This is a matter of tolerating ambiguity and equivocality. Swing jazz. and just accept it in the moment. Schegloff 1987. Rehearsing maximal improvisation. But again. to asking good questions. Enjoyment in listening to a performance comes from the ability to predict the harmonic progression and make sense of the improvised notes within that familiar harmonic context and set of improvisational rules. 605). some like it less so. Even free jazzers fall into familiar musical conversations. to some degree. March–April 2000 231 . bebop. and jazz is like a conversation (Weick 1998). A typical scripted conversation utilizing adjacency pairs might proceed as Me: Hello You: Hello Me: How are you? You: Fine Me: Have a good day Rehearse Improvisation Not Routine This is not to suggest that the ambiguous remains so indefinitely. unprogrammedness is a matter of choosing tonal sequences within a meaningful. the language and structure of innovation and improvisation. as done by symphonic orchestras. and belief system. highly predictable statement and response pairs) in linguistics (Goffman 1981. is like delivering a prepared speech. worldview.. but by and large it stays the same. They need to suspend judgment and interpretation to accept the apparent anarchy. irreversible decisions. practice improvisation. The exercises used by Second City (Mirvis 1998) are geared more towards expanding. noise. It is nonconversational. In freer forms of bebop and postbop jazz. but most want it to make enough harmonic and musical sense. Organizations need to be open to new ways of listening and observing. These listeners not only have a high tolerance for ambiguity. The amount of improvisation is minimal. ZACK Jazz Improvisation and Organizing The Spirit Is Right. 129) description of improvisation as “the pitting of an acquired competence or skill against unprogrammed opportunity. Straight interpretation of a music score. This is a matter of managing or tolerating uncertainty. unprogramedness is less a matter of predicting than of sense making. predefined structure. p.MICHAEL H. rather than reinforcing. This is analogous to strict turntaking and the use of adjacency pairs (i. and is often scripted (Gioia and Poole 1984). however. then perhaps we ought to look at organizations and jazz using the conversation as a framework. that they are not too surprised by the notes being played. They must suspend their interpretive process. stop looking for structures in memory by which to make sense of the performance.

Preallocating the order and length of turns is characteristic of ritualistic or ceremonial interaction (Schegloff 1987). and it is truly a fully connected conversation that has infinitely more possibilities. digressions. we do not express ourselves one word at a time. 2. There is a balance between past. lodging people together in an intersubjective world in which participants mutually and iteratively create meaning out of interaction (Goffman 1981. harmony and basic tune structure can be modified Maximal. the other members of the group are not merely comping. Bebop approaches this notion of conversation. mutually constructed conversation Dynamics Rigid Flexible Organic Improvisation Functional anarchy Chaotic Postbop You: Thanks Me: Bye You: Bye But most of us don’t talk like this most of the time. In more modern forms of jazz. and mutually constituted allocation of turntaking. as raised by Lewin. So too in jazz improvisation. as with less structured genres of jazz. playing the scripted chord changes as the soloist performs. and future and the simultaneous ongoing remarks of others. ZACK Jazz Improvisation and Organizing Figure 1 Genres of Improvisation Konitz’s Stages Interpretation Embellishment Variation Music Genre Classical Traditional jazz/swing Bebop Extent of Improvisation Minimal to none Constrained within strong structure Extensive. However. are found in the artful dialog of the theater and in novels . March–April 2000 . Four music genres (viz. Rather. classical. Rogers 1986. assigned metaphors of organizing and communication. and postbop) are described according to the extent of improvisation. content and structure emerge Organizing Metaphor Functional hierarchy Job shop/process platform Network Communication Metaphor Formal. p. but not exclusively. nonverbal cues. side quips. . linear Predictable but flexible scripts. No. swing. Ordinary talk ordinarily has less ping-pong (Goffman 1981. 11. Ordinary conversation is pervasively improvisational. spontaneous. As Goffman pointed out. . everyone is reacting to everyone else.. And as in real conversation. It is more interplay than dialog. but rather attempt to make full coherent sentences from entire thoughts. adjacency pairs Complex but structured conversation Emergent. Meaningful improvisation demands that the musician look ahead at what he or she will be playing so that the solo is not just a series of disconnected notes each decided only by the previous one. 232 ORGANIZATION SCIENCE /Vol. and remarks made out of sequence or embedded within other sequences. unpredictable. are mapped to Konitz’s stages. Conversation is retrospective in the sense that what one says creates a context for further communication. Those coherent thoughts are a product of prior conversation. implies a local. Tannen 1989).MICHAEL H. complete with interruptions. but rather a set of notes preconceived as a coherent whole. . bebop. predefined. structured. And interactive conversation. . Spontaneous conversation. emergent. present. 35). In Summary I have summarized these thoughts in Figure 1. is spontaneously constituted based on a compromise between future intention and past expression. the group may never return to the original point of departure. but it is most fully constituted within the free jazz genre. on the other hand. and labeled as to the extent of dynamism or flexibility. these types of conversational structures .

1973). tenth. eighth. It reflects the job-shop or platform approach to organizing and improvising and is conversationally reflective of the strict turntaking and adjacency pairs of ritualistic communication and scripted exchanges. • Postbop represents maximal improvisation of the content. We need to unpack the metaphor so that we don’t end up using it merely as a vehicle into which we force-fit our existing ways of thinking. Peplowski. and twelfth halftones plus the octave.e. Appropriately all composer credits are given as by The Fringe. The process of improvisation. Sci. 1998. 1998. 9(3) 449–459. I am saying that those elements that are open to improvisation go well beyond the notion of improvisation described in this issue. Options thinking and platform investments: Investing in opportunity.. Endnotes Alumnus of Berklee College of Music (http://www. J. No. 4 The Western tonal system is founded on a tonal interval call an octave. spontaneous. and do not intend this to be taken as criticism of the genre itself. Sci. Organ. structure. The remaining intermediate tones are what we call “sharps” (halftone above the nearest primary note) and “flats” (halftone below the nearest primary note). Its performance is characterized as variation and is related to a network form of organization engaging in complex but structured conversations. 9(5) 558–560. Jazz improvisation as a metaphor for organization theory. M. Lewin.. ORGANIZATION SCIENCE /Vol. and in the main they are simple melodic hooks 2 1 on which the players hang their personal statements. Philadelphia. 1981. Kulatilaka.. H. P. Gioia. K. P. 9(5) 560–561. A. Organ. either in jazz groups or other types of organizations. The major scale (i. K. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. P. and mutually constructed conversation. Peplowski. Sci.. Creativity and improvisation in jazz and organizations: Implications for organizational learning. ti. fifth. Paul F. do. (Winter) 52–71. and its performance is described as improvisation. New York.” Organ. merely because jazz is different. me. March–April 2000 233 . 565–568. A.MICHAEL H. 1994. fa. It reflects what may be best described as a functional anarchy5 engaged in emergent. Organ. Y.” (From the Amazon. Management Rev. do) is made up of the first. Kogut. B. References Barrett. Classical orchestras are similar to functional hierarchies engaged in structured. and rules of improvisation. The octave interval is divided into 12 “halftones. re. 9(5) 556–557. The Power of Product Platforms: Building Value and Cost Leadership. Acade. H. Organ. 1994. University of Pennsylvania Press. 3 “The trio’s musical outlook is free and all of the pieces at this concert were conceived on the spot. and its octave would be 880 Hz).g. This is the tonal distance between a given note and a second whose pitch (soundwave period) is exactly double that of the first note (e. Mirvis. A. 6 Chaos is used here in the sense of chaos theory. 1998. University of Chicago Press. Forms of Talk.6 I am not proposing that there is no negotiated structure or preexisting basis on which to communicate and improvise. Scripts in organizational behavior. hot. Let’s really improvise.berklee. 9(5) 586–592. la. It is probably worth noting here that I am a great fan of swing. Goffman. They are rigid. Sci. Berliner. F. and its performance is described as interpretation. predefined. • Swing represents constrained improvisation within a well-structured context. Sci 9(5) 605–622. J. D.edu). 5 The use of anarchy here refers to its definition as “a theory of the cooperative and voluntary association of individuals and groups as the principle mode of organized society” (Random House Dictionary of the English Language. and its performance is described as embellishment. ——. Minimal structures within a song: An analysis of “All of Me. third. and linear communication such as that of a speech. 9(5) 539. PA. but we must push it further. 1998. ZACK Jazz Improvisation and Organizing • Classical music represents minimal improvisation. 1998. The jazz metaphor is extremely useful. standard “middle A” is 440 Hz. N. 2. Its dynamics are chaos. The Free Press.. interactive. 1998. California Management Rev. Organ. Poole. sol. Chicago. Lehnerd. which treats chaos as effectively unpredictable behavior arising within a minimally deterministic nonlinear dynamical system. 1984. sixth. 1997. 11. Practice innovation.com review notes to The Fringe’s album It’s Time for The Fringe).. M. E. IL. Jazz as a metaphor for organizing in the 21st Century. Hatch. and using it as a metaphor sounds hip. Sci. It is organic. It offers structural flexibility • Bebop represents extensive modification of the tune using a wider range of notes and rhythm and may involve some modification to the harmonic structure of the tune itself. Meyer. or cool. P.” each with a soundwave set at a precise mathematical ratio to the starting tone.

London. New York. B. Sanchez. Berkeley. A. 121–130. J. Schegloff. J. Amer. Blackwell. E. N. K. Repair after next turn: The last structurally provided defense of intersubjectivity in conversation. E. and Imagery in Conversational Discourse. 1996. 1979. 207–234. Ryle. 1987. 11. J. Talking Voices: Repetition. 9(5) 543–555. Dialog. University of California Press. J. received January 1999. eds. March–April 2000 . M. 1992. The Micro-Macro Link. No. Alexander. E. On Thinking. Accepted by Alan Meyer. CA. Strategic Management J. The Free Press. ——. This paper was with the author for one revision. Between macro and micro: Contexts and other connections.MICHAEL H. Cambridge University Press. Mahoney. of Soc. R. Sci. 1989. 17 (Winter Special Issue) 63–77. Improvisation as a mindset for organizational analysis. and knowledge management in product and organization design. flexibility. Tannen. 1986. Cambridge. G. 234 ORGANIZATION SCIENCE /Vol. Smalser.. D. 97(5) 1295–1245. Giesan. Communication Technology. 2. UK. ed. C. Modularity. G. R. ZACK Jazz Improvisation and Organizing Rogers. Improvisation. Munch. England. Organ. T. Ryle. Weick. 1998.