Imagine artful jazz as a metaphor for more effective community. Sound crazy? This morning I read from a book by Dwight Zscheile.* I invite you to read along with me and wonder.
Jazz offers a better metaphor. Jazz is less about executing a predetermined script than it is about improvisation, whose Latin root improvises means “not seen ahead of time.” Jazz is about learning while doing, embracing imperfection, trying things out, and pushing boundaries—but all within shared structures and patterns. It is about collaboration and accompaniment, freedom and innovation.
Jazz is built on shared expectations and commonalities: the basic structure of a melody, rhythm, or song. These minimal structures provide the groundwork for improvisation. Jazz is fundamentally social, a collaborative effort among several musicians, and in so doing it creates space for a certain amount of autonomy and self-expression. Jazz only works when the musicians engage in “generous listening”—“an unselfish openness to what the other is offering and a willingness to help others be as brilliant as possible.” Accompanying, or “comping” for short in the language of jazz, is about sharing together in an emerging future:
Organizational members have to make room for one another, suspend efforts to manipulate and control outcomes, relinquish investment in predetermined plans, and often surrender familiar protocols. To agree to comp, in other words, is to accept an invitation of openness and wonderment to what unfolds.
This happens in part through the cycle of shared solos, where each member of a jazz ensemble takes turns improvising on themes while supported by others.
Such improvisations often breaks expectations through pushing boundaries and making mistakes. Miles Davis once said, “If you are not making a mistake, it is a mistake.” Barrett urges dual aesthetics of imperfection and forgiveness that are grounded in an underlying confidence in the group. Control simply doesn’t work in jazz. Jazz is about acting and paying attention to what unfolds, while being willing to “court disaster” by surrendering to the music and its possibilities, even as this takes the players to places that disrupt expectations. This requires trust in one another and in the music that is emerging.
The words Zscheile uses to connect the concepts of artful jazz with more effective community are too numerous for me to recap in this short post. But I invite you to take another look and wonder with me. Here are a few questions around what I’m thinking about…
- What separates artful jazz from chaos? What separates artful community from chaos?
- What are the “shared structures and patterns” of our community that inform how we might artfully (effectively) “accompany” one another?
- How must we frame “mistakes” so that conscious experimentation around more effective community is given space for “imperfection”?
- What are more effective jazz bands trusting their fellow musicians to bring to a performance? How is that trust built? What are more effective communities trusting their fellow citizens to be bringing to the community experience? How is that type of trust being noted and affirmed?
*Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church, Morehouse Publishing, 2014 (pp 107, 108).