I’m not a skilled jazz musician. In fact, I played the violin for many years and was part of a youth orchestra – there was no room for improvisation in that setting! However, I have always loved jazz.
Jazz is a great metaphor for constructive approaches to conflict. There is also so much we can learn from the great jazz musicians that we can apply to our work as practitioners, supporting people in conflict.
Jazz needs tension and creates something beautiful out of chaos.
Jazz involves the build up of tension followed by a creative release. I love that moment when you think it’s not going to work, you’re almost holding your breath, and suddenly the musicians pull it together and it’s amazing! As Wynton Marsalis describes it: “It’s all messed up right now, but it’s going to be cool”!
Jazz needs tension in order to work. In jazz, the idea is not to avoid or eliminate tension. Rather, the musicians engage with the tension and negotiate it, working together to create something beautiful.
Doesn’t that sound like a perfect analogy for constructive conflict? Something that we need for creativity and innovation, that needs to be embraced and also managed carefully together.
Everyone needs to listen to each other, exchange ideas and find mutual inspiration.
Each time the musicians play, a new kind of tension arises, and a different kind of resolution happens. This is what makes each jazz performance unique. There’s not a pre-determined script or outcome. The musicians need to be able to listen to teach other, exchange ideas and find mutual inspiration. Jazz is about being comfortable with uncertainty and surprise, and working with both to create something unique.
Jazz improvisation is the musical equivalent of the phrase “yes, and”. When a player creates tension, the other musicians do not try to shut that down or pretend it’s not happening; rather, they build on it to move in new and unexpected directions. Sometimes this is a brilliant change of direction, sometimes it doesn’t quite work out. Each musician needs to be able to play through and with uncertainty and sometimes chaos! They need to support each other to be independently creative in their solos and chosen musical pathway, but they also need to work together to collectively pull together in the end. This often requires accommodating the bumps and failures during musical experimentation. Musicians allow each other to try things out, and then support each other to get back on track when required.
Again, what a lovely metaphor for positive responses to conflict. We don’t respond to failures and mistakes with blame and isolation; rather, we use them as a learning opportunity and one in which we all support each other to resolve.
In order to be flexible, you need to build on a solid foundation.
While jazz often seems quite chaotic, it’s not complete anarchy. There is an underlying structure and understanding between the players that supports experimentation and creativity. The players are not making it up out of nothing – there is a lot of preparation and practice and knowledge about what choices are available to you. Wynton Marsalis explains “in jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary. There’s no right or wrong, just some choices that are better than others”.
I think this is also important advice for mediators and other people who support those in conflict. You can’t just make it up or mash together a few good tools. You need to understand the purpose of the tools and have an overriding theoretical or philosophical framework. Once you have a solid understanding of the basics, and some skills built from experience, then you might be able to be flexible and adapt what you are doing to suit the particular client and situation.
Another jazz musician (I think it was Duke Ellington, but I can’t find the exact quote) said something like “I studied music for a while, but it got in the way of my playing”. I think this is also an important lesson. Sticking rigidly to the process, “how we do things”, sometimes holds us back. In order to learn, to adapt, to grow, we sometimes need to branch out and go beyond the basics, even to question and challenge the normal process. However, as I mentioned before, we don’t do this randomly and hope for the best. We use what we know and our strong foundations in theory and purpose to make appropriate choices based on a changing situation.
I’ll leave you with the words of Herbie Hancock – “The spirit of jazz is the spirit of openness”.
Gret Katz (2008) Through Jazz, Bringing Mediation ‘Fresh to Life’
John W. Cooley (2007) Mediation, improvisations, and all that jazz. https://scholarship.law.missouri.edu/jdr/vol2007/iss2/1
Greg Thomas, Primary Principles of Jazz (2020)
Rob Asghar, The Jazz Principle: Why good leaders celebrate uncertainty.
A Passion for Jazz, Jazz Improvising, what is it?