Miles Knows Marketing

by , Feb 14, 2014, 8:00 AM
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This week I watched a video of a presentation at Harvard by jazz keyboard legend Herbie Hancock. He talked about Miles Davis' sage advice about musicianship and improvisation. 

Hancock talks about a couple of screw-ups he made during jazz concerts with Davis. In one, the band was jamming along, in the groove, when suddenly Hancock hit a sour chord -- a glaringly (and blaringly) obvious stumble. Davis could have easily been thrown by that, especially as he had just embarked on a solo stretch. Instead, according to Hancock, Davis listened, instantly adapted and found a way to play his solo within the chord Hancock had played. 

What we have here is not a failure to communicate. What Davis did was improvise, play a trumpet line based partly on listening and responding in real-time. He did it on the fly, making Hancock look good in the process. Jazz musicians might make a good digital marketing experts: they know how to listen, experiment and collaborate. And they know how to reach people, and react to people and not judge themselves too harshly when they hit a sour note. Nobody's perfect -- not even Miles.  

I spoke to a jazz bassist and an actor this week, both of whom talked about the art of listening: the former was talking about how, for a good musician, playing means knowing how to respond in the moment to the ensemble. Same exact drill for the actor, who happens to teach the Meisner technique (an approach to acting that's all about listening and responding). The benefit of listening in both areas is it gets your mind off of yourself and your performance and supports the endeavor. A solipsistic group endeavor is a contradiction in terms, but it happens far too often in music, acting, marriage, work, and probably marketing. 

And the other thing Davis told Hancock, and it's probably obvious to any jazz musician (or, to be Olympics-oriented, downhill skiers, ice skaters, snowboarders, and maybe even curlers): don't over-think an opportunity, or a moment. That might not be the kind of sage advice you'd get from a big-data vendor but it's good advice. If you think too much, you develop binoculars instead of eyes. And you miss the boat. Or the train, in my case.

I lost out this morning because I over-thought a situation. I was on New York's A train heading uptown, amazed because the trains were actually working in the midst of winter storm Ajax, or whatever they're calling this, and I was running late for an appointment. I was lucky we were moving. So I thought. Suddenly, we stopped at 42nd. Stopped dead. "There's congestion in front of us, we hope to be moving shortly" (No shit. Like they're going to say "we hope to be moving next week"?) Anyway, we sat, and sat, and then a C train pulled up across the platform.

Should I take it? What if I run over there, get on that train, and suddenly this one pulls out and that one just sits there and I have to listen to some other moron say, "We hope to be moving shortly." I decided to risk it and take the C. I stood up. Too late. the door closed. The C left. Then our train moved. And then it stopped. Dead, but this time in the tunnel, so I was screwed. And I sat there watching as about six C trains shot past. Why, why, why did I think so much?   

The other thing Hancock talked about was a gig with Davis where he — Hancock — was playing really boring standard chords. Davis came up to him and whispered, "Don't play the butter notes." Hancock said he had to think about that for a minute. "What the hell are butter notes?" Then he figured correctly that butter notes are the obvious ones (the ones you know from music class: 1, 3, 5 and 7.) Davis was saying play the off notes -- the 2nd, 4th, 6th degrees of the scale, and their higher extensions.

After a while, if you play any jazz standards using the boring notes, they tell you to play on those crappy music sheets and you start to feel like Perry Como, nothing against Perry Como. You get into a much more interesting, dynamic, area when you go outside of the safe, "officially condoned" area. That also holds a message for the marketing and communications business: don't harp on the 1, 3, 5 and 7. Play the off notes. Surprise people. Do what you aren't supposed to do. There are many examples out there of this. That's what the Super Bowl is for, right?

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