Cultural Style: Jazz & B’ball, Classical & Football, and Beyond

10 Aug

This is a set of out-takes from my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. In this passage I’m pursing a notion from mid-20th Century, an idea that provided Ruth Benedict for the title of her best-known book: Patterns of Culture. The title conveys the idea: cultures aren’t arbitrary collections of attitudes, activities, and traits; in matters large, small, and in-between they display patterns.

I begin with a passage that contrasts jazz and classical music on the one hand with basketball and football on the other, where jazz and basketball embody one style while classical music and football embody a different style. I then continue with a series of passages that move on from that to general styles of corporate organization, contrasting the hierarchical industrial corporation with the flatter and more fluid style that has emerged in high tech companies. I conclude some brief observations from my experience with one such company.

* * * * *

First, confining ourselves to the expressive sphere, let’s consider two brief examples from sports, which is, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger society. It is not difficult to see a thematic similarity between classical music and football, on the one hand, and jazz and basketball, on the other hand.

Football involves highly specialized players organized into elaborately structured units, enacting preplanned plays, and directed by a quarterback representing the coach/composer. Each team has eleven players on the field at a time, with the players being trained for very specialized roles. There is an offensive squad and a defensive squad—not to mention special-purpose units for executing and returning kicks. Each of these squads is, in turn, divided into a line and a backfield, with further specialization in each of these divisions. The offensive team is headed by the quarterback while the defense is similarly directed by one of the backfield players. The flow of the game is divided into four quarters each of which is punctuated by the individual plays of the game. The plays are divided into sets of four, called “downs”, with the players conferring between plays to decide what to do on the next play, or, at least, to confirm instructions sent in by the coach.

Basketball uses a smaller number of players, five, whose roles are less rigorously specialized. There is no distinction between offensive and defensive squads. And, while there are differentiated roles—a center, two guards and two forwards—this differentiation is not nearly so extensive as that in football. For example, on the offensive squad in football, there is a dramatic distinction between the interior line, whose players do not routinely handle the ball, and the backfield, whose players are supposed to handle the ball. No such distinction exists in basketball; all players are expected to handle the ball and to score. Beyond this, basketball involves a free flowing style of play which is quite different from discrete plays of football.

It makes sense to think of a football game as being composed while a basketball game is improvised. In both cases, the coaches ultimately decide how the came is to be played. But the roles of basketball players are, essentially, more fluid and various than those of football players, giving the individual players considerably more autonomy on the playing field. A football coach can easily intervene after each play, and does so routinely after each set of downs. Basketball coaches cannot, and do not, intervene so directly and so often. Consequently, the basketball team exercises a higher level of decision-making than the football team ordinarily does. African-Americans dominate basketball and, while they are prominent in football, they have been kept from the key role of quarterback, the director of the coach’s composition. Football is still largely a European-American sport, reflecting European-American cultural patterns.

Given this analysis of football and basketball, it is clear that, if we compare these two sports to music, then football resembles classical music while basketball resembles jazz. Football is composed while basketball is improvised. The football coach, of his defensive and offensive representatives, calls the plays according to a preset plan. The individual players then execute their specific assignment in each play. Basketball coaches act more like the jazz composer/arranger, who creates a melody and a set of chord changes, and then lets the players improvise their own moves for finding their way through the tune. The coach sets guidelines about the pace and style of the game, but game itself unfolds so fast that the players are responsible for the moves they make.

* * * * *

Let us continue by contrasting the performance paradigms of some largely European styles with those of big band and small group jazz. Symphony orchestras and military bands are relatively large organizations, often with fifty or more players and they are organized into distinct sections within an overall hierarchy. Thus symphonies consist of a string section, a brass section, a woodwind section and a percussion sections while military bands have brass, woodwind, and percussion sections. Each of these sections may be further subdivided. A director presides over the whole organization. Music for these groups is completely composed; there is no improvisation. Individuals within the ensemble may have short solos, but those do not constitute a major feature of the musical style. Where a soloist is to be featured, a special kind of music is called-for, the concerto.

Big band jazz was performed by groups of twelve to perhaps twenty musicians organized into a brass section, a saxophone section, and a rhythm section. While such bands generally had leaders, the leader often performed from within the band—think of Ellington or Basie at the piano—rather than being in front of the band doing nothing but conduct the music. Soloists played a prominent role in these bands, with one or more soloists being featured in each number. The soloist generally improvised his solo, though he often played pretty much the same solo on different occasions. On the whole, the form is not so rigid as that of the symphony orchestra or military band.

This is the style of jazz that reigned during the thirties and forties, when jazz as the dominant form of popular music. The teenagers who danced to this music are the parents of children who grew up dancing to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and later, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

While early jazz was often performed by small ensembles—such as Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recording groups—it became replaced by big-bands late in the 1920s. But small ensembles once again came into prominence with bebop in the mid-forties and has remained the main ensemble form for subsequent styles. These groups generally have three to five or six players and are based on improvised solos. The basic format is simple. The front line—one, two, or three horns—plays the melody at the beginning and at the end of a tune. In between we have one solo after another, each solo being improvised. Small band jazz is the the freest and most improvisational of these musical forms.

It is not difficult to see a rough analogy between the large hierarchical corporations that dominated industrial American economic life for most of the century. At the bottom of these corporations we have large numbers of workers performing cookie-cutter tasks on assembly lines or in clerical pools. These activites are directed by a cadre of middle-managers who are, in turn, ruled by a small handfull of executives. Authority is important, top-down direction is ubiquitous.

By contrast, consider the young corporations of the high-tech world that has emerged over the last three decades or so. These corporations seem close to the jazz model,a model, however, that was eclipsed a quarter of a century before these corporations emerged. Consider the advice of current management gurus about the need for a very fluid corporate structure, one which changes quickly and has multifunctional workers organized into relatively flat structures. In Liberation Management Tom Peters uses the carnival as one of his key metaphors. Carnivals run lean, quickly adapt to changing markets, and have employees who play multiple roles. Carnivals, and the corporation of the twenty-first century, are improvisatory. Likewise, when Michael Maccoby talks of the need for “corporate men and women who can work interdependently within a corporate structure that stimulates and rewards individual initiative and continual improvement” he describes a pattern of vigorous individuality in service of a group creation which is a fundamental requirement of jazz.

Duke Ellington’s sidemen were all individualists who played their best music in Ellington’s band; leaders such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis were known for so successfully fostering the growth of their musicians that many of them went on to become leaders themselves. Jazz culture stresses the importance of finding your own voice, your own style, even to the basic sound you get from your instrument. In contrast, classical culture stresses adherence to an ideal sound and must necessarily stress adherence to fully specified roles.

* * * * *

I note that Apple Computer’s evangelistic “we’re changing the world” style certainly derives from the rock-driven counter-culture of the sixties. And that style is certainly not confined to Apple. Anyone who has spent much time in programming shops knows that many computer programmers are musicians. In fact, some of the most technical minds in the industry are also well-known for their muscial interests. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, took time off from Apple to promote rock concerts. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, hired Frank Gehry to design the museum he established to honor Jimi Hendrix. Philippe Kahn, founder of Borland Software, was a mathematician by training who played and recorded as a jazz soprano saxophonist. Finally, Alan Kay, the computer scientist who created of the GUI interface while working for Xerox, put himself through college as a jazz musician. Thus when Microsoft choose the Rolling Stone’s “Start Me Up” as the theme song for the roll-out of their Windows 95 operating system, they were playing to the core values of their market.

Such anecdotes do not a historical truth make. But they are telling anecdotes. Based both on my experience in the industry and my reading about it, my general impression is that these little factoids could be multiplied many times over. Thus I want to suggest that there is a connection between high technology and the improvisatory style that moved into cultural prominence with jazz back in the 20s and 30s and which has continued, in one way or another.

During the sixties rock and roll was in full flower, as was the anti-war movement and the so-called counter-culture. At the same time, the computer came of age. Computer courses began appearing in colleges during the middle sixties. Over the years some students would become captivated by computers and become hackers, living for computing the way their Dionysian counterparts lived for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Hacking developed into a counter culture of its own. Yet, it shared a theme with the more publicized world of the flower-bedecked hippies: mind-expansion. The hippies sought mind expansion in drugs and meditation; the hackers sought it in doing vastly clever things with computers, even attempting to make the machines think. Personal computers and video games were invented in the late seventies and some of the hackers went into big business, and some of those had counter-cultural dreams of changing the world through computers. During the middle eighties computers would meet reggae and rock and roll in the world of science fiction, yielding cyberpunk, which made its debut with William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer—a novel remote in sensibility from George Orwell’s 1984.

What I am suggesting is that, while direct African-American influence in the world of computing has been small, that there is an indirect influence. The world of computing has been created by people whose foreparents danced the Lindy in the 1930’s and the Jitterbug in the 1950’s. The counter-culture of the sixties was nominally about sex, drugs, rock and roll, and getting out of Vietnam, but it also has links to the world of computing.

One way to begin tracing those links is to follow the work of Stewart Brand, whose The Last Whole Earth Catalog published in 1971 quickly became something of a counter-culture bible. Brand published subsequent updates and established a quarterly magazine, The Coevolution Quarterly, which became The Whole Earth Review. In 1984 Brand published the Whole Earth Software Catalog, a guide to personal computing. More recently Brand (1987) wrote a book about MIT’s Media Lab. More recently, Paul Levinson has reminded me, Brand had a role in founding Wired, a computer culture magazine with a graphic and verbal style deeply indebted to the rock culture of the psychedelic sixties.

* * * * *

This similarity between high-tech management and improvisation is more than an abstraction to me. I have some direct experience of this relationship. A decade ago I spent two years writing technical documentation for MapInfo, Corp., which makes software for geographic data analysis. While the sixty to eighty mostly-young employees were not cut from the same mold—salespersons and programmers, for example, tend to be quite different—rock and roll was certainly the musical common denominator. After all, most of the employees were born After Elvis. Sean O’Sullivan, one of the young founders and formerly Chairman of the Board, would end many of his electronic mail communications with an exhortation to “rock and roll.” Half a year after I left, he resigned to pursue a career in rock and roll. Further, to adapt to its rapid growth MapInfo revised its management structure at least two times in the two years I was employed there and two times again in the year and a half after I left. Change was explicitly recognized as being essential to survival. Being able to initiate change thus becomes a competitive advantage.

* * * * *

This improvisatory high technology and these improvisatory corporations are not, for the most part, owned and managed by African Americans. Thus they exhibit a pattern which reverses that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. finds in various important African-American novels (for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man). These novels use Western form to express African-American content. The high-tech corporations have an African-American style with a European-American technological content and management. Between the informal mores and prejudices of the corporate world and the unfortunate relationship between much of African America and the educational system, the corporate world remains largely European American. However, to the extent that these more fluid corporations are run by relatively young men and women, they are run by people who have, for example, grown up listening and dancing to rock and roll and have thus been significantly influenced by African-American expressive style.

One final contrast suggests itself. Classical music is the expression of a fully formed culture. Europe was under no pressure to conform to any standards other than its own. We know what a fully realized compositional culture and society are like. Jazz, however, is the creation of people under constant pressure to conform to conditions imposed on them. As Martin Williams asserted in his essay on “The Meaning of a Music”, “Jazz is the music of a people who have been told by their circumstances that they are unworthy. And in jazz, these people discover their own worthiness.” There is a sense, then, that jazz is the most advanced creation of an improvisational culture which has not yet fully revealed and realized itself. Whether or not the next century will see that realization is question as open as it is exciting.

* * * * *

So much for the out-takes from Beethoven’s Anvil. I only note that however much high-tech industry has absorbed, re-created, and re-discovered of the fluid and improvisatory world of jazz, it still exists within a larger institutional structure that is rooted in 18th and 19th Century European culture and social organization. That’s the world of Classical Music, of the Three-B’s, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahams, but also the world of the steam engine, the Industrial Age, and the British Empire, on which the sun finally managed to set. But the forms of that world have given us industrial corporations and financial institutions “too big too fail” in a fragile world where failure is inevitable.

We need to downsize, so the inevitable failures are local, not global. But that’s another post, and more.


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