Leading by Listening: A Big Band Jazz Odyssey | From the Ombuds

A jazz band rehearsing, focus on cornet
JAN. 10, 2023

Over the past few weeks, I have been prepping a new Honors seminar about jazz history, which has let me become more acquainted with music that I have long adored. It also offered me some insights that I can deploy in my day job as Ombuds, via the opportunity to critically consider differing styles of leadership and collaboration by bandleaders. Given the Ombuds Office’s emphasis on promoting effective collaboration—and keeping in mind that the top issue brought to the office continues to be communication with or from a supervisor—I couldn’t help but seeing a few patterns that I would like to share.

Jazz is usually defined by collective improvisation, with absolute artistic freedom balanced against predetermined structures. A hierarchically organized workplace, which our university essentially is, by necessity dances the same dance. At every level, there is room for individual initiative that balances against top-down performance directives.

There is no perfect formula that prescribes just how much room for autonomy is enough—or too much. Jazz band leaders themselves were not in agreement; some were notorious for their strictness, for embracing a “my way or the highway” approach. In The History of Jazz (the text for my course, and an excellent survey of the music for students and nonstudents alike), Ted Gioia recounts a story of New Orleans pioneer Jelly Roll Morton’s recording session disagreement with trombonist Zue Robertson. After Robertson insisted on playing a particular section by his own, rather than Morton’s dictate, Morton, who was both the composer and the name on the marquee, responded by retrieving a “large pistol” from his pocket and placing it on his piano. The following take, Robertson played exactly what Morton asked.

That’s not the kind of intimidation we typically see in higher education these days, but its is possible to compel obedience without brandishing a pistol. And it’s worth it to say that, while few who know his music doubt Morton’s genius, he is not the most fondly remembered leader in jazz history. Is alienating collaborators in service of an artistic vision justified when it leads to Morton’s body of work? That’s a debate to have. The question for us is whether any of the work we do, as important as it may be, demands that level of control. And it raises the question of what we are really arguing about—the end product itself, or the means to achieve that end?

Indeed, there is plenty of room for personal autonomy even within the most exacting artistic conception. Case in point: Duke Ellington, who led a big band, even when it was not a money-making proposition, for the better part of a half century. Ellington, who should be in the conversation as the greatest American composer of the 20th century, kept several of his sidemen for decades. Some who left to become bigger stars were welcomed warmly back years later. And it’s not just because he didn’t pack heat when rehearsing the band.

No, there’s a deeper contrast here. Where Jelly Roll Morton repeatedly boasted that he was the “World’s Greatest Hot Tune Writer” (the phrase appeared on his business card), Ellington confessed in his 1973 autobiography that he was “the world’s greatest listener.” As Gioia explains, by being attuned to what his sidemen could do, he was able to create “a body of music that not only reflected the character of his players but was perfectly suited to their strengths and weaknesses.” The real instrument he composed on, it has been said, was not the piano but the orchestra itself. In other words, he was able to create a structure that got the best out of everyone in the band.

This isn’t easy, and there is plenty of risk involved. It is hard to imagine “Warm Valley” without Johnny Hodges’ alto. What happened when Hodges left the band? Ellington had plenty of alto players to choose from, but none could sound like Hodges. Luckily, Hodges eventually came back, but it’s worth asking: would the Ellington orchestra be truly “beyond category” (the composer’s ultimate compliment for a musician) if its leader, afraid of what might happen if his good sidemen left, wrote stock arrangements not suited to their individual excellence? It goes without saying, no.

Closer to home, we sometimes hear a similar argument made against investing in professional development: “But what if our best people leave?” The answer is usually, “Yes, but what if our worst people stay?” The world would be a lesser place if we didn’t have “Cotton Tail” because Duke Ellington was afraid that such a perfect feature would elevate tenor saxophonist Ben Webster’s profile and lead him out of the band. But then Ellington might not have had the opportunity to listen to Paul Gonsalves, whose firey solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” sparked a career revival for Ellington.

That’s not to say that Ellington wasn’t a demanding leader. But his listening sets him apart. Here, another comparison suggests itself: Benny Goodman, whose perfectionist tendencies, while they led to excellence in the recording studio and on stage, did not foster longevity. “His angry glare at underperforming musicians became so famous,” Gioia writes, “it even got a name: the Ray.” Goodman was an excellent musician and brave leader who demolished barriers in American music, and had a keen ear for talent—just a few examples being Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, Harry James, Charlie Christian, and Lionel Hampton. But he seems to have lacked Ellington’s exceptional ability to not just hear what others played, but to really listen to what they were capable of playing. Tenures in his band were measured in weeks or months, rather than years and decades.

At the core, Morton and Ellington had two contrasting views of jazz ensemble composing: Morton, using the band to make the music within him a reality, and Ellington, hearing new possibilities from his band and adjusting his compositions accordingly. They both have their times and places, but it seems that the collaborative nature of much of academia could lend itself more readily to an Ellingtonian inclination.

On its face, what I’ve just shared is meant for leaders—a plea for them to listen more carefully to those they work with. But it can have meaning for all of us, even those not in formal leadership positions. Can we listen to those around us, trying to help build relationships that are suited to our mutual strengths and compensate for our mutual weaknesses?

It’s not always that easy—in fact it almost never is—but listening can be a good place to start. And if you would like someplace to share what you have heard and to talk about options, you can always visit the Ombuds Office.

Whether you are a student, faculty member, or other UNLV employee, the Ombuds Office has many resources available to help you through any conflict you might be facing. If you are having an issue and are uncertain where to go, it is an excellent zero-barrier first stop.  If you would like to talk privately and confidentially about any work- or campus-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds. At the very least, you’ll spend some time with someone whose biggest current aspiration is to be the world’s greatest listener.

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