I live in Rochester, NY, and we just finished the annual International Jazz Festival.
It’s a highlight of our region, featuring famous and not-so-famous, extraordinarily talented musicians. It opened with concerts by Bonnie Raitt and Pat Metheny.
Jazz is a fascinating art form. It is a quintessentially American musical genre, reflecting historical and cultural trends of the early 20th century; a real product of its time that has grown to include the riffs and additions of artists in subsequent generations.
Jazz is fascinating. It’s a varied genre, ranging from the immediately resonant emotional lines of the blues to the often complex, often improvised, seemingly chaotic phrasing of more modern compositions.
My graduate school advisor wrote a book about the cultural history of jazz, and in his course, I learned a lot about how it (and other institutions) developed in uniquely American cultural contexts.
I was thinking about it the other day in another context: Career.
While working on materials showcasing a client’s varied career, I reflected on how our backgrounds can be like jazz. They can seem simple, and yet defy classification because of the many twists and turns they often take. They can become a kind of orchestral expression of our interests, decisions, and experiences.
We grow over time, adjusting emphases, and composing our career stories. And this is a perspective that can be useful for you as embark upon your job search.
Consider what you’re doing:
🎺Improvisation: This is a defining characteristic of jazz, and often, our careers. Jazz musicians often create and perform music at the moment, spontaneously generating melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. We do, too. We decide to take different jobs or assume different roles. We train in different areas and expand our skills as we contribute more over time.
This improvisational element allows for personal expression and individuality within the performance, and also within our lives and careers.
🎺Swing and Syncopation: Jazz is known for its rhythmic feel, often referred to as “swing.” It’s a subtle subdivision of beats within a relaxed, propulsive groove. This is where we find the accents and offbeat rhythms that create an unexpected and lively feel.
🎺Over time, we start doing the same things in our careers. We fall into a groove, becoming experts at what we do, and we start getting more creative as we encounter more problems to solve.
🎺Expressive Techniques: Emotion and intensity infuse jazz with its expressiveness. Vibrato, glissando, bent notes, and the use of growls or mutes in brass instruments all lend the music its engaging quality and enhance its individuality and depth.
In the same way, we have our individual perspectives on the projects we are involved in. As we grow, we contribute our perspectives to help the business meet its objectives.
🎺Complex Harmonies: Jazz harmonies are sophisticated and complex, composed of extended chords, altered chords, and chord substitutions, sometimes beyond traditional diatonic progressions. Jazz musicians create rich and colorful textures.
As we work with our teams and partner with allied professionals, we do the same sort of thing. To create a product, hone a service, forge into new markets, and solve new problems as we combine our ways of seeing and doing into an integrated whole.
🎺Call and Response: Jazz often incorporates this African musical tradition. Musicians engage in musical “conversations,” one instrument or musician “calling” with a musical phrase, and another “responding” with a musical statement. It adds an interactive, dynamic quality to jazz performances.
This is what do in life, too. We ask for help. We toss up a suggestion and see what responses emerge to help us process it. At work, this can be a great method for building on each other’s ideas to create change.
🎺Blue Notes and Expressive Pitch: You often hear “blue notes”—microtonal variations, often slightly flattened or bent—within jazz. They add bluesy expressiveness. I see the parallel with the work environment in the contributions of individuals who identify aspects of a project that others may not
🎺Ensemble Interaction: And finally, jazz is often an ensemble endeavor in which musicians interact and engage in collective improvisation. It requires deep listening and response to each other; creation of a musical dialogue.
Successful companies know they have to do the same thing as jazz musicians if they want to achieve their missions. They need people with varied skill sets and a range of experiences who can help them see a situation from multiple perspectives.
Remember that employers need you to help them create solutions. They need you in the band.
When you are looking back over your career, recognize that you have made many contributions to the companies that hired you. You have been a member of these ensembles of experts who work together to solve problems and bring new ideas to life. Think about how you have done that and gather some examples you can talk about.
When you are talking to an employer about your career, remember your examples. This may help you present yourself as a contributor, instead of someone hoping to be “given” a job.
It also may help you feel like you are having a “real” conversation with the hiring team about the business; presenting yourself as the piece that will bring it all together.
The result can be a beautiful synergy for you both!
Thinking of your career as a jazz performer can inform your presentation and launch you toward creating and expressing that soulful and effective “composition” that resonates with customers across the globe—and win you the job.