Leadership and Modal Jazz

23 Dec

The Dorian Mode … Team Leadership via Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage or The Modal Jazz Idiom … An Applied Artistic Expression of Right-Sized Leadership

Summary: Modern workplace managers would increase their leadership effectiveness by trusting well-built teams offering guidance but not smothering team effort with micro-management. While a simple proposition, it’s rarely achieved. Looking to the post-bop modal jazz movement in America during its artistic peak in the 1960s, this essay compares Herbie Hancock’s highly articulated band leadership style with the well-balanced goal of modern management.

Maiden Voyage (Hancock).jpg

On his “Maiden Voyage” recording, Herbie Hancock strikes a minor eleventh chord (Am9/D) and establishes his voice creating a rhythmic ostinato variation on the bossa nova rhythm. He simply sets the tone and then Freddie Hubbard and George Coleman take it from there. With Ron Carter and Tony Williams setting the foundation, the quintet improvises their way through a now classic jazz standard.

The title track “Maiden Voyage” is a beautiful song in its balance and simplicity. For me, the amazing part is that Herbie jumps in when required resetting the tone, calibrating the voice of the band, and then fading out as his band drives on. Herbie was just enough … never getting in the way of greatness. Herbie was the perfect leader on “Maiden Voyage”.

It seems the best leaders are those that rather than dictate by setting parameters and then getting their teams to push through exploring the best way towards an objective.

Leading a team is hard … really hard. While studies have shown that an elementary teacher makes more decisions on a daily basis than any other profession … I believe a corporate front-line leader is a close second. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Anyone can be named a manager of a team but only a few take the time and effort to learn the strengths of their team and then work like hell to create an environment that juices full throttle performance from every team member.

Herbie demonstrated this sort of next level leadership on his recording sessions for the Maiden Voyage album in 1965. However, Herbie was a young jazz musician just breaking away from the shadow of Miles Davis. In fact, Herbie was just building his leadership model on the Maiden Voyage sessions. With all the success possible … the prospects of failure was real.

In May 1965, Herbie and his quintet booked the already legendary Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio to cut a new album. On May 11, Herbie and his crack squad of sidemen ran through several takes for a few songs but it never really clicked. Freddie Hubbard was on cornet and Stu Martin was on drums. What Herbie heard in his head was not on tape yet and something had to change. By the end of the week, Herbie had Freddie on trumpet and brought in a new drummer … Tony Williams. What resulted on May 17 was an epic session that produced the seminal Maiden Voyage widely regarded as a cornerstone jazz album of the 20th century.

That Am9/D chord starts the opening track “Maiden Voyage”. Upon the album’s release and that very chord, Herbie broke through Davis’ shadow and established himself as a preeminent composer and bandleader. May 17 was a good day for Herbie and a great example of right-sized leadership.

What strikes me about “Maiden Voyage” and all the great modal jazz recordings of the 1960s is the inventive positioning of the band leader in each of the cuts. Miles had already established a new pattern for a jazz recording. His 1958 Milestones album started the surge of modal jazz and he arguably perfected the art in his 1967 cut of Nefertiti with his second great quintet. Miles redefined jazz by flipping the traditional song structure on its head having his bassist and drummer drive the melody of the song while his horn section vamped to the side reestablishing chord voicing when required … reminding the listener of their goal and objective … being leaders. Herbie did just that for Freddie, George, Rona, and Tony on the “Maiden Voyage” cut.

Leading a team in a corporate environment is not much different than leading a jazz quintet in the modal idiom. As a leader, your role is to set the tone, trust your team, and provide their opportunity to succeed.

The sheer beauty of modal jazz can be seen in the functional “block and tackling” of the jazz style. Born in Puerto Rico in the 1930s, modal jazz found a welcoming home with the post-bop generation of jazz musicians in New York of the late 1950s. Looking for freedom of expression breaking out of the staid bonds of big band song structure, these band leaders like Davis and his acolytes Wayne Shorter and Hancock were searching for a way to free up their high caliber groups. Modal jazz evolved into a loose set of rules bound by a simple chord chart of modal scales that provided all the necessary guidance a trusting jazz band leader needed or wanted. As a musician, all you had was the outer boundaries represented by these scales …. your job was to explore within them.

This freedom create a free flowing exploration for any decent jazz band. Modal jazz was a natural evolution of the art of jazz maximizing the benefits of legions of expert jazz sideman in the 1950s and 1960s. With that much talent in the 50s and 60s, American jazz leaders could well afford to let their musicians loose. In many ways, the environment of American jazz mid-century mimics the corporate America environment of the early 21st century. We have an over-abundance of talent, a dearth of time and patience, and the ever present “tick tock” of competition and shareholder demands. American managers could benefit learning from Davis of 1958 or Hancock in 1965.

American management needs to realize that it has evolved into an ossified corporate manifestation of the 20th century holding their own teams back despite their well-intentioned efforts. In short, management would increase team performance by limiting themselves greatly.

The polytonality of modal jazz is an acutely accurate representation of a high performing team in a corporate environment. High performing has the connotation of great leadership, and in fact, it’s required. The strength of a high performing team is its ability to achieve at the maximum performance of individual members while staying tethered to a central theme or strategy. This describes a great jazz group and proves true with Herbies quintet of the late 1960s.

“Maiden Voyage” is their finest documentation of this high performing team culture anchored by a competent and trusting leader. In other words, Herbies quintet in May 1965 was the perfect team. However, this was not by accident. “Maiden Voyage” was recorded because of a lot of hard work creating the fertile grounds of Herbies quintet and their subsequent success.

Reflecting on this, getting to this space with a team requires a few steps and some trust. A leader has to have the right team members. Just as Herbie had to put Freddie back on saxophone and find another drummer altogether, a corporate leader has to have the right team. Once you have that team and they are trained to do their job … you need to model the performance you are wanting, guide as required, coach when necessary, and always remember to stay out of the way.

High performing teams have delicate balances where too much leader spoils the flow every time.

The amazing thing is that just the right balance for a leader and their team frees the leader up for much higher value add work coaching their team and performing as a team member. Having a team you trust that is performing in the direction you intend is an incredible feeling. IN fact, I cannot think of a more rewarding experience.

Special Note: I am not a music major or musician actually in any way. What I hear interests me endlessly. To calm that urge, I relentlessly study music history and theory. My goal is to understand what I’m hearing. While I will never deserve any sort of credibility in the world of musicianship, I do my homework. That being said, I’m never perfect and all mistakes and notations in the above post are mine alone. Finding mistakes is expected … following up with me and helping me get better is desired.


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