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Opinion/Editorial

Jazz: America's Original Diversity Success Story

By Published: January 23, 2007
How to Proactively seek Diversity

As established, jazz musicians are part of a culture that proactively seeks diversity. They seek influence from other cultures by listening to records, learning songs, reading about musicians from other cultures, and by seeking to hear, meet, and learn from a broad range of fellow musicians.

Minneapolis-based saxophonist Doug Little gives us two great examples of proactively seeking diversity. He recently spent time in Cuba and has been studying Cuban music and looking to find new ideas from it. So what is he finding?

"While the greatest challenges in jazz involve melody and harmony, Little says, "Cuban and Latin music challenge you rhythmically. The rhythm provides the interest and excitement. As you might imagine, I'm focusing a lot more on rhythmic development now than I was before.

However, Little didn't need to travel outside our borders to find cross-cultural pollination. He recalls time he spent playing with African-American blues singer Big Walter Smith, "I learned that the blues has its own set of values that are different from jazz. Blues is all about the feel and the sound. Playing a lot of notes, like you might in jazz, is usually not appropriate. I remember Big Walter would say 'don't play so many notes, just play me the melody.' Thus, Little's musicianship, his approach, his sound, has been shaped by the influence of Big Walter and the blues.

For jazz musicians, European Classical music has always been a hugely important source for harmonic and melodic ideas as well as for instrumentation. Classical technique has also been influential as virtuosity is often associated with the great jazz improvisers. Some of the important early innovators of jazz were classically trained in Europe and brought their ideas back with them. Jazz musicians continued to look across the Atlantic as the new music developed and today Classical music still provides a vast source for ideas.

Pianist Mary Louise Knutson studied classical music before becoming an accomplished jazz improviser. The European approach has affected her in two ways. "First, my Classical training influences how I hear music. I listen with a large scope—focusing on dynamics, articulation, orchestration, and interaction.

"In addition, people often comment on my touch. Classical taught me to use a wide range of articulation that adds diversity to my playing. I use a range of attack, dynamics, and speed which are techniques, values, I learned from the European tradition.

Diversity in Action

Jazz musicians approach learning with "open ears. They study, emulate, and ultimately incorporate techniques and sensibilities from other cultures, mix that with their own strong individuality, strengths, and primary culture. Without this approach the music of jazz would have stagnated eighty years ago. Because of it, the music has been blessed with a thriving, passionate, evolving force. In jazz you can find influence from cultures all over the world, yet it remains, above all, uniquely American.

While the issue of diversity is now visible on the radar of human resources management, it is in its infancy in much of corporate America. In many professional and business magazines there is talk of what diversity means, what its implications are, how to implement diversity programs. Proving the business case for diversity is another hot topic.

Jazz has been successfully practicing diversity for nearly a hundred years. It is clear how it has impacted and benefited the development of the music, provided the music with innovative vigor, and benefited countless individual jazz musicians (not to mention the listeners!). Perhaps it's time for the business world to ask—what is there in the jazz diversity model that we can learn from?


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