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Social Skills

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Certainly, skills that would help one be a good conversationalist are similar to skills a jazz musician uses. There are a number of qualities one can find in jazz and which can be brought over into conversation, or social interaction.
We, as a society, are rapidly losing all of our important social skills. I'm not talking about etiquette things, like which one is the salad fork. I'm talking about the skills needed to have any type of meaningful interaction with our fellow human beings. Things seem to be conspiring to keep us more and more isolated. We hardly ever have to leave our homes. With cable and satellite TV offering a thousand channels of junk there's plenty to keep us amused. And if we want real-life, well they've even been so kind as to provide us with "reality-TV". My reality is too much bother, or simply too boring. I'll just watch someone else's, thank you very much.



And with the internet all our news can be delivered to us right in our living rooms in the comfort of our old boxer shorts and 2-sizes-too-small-hasn't-been-washed-since-the-Reagan-administration-tank-top. We don't have to bother with clumsy encounters at a newsstand, or with a paperboy. We can even purchase anything we want right from our computers. Why go out into a crowded store where they probably won't have what you're looking for anyhow? Order it online, in a few days happiness is delivered right to your door in a little cardboard box or manila envelope.



And really, who doesn't prefer this? Have you tried to shop at any type of local chain store lately? If you're lucky enough to find an employee of the place, they're probably too busy thinking about why they're "too good for their stinking job" to take the time to tell you that they "don't know and don't care" where that item you're looking for is.



But where did this viscous cycle start? Just exactly when did we become such an inconsiderate society? Little matter, for we're here now, in this together, and it ain't very pretty. I think things could get a lot better if we just rediscovered our ability to carry on a decent conversation. Obey some simple rules of common courtesy, decent manners, and basic respect. You know - kind of the old "treat others the way you would like them to treat you" thing?



Thankfully, the area of jazz improvisation is one area where these types of skills are still valuable, necessary, even mandatory commodities. It's often been conjectured that a jazz performance has similarities with a conversation, and in many ways I agree. Certainly, skills that would help one be a good conversationalist are similar to skills a jazz musician uses. There are a number of qualities one can find in jazz and which can be brought over into conversation, or social interaction. Here are some suggestions, observations, postulations, and speculations. Perhaps a little reflection on this topic will lead to an increased appreciation for good conversation, meaningful interactions, and great jazz.

  • Listen. And don’t just listen, really work at "hearing" what others have to say.

  • Respond with something intelligent, meaningful. Add something to the discussion. Don't just spew out cliches.

  • Stop talking once in a while - allow silence from yourself and from others.


Think about the way Miles Davis would use space. How he would allow his rhythm section a chance to comment on what he had just played, to amplify it, reflect it back to him and add meaning to it. Think about the way Herbie Hancock (or Bill Evans, or Wynton Kelly, or Thelonious Monk, or Horace Silver) would reply, and how the accompaniment that they played has become as important the solo, how when you imagine the solo in your minds' ear you can't hear it without hearing the comping also.

  • Allow others to have their say.

  • Allow for contradictory ideas without trying to scream over them, drown them out.

  • Don't be afraid of other people's ideas.

  • Allow someone else's ideas to exist without fear that they will annihilate your own.

  • Acknowledge that others have something to offer. Welcome outside input. But don't be afraid to decline the offer to use it. Remain open.

  • Understand that if you allow competing ideas to cancel each other out, everyone loses.


While these attributes are evident in much jazz, they're most clearly on display in music that relies heavily on collective improvisation. Think about the music of Ornette, Cecil Taylor, late Coltrane, the Jimmy Giuffre 3, Mingus with Dolphy, Chick Corea's Trio Music.

  • Realize that the most interesting things might be coming from someone else.

  • Even when the most interesting thing came from you, someone else might have more to add to it than you do. Let others use your ideas.

  • Allow someone else to take up your idea and run with it. Let them take it places you hadn't intended it to go.


Oliver Nelson. Truth and the Abstract Blues. It's his record, and his music. But without the contributions of Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Roy Haynes, and the oft-unmentioned George Barrow, this record would not be the classic that it is.



  • Work toward a common goal, yet retain your individuality.

  • Competition can be good. Cooperation can be beautiful.

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