Sunday, February 17, 2013


Good morning.
“And the beat goes on.........................”

A jam session is an impromptu performance by a group of musicians characterized by improvisation.  A bass player lays down a base line, the percussionist adds a beat and guitarists, keyboard players, horns all play off of common riffs.  The end result is unknown at the outset; sometimes just ok, other times spectacular.  Entertaining for the the spectators (if any, as jam sessions are often just the musicians themselves), and enjoyable and fulfilling to the artists, as it helps improve their "chops" and satisfies the need to play with their peers.

While Jamming very likely first begun as an art form of its own in the jazz world, rock and roll artists did their own fair share of jamming.  The Grateful Dead made the form part of their public performances, often jamming on stage - turning five or six minute recorded performances of their songs into one hour and more long versions - none ever exactly the same as the previous one.  It is one of the things that doubtless made the band a cult favorite with their legions of fans.

Jamming goes on outside the music world.  Bullshit sessions (sorry- that's what we use to call them) are the Jam Session of late night college students solving the problems of the world.  Brainstorming Sessions are the business model of the Jam Session - yet those sessions may too often be planned, scheduled, moderated and otherwise controlled to the point where they lose the impromptu, spontaneous, improvisational aspect that marks the jazz sessions as art themselves.  Brainstorming sessions often try to address a single issue or challenge, and often the sense of urgency in meeting whatever the challenge may be creates a kind of pressure that works against the flowering of real creativity.

Back in the mid 1990’s, when I was just starting out in the nonprofit arts world, I met John Kao - businessman and former professor at the Harvard and Standford Business schools who had opened a company called the Idea Factory to work with business on the Herculean task of trying to get some kind of handle on the concept of “creatvity” and how it worked within the business world.  He wrote a book called Jamming: the Art and Discipine of Business Creativity” and used the metaphor for the jazz jam sessions I cite here as a way to advance creativity as a business tool.

Last week several of my fellow bloggers and I engaged in a sort of Jam Session playing off each other’s posts on the overarching theme of diversity within our realm.  It wasn’t organized, curated, or otherwise planned.  It was an impromptu exercise and it was fun.  And I think it yielded some food for thought.

The average arts field manager has precious little time to Jam with staff, colleagues, peers and those outside the field.  Too many deadlines, too many things to worry about.  Jamming seems like a luxury.  And as mentioned above, organizational attempts to Jam (Brainstorm) suffer from the attempt to control the circumstances and purpose of the Jam - which attempt is antithetical to the process.

But I think there is great value in inviting others to Jam with you from time to time - the only structure being, perhaps, the invitation, date and time.  First, the exercise of your mind and thinking processes - using your cognitive skills - analyzing, synthesizing - just by thinking out loud with
others - is arguably very good for both your head and your heart.  Brainstorming with other intelligent, creative people - without any pressure of having to address some problem - may help to blow away the cobwebs routine and structure create.  Second, the beauty of an unstructured Jam Session is that you never know when a really good idea will emerge; an idea that may not otherwise come into being - especially if you try too hard to manufacture that good idea by controlling the session.  Finally, for people who like to think - and I believe that includes most of the people in the nonprofit arts management field - Jamming on this level is fun.

Jamming is something at the core of the arts really.  It may not work in some hierarchical business monolith, but it seems, to me anyway, a natural component of our dynamic.  We are suppose to be creative; out-of-the-box thinkers; not constrained by the confines of one approach - one model.  The thinker’s Jam is a chance to play off the intellectual riffs of peers, building on the thoughts of each other.  Of course, the better the participating players - the better the outcome of the Jam, but my guess is that we have a lot of first rate players across our spectrum.  They just don't get a chance to Jam enough.

My hope is that the Dinner-Vention project will result in an impressive kind of Jam Session of its own.  (We received over 250 nominations for people to invite and our Advisory Committee is in the process of winnowing down the list right now.  We should have our final 8-12 person guest list set in the next month or two.  More to follow).

I hope more people in our field might find a way to break loose from the constraints of routine and rut and Jam more themselves. And I wish there were more Jam Sessions at our conferences instead of the talking head panels and keynote speeches.   I think it might produce some interesting and impressive results.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit