(co-authored with Andy Boynton)
The febrile, haphazard world of the jazz musician hardly seems the place to find exemplars of leadership. Yet Miles Davis, the celebrated trumpeter, composer and band leader, led three major revolutions over three decades: overthrowing the dominance of bebop with his seminal 1949 album, Birth of the Cool; supplanting that in 1959 with the freer “modal jazz” typified by Kind of Blue; and shattering convention again with jazz fusion and the likes of Bitches Brew in the late 1960s. Remarkably, in each case, although he worked with different teams, he essentially followed the same basic formula for leading successful change.
UPPING THE TEMPO
Davis was constantly dissatisfied with the status quo and strove to push the limits – a prerequisite for any champion of change. He never lost sight of the need to evolve and refresh continuously. Each time, he was able to take his dream of change and encourage other virtuosos to buy into it by offering them a chance to leave their mark on the field. He also had a higher opinion of the customer than the prevailing stereotype within the music industry, ever confident that his increasingly complex music would be accepted in the marketplace. In trying to stretch his audience, he inevitably asked his band to stretch themselves.
ATTRACT AND KEEP THE BEST
Davis always surrounded himself with the best people in the fi eld: Al Haig, Bill and Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane and many others form a veritable Hall of Fame of Jazz. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter observed: “Miles wanted to play with people who knew more about music than he did… He wasn’t afraid of it.” Davis was a superb judge of talent, often building his music around that talent, rather than bending the talent to his music. Pianist Ahmad Jamal said: “He sought people for what they were worth within themselves.” Yet, what he tried to do was to create a team context in which their full individual contribution could be gained.
“PLAY WHAT’S NOT THERE”
Letting great people be great was key to Davis’ success. Saxophonist Cannonball Adderley recalls: “Miles really told everybody what not to do. I heard him and dug it.” By giving broad directions, he allowed his players to figure out how to achieve what was needed. “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there” was a typical Davis instruction.
LISTENER AND TEACHER
Davis was not only a virtuoso player, he was also a virtuoso listener. Which is not a bad way to lead, when you’ve gone to the trouble of hiring the very best talent on to your team. As bassist Gary Peacock put it: “He’d listen so hard it was deafening. He didn’t miss anything.” Davis himself said: “I’m happy if I can play one new idea on a night,” and claimed that he “learned something new every night....” Such commitment to learning led generations of players – who went on to be greats themselves – to testify to learning more from him in one day than they did all their lives. Not surprisingly, the experience became known among young jazz musicians as “The University of Miles Davis”. Bassist Michael Henderson said: “He gave me myself.” That says everything about the man and his method.
This originally appeared in British Airways’ Business Life, November