A story about Miles Davis and the nature of true genius

I’ve been listening to Kind of Blue all week. More specifically, I have the 180g vinyl copy of the Miles Davis jazz classic on constant rotation. It’s an album that never gets old and therefore needs no specific reason to be listened to, but in this case I do have one. See, I’m reading Frank Chimero’s excellent book The Shape of Design at the moment, and he references Kind of Blue quite a bit. It’s this passage in particular that sent me back for another listen:

Kind of Blue is unequivocally a masterpiece, a cornerstone to jazz music created in just a few short hours by altering the structure of the performance. The musicians accepted the contributions of one another, and ventured out into a new frontier, using their intuitions as their guides. Davis amassed a stellar group of musicians, and with a loose framework of limitations to focus them but plenty of space for exploration, he knew they would wander with skill and play beyond themselves.

This is such a great description of the album, and as Chimero points out in his book, an apt metaphor for meaningful creative work. I started going down the rabbit hole a bit more (thanks, Wikipedia!), and eventually found Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s review of the album. He says:

Why does Kind of Blue possess such a mystique? Perhaps because this music never flaunts its genius. Yet Kind of Blue is more than easy listening. It’s the pinnacle of modal jazz – tonality and solos build from the overall key, not chord changes, giving the music a subtly shifting quality.

Ok, hold on a second. Did you catch that? This music never flaunts its genius. What an interesting way to put it, and I’ve been thinking about that phrase all week. I’ve been wondering what it means not to flaunt your genius, and why we find it so compelling in the rare cases that we stumble upon such genius.

As I dug deeper into my own obsession with Kind of Blue, I realized that my truth lies somewhere in the middle of Chimero and Erlewine’s respective takes on it. I think what draws me to this album is the enormous restraint that each of these brilliant musicians show. Just look at the members of the sextet: Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. They were all extraordinary musicians at the top of their games, and yet they came together and produced a piece of work that doesn’t feel strained or over the top. There is a sense of comfort – of rightness – to every note on the album.

But why am I so drawn to this restraint? I think it’s because we all know instinctively that restraint is so much harder than flaunting, and therefore takes much more skill. Consider social media – the perfect platform for flaunting your undeniable awesomeness. I was just at a conference yesterday where one of the speakers stopped for a moment so we could all tweet how awesome he is. Yes, of course he was making a joke, but it’s precisely the non-absurdity of the idea that makes the joke funny. The speaker was simply exaggerating behavior we see online every day.

But here’s the thing. Telling people how awesome you are is easy. You don’t even have to be awesome to tell people how great you are. It’s the unwritten rules of the game: online, we get to be the versions of ourselves that we wished we were in real life. And it’s easy to do so. On Twitter, talking is easy; shutting up is the hard part.

And this brings me to the point of this little journey: what having Kind of Blue on endless rotation for the past few days has taught me. Three things:

One, be exceptional at something. These musicians didn’t just show up and play some tunes. They spent years and years practicing and honing their respective crafts. They weren’t all great at everything, but they were exceptional at their chosen instruments. These days we call it being T-shaped, but I think the point is simple: pick one or two instruments, and become really good at playing them through continuous learning and practice.

Two, give others room to shine. On Kind of Blue these giants of jazz somehow manage never to step on each other’s toes. Instead, they know when it’s time to play a solo and when it’s time to hang back and be the support for whatever is going on in the foreground. Ubuntu says that “a person is only a person through other people”, and we’d be well served to remember that philosophy in our work. We are stronger – and we can accomplish more – once we know when it’s time to lead, and when it’s time to make others look good.

Let’s not be afraid to celebrate the successes of others, and partner with people we feel threatened by. If Coltrane didn’t think he was good enough for Miles Davis – or that he’s much better and deserved more solo time – we wouldn’t have had the album they ended up giving us.

Three, proceed with cautious courage. Kind of Blue marked a change in recording style for Miles Davis:

In 1953, the pianist George Russell published his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which offered an alternative to the practice of improvisation based on chords and chord changes. Abandoning the traditional major and minor key relationships of classical music, Russell developed a new formulation using scales, or a series of scales, for improvisations: This approach led the way to “modal” in jazz. Influenced by Russell’s ideas, Davis implemented his first modal composition with the title track of his studio album Milestones, and his first sessions with Bill Evans, 1958 Miles. Satisfied with the results, Davis prepared an entire album based on modality

Notice the progression here. George Russel brings modality to jazz music. Miles Davis then tries it out on a single track. Once he tested it and liked the results, he proceeded to record a full album in that style. Davis recognized a change in musical styles and embraced it, but he did so with cautious courage – testing his ideas on a small scale first before going all out.

There are so many ways we can apply this idea to the work we do. On the one end of the spectrum, think of industries like music, movies, and publishing – industries that are in trouble because they refuse to embrace the digital changes that happened despite their attempts to stop it. On the other end, think of products that are launched without an audience or a purpose, stuck in endless cycles of “pivoting”. Somewhere in the middle lies the Miles Davis approach: recognize opportunity and go for it, but do so in a measured, careful way.

Maybe Kind of Blue has something very specific to teach us about the nature of true genius. It shows that there is a kind of magic to things that are made by exceptional people who are not in need of the false security that flaunting so often provides. And maybe this is the message that all jazz music tries to teach: make great things with your friends, and don’t be afraid to let them have the spotlight every once in a while. If it’s good, your recognition will come. Just ask Miles Davis.