Jazz and the Art of Improvisational Blogging

Jazz

Can jazz musicians really teach you a thing or two about effective blogging?

Absolutely.

The skills that make a jazz artist legendary are also a big part of what bloggers need to succeed. On the other hand, some bloggers are hurting themselves by emulating what many jazz musicians inadvertently do to lose the audience.

The main way that jazz and blogging go hand in hand is all about the art of improvisation. While I’m sure we all have a good idea what improvisation means, I’ll define it anyway: it’s the practice of acting and creating in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one’s immediate environment.

Jazz musicians riff off the rest of the band, and the vibe of the audience, in real time. Good bloggers riff off of relevant parts of the blogosphere, and the vibe of the audience, also in real time.

Things only break down when someone forgets who the real audience is.

Playing for the Audience

A jazz musician will alter melodies, harmonies or time signature at will depending upon the performer’s unique perspective, interactions with fellow musicians, and the response of the audience. When it works, the result is a magical performance and a delighted crowd.

Likewise, a good blogger sings a song that people want to hear (a valid niche) and adds a unique perspective to the tune. But then she watches, listens and learns from her audience via comments. She watches who links to her and to what. She observes the overall trends in her niche and what other people are saying, and she improvises on the fly with the direction of her posts, all to tell a better story for the better benefit of her readers.

Playing for the Band

Jazz is characterized by democratic creativity, interaction and collaboration, and this places the importance on the performer, rather than the composer of the music. A natural consequence of this mindset is that jazz artists often play not for the audience, but for each other (even when the crowd is still sitting there). What happens is this scenario is the complexity of certain awe-inspiring technical moves (to those in the know) is lost on the audience. When the audience is lost, so is the magic.

This is a common affliction in the world of blogging, too. Many tech bloggers seem content to only speak to one another, and have walled themselves off even further within the TechMeme echo chamber. And if that’s what they want to do, that’s fine. But you see the same thing happening with bloggers who are actually trying to attract new customers and clients with their blogs. I’ve heard from several real estate bloggers who say they’re not having any luck, and that’s because they’re blogging for other real estate bloggers, not for prospective clients.

Playing for You

I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public want — you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you doing — even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years. ~Thelonious Monk

When someone like the great Monk says that, it’s hard to argue. And we wouldn’t have wanted to tell Van Gogh to change course and do something “more marketable,” now would we?

But for every Monk and Van Gogh, there have been millions who carried on hopelessly, because no one ever wanted to hear what they were saying. How do we tell the difference between innovation and cluelessness? I wish I had the ability to know how to answer that one.

In anything you do, you should absolutely be playing for you. But it also helps if someone is listening, because they give you something to work with and make you better. To extend the jazz analogy, even an innovative artist who is ahead of his time needs to get some people into the club first. Play them a song they want to hear, get them on your side, and then take them happily to a place they had no idea they wanted to go.

Quotes from Jazz Legends that Bloggers Will Love

I did a Google search for “jazz quotes” to see if I could find some good stuff, and who should show up at number one? None other than Matt Mullenwag, founder of WordPress.

How’s that for blogging synchronicity?

I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light. ~John Coltrane

I’m sure critics have their purpose, and they’re supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what he did. ~Duke Ellington

I never sing a song the same way twice. ~Billie Holiday

It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play. ~Dizzy Gillespie

Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong. ~Ella Fitzgerald

I’m famous. Ain’t that a bitch? ~Thelonious Monk

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Comments

  1. I’m totally not hitting the mark with this comment, but I now I just can’t help but wonder what kind of music (if any) bloggers are listening to.
    Brian, are you listening to anything special to help you get to a certain state of mind sometimes?

  2. I love music, and have a ridiculous range of musical interests, but lately I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz. :)

  3. I’ve got my feet planted on both sides of the fence: I’m both a copywriter and a fiction writer. The fiction writer side of me doesn’t give a hoot, and so Monk’s quote resonates with that. However, the copywriter part of me knows that I have to please the audience if I want to thrive. Funny thing is, I used to think that I couldn’t balance the two, but then someone challenged me, and being the sucker for a challenge, I took it up and have been successful at both. btw: Thanks for the great info. You rock.

  4. It seems as if Jazz musicians are created to suffer and then while suffering, inject their art with new meaning and flavors. Billie Holliday, Chet Baker, Coltrane and others have paved the road to a more innovate sound, a fresh sound that doesn’t die with age.

    As a guitarist who often improvises solos and the like, getting your fingers to play what your heart is saying is the hardest part of music. The next part is getting your audience to go along with you.

    Have you noticed how famous musicians often start off a new tour with old favorites? Ever wonder why?

    This is because they are insecure about how the new material will sit with fans. Thus they give them something they love and are familiar with- and hope and pray that they will enjoy the rest of the ride.

  5. Speaking of music, I was writing a post the other day while listening to classic rock and I found it was impeding my thought process.

    I threw on an ambient CD and the words just began to flow.

    It’s intersting how music can sometimes influence your performance.

  6. You had me hooked at the word jazz. I agree about playing for yourself. If you don’t then you aren’t producing anything real.

    That’s no guarantee for success, though. Van Gogh was only appreciated by his peers during his own lifetime. While he’s one of the most beloved artists today his talents were mostly unknown until after his death.

    The best strategy might be to play some things for yourself and some specifically for your audience. Play some things for your audience to draw them into the work you really think is significant.

  7. Now you have done it. Totally convinced me that you are an artist at heart. One of my best painting teachers, Wynton Marsalis. I was looking on line for access to his Making the Music Series form Lincoln Center. There is a session devoted to improvisation. And another about call and response- Essential for anyone who wants to resonate no matter what field. This and the Fight Club. Ya got me.

  8. A very interesting post here Brian, but well worth the read.

    That’s wild about Matt showing up in a search for jazz quotes.

    Thanks for the article,

    – Mason

  9. Oh, check out Chris Botti too- he works with Sting sometimes. Very mellow and relaxing.

  10. Interesting post!

    It reminds me of something…a slight tangent.

    We visit certain blogs because we like the music they play.

    If a blogger normally posts jazz, but then suddenly throws New Age at us, it’s a turnoff.

    Know why your audience is coming to you. Stay focused. If you throw a few esoteric riffs in the mix, that’s cool, but you better make your audience realize why it benefits them!

  11. I used to be pro jazz musician, iow I made my living and filed taxes as a musician until I was 32. I’m 47 now. I started out playing a lot of jazz and eventually went on the road with various folks but ultimately became a “show drummer” because playing everything I could play paid the bills. I also played piano as well.

    I remember learning how to improvise and it was very difficult in the beginning. I imagined that you had to play something different all the time when you improvised a solo. Well, that was not the case. The great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry said about improvising when asked, “Why do you play some of the same improvised lines over and over, night after night?” He responded, “Improvisation happens between the improvised lines that have become comfortable for you to play. After improvising night after night, you’ll use some of your old stuff, current stuff, and weaved in between all that will be your new improvisation.”

    While that might not be prophetic for some folks, it was to a bunch of us 15 year-olds trying to figure out improvisation. With time, practice and getting thrown off stage during jams sessions for not measuring up, it becomes second nature. Also, the great jazz pianist Bill Evans said (paraphrased), “Some nights I’d sit down to perform and I’d think, uh, I can’t do this anymore, but when that creative process switch is thrown, you can’t stop it.”

    I’ve been listening to http://www.pandora.com for the last couple weeks. It’s pretty neat.

    Bill

    • Bill, I can appreciate your feed back and what you said about improvisation. I am a singer. I have sang gospel and r&b. I, however am now interested in singing smooth jazz. I was once told that I imrovise well. And as well with the singers, I feel that as you improvise, you are feeling what you are feeling for the moment and adding, and coloring as you go and never taking away from originality.

  12. Hi Brian

    I just loved this post. I got thinking about writing as music a little while back (it was Liz Strauss that pointed me there) and the more I think about it… the closer the connection becomes.

    I don’t quite know what the trick is either between playing for yourself and playing for the audience – maybe it’s not playing for them, but with them.

    Because I try and write my own way – but when I feel my words connecting with those of other people, when you have a direct interaction with your readers, what they enjoy, what strikes a chord with them – well that’s when the notes really seem to fly…

    Thanks

    Joanna

  13. Well I too am a fan of jazz. Particularly Stan Getz.

    A really good Jazz album is ‘Beyond The Missouri Sky’ by Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny. It’s pretty laid back, but it drips soul…

  14. Being a former working latin
    musician myself, I do see the benefits of impro and “in the moment” situations. They can define your whole persona 10 fold.

  15. Remember the choice of whether to “freestyle” isn’t necessarily a clear “yes” or “no” choice but likely something in between. If the blogger can hook some of the audience at a deeper level, it’s likely worth it even if others don’t get the riffs.

    Of course, I wouldn’t overdo it…

  16. This is such a great metaphor – here are several other jazz quotes that might resonate with bloggers – they’re from Charles Mingus:

    “In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is that I keep changing. ”

    “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

    “They’re singing your praises while stealing your phrases.”

  17. Ooohhh. Liz, good stuff! I saw the last one from Mingus, and thought of RSS scrapers, but I thought I’d keep it on the positive tip. :)

    “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

    Prophetic.

  18. I am not a music lover, but I do think the analogy between jazz and blogging is superb.

    Thanks for such a great post.

    I guess there have to be a good mix between writing for your audience and writing for yourself.

    Brian, for a new blogger, do you encourage them to write for their audience, or play his/her own tunes first?

  19. Thanks for the sizzle.

    I can totally relate to having fun playing for the audience.

    It’s about relating to the story that you have on the inside to those that’s on the outside.

    It’s about showcasing relevance and sizzle with a splash of showmanship.

    It’s about standing up for your voice, and adopting a voice that’s so spicy and saucy that your web visitor can’t help to come back for more.

    Thank you for giving us something succulent to whet our appetite.

  20. This reminds me of the book Jazz by Toni Morrison, which is a great tale that literally bomp-swish-bams its readers. I’ve always felt that musicality is a major part of writing and now I’m beginning to see how it can be applied in other areas as well, such as business. And blogging.

    -Melissa Donovan
    Writing for Writers

    • Mellissa, I like Toni Morrison also, I read the Bluest Eyes and know now that I need read Jazz. Being new to blogging and trying to promote myself as a jazz singer, this is good information.

  21. Hi Brian
    Yea – I was trying to keep it positive but I couldn’t resist the rhyme of that line – on the other hand jazz, like blogging, is all one big conversation that everyone adds to, builds on and doublesback again. So perhaps “stealing” is too harsh a word.

    The first one is my favorite – “I’m trying to play the truth of what I am…but I keep changing.”

    I find this way of looking at writing so inspiring…it’s going to keep me motivated through a lot of lonely blogging nights!

  22. Your blog should be your way of communicating your personal brand to others, interacting with them and then revising your blog based on their feedback.

    This should be a never ending cycle.

  23. My first impression is “groovy” after reading this article.

    But seriously, damn, this is a smooth and sweet article (I really don’t know how else to describe it). Jazz improvisation – what a great metaphor! I’m a beginning blogger and I’m just starting to realize the potential of reader interaction.

    Thanks for writing a great article!

  24. Yes.. Playing for yourself first,,,..
    Maybe it will create attention from public if it is good..
    But just use your skills and don’t try to become someone/something…

  25. Yes! I find that my creativity as a musician has seriously helped me out in the blogging world. As a band director, I bring a unique perspective to the educational blogging world for sure.

    One of my good friends taught me the importance of NOT playing. The less we play in a performance, the greater the impact when we do play. I love to quote from Dizzy there at the end.

    The same holds true for blog design! The art of omission is often overlooked in most things in life.

  26. “The art of omission” and “the less we play the greater the impact when we do” – holds true in music, blogging, sales, business, relationships….hmmm…thanks for giving me something to think about Joel – very powerful.

  27. Interesting post, Brian. Like the other Bill, above, I’ve been a both a blogger and a jazz musician (piano). Some of the interesting stuff I’ve learned:

    1. Your audience don’t notice your mistakes and infelicities half as much as you do;

    2. Plans are nothing, planning is everything – in other words, the best performances, although not planned, are the result of rigorous preparation;

    3. Alto sax players are will take every opportunity to make you play stuff in Eb major, just so it’s easy for them.

    OK, number three isn’t strictly relevant to blogging, but it PISSES ME RIGHT OFF.

    Glad I’ve got that off my chest.

  28. Bill and Bill, I’m thinking of taking up jazz piano for fun. Do you think 40 is too old to learn? :)

  29. No way. When you’re a kid you spend far too much time worrying about making mistakes, but when you get older you don’t really care. Not being afraid of screwing up is half the battle when it comes to improvisation.

    Don’t neglect that left hand, though. I wouldn’t have to make my living writing copy if only I’d worked on that left hand some more…

  30. Sold. I think I’m going to take lessons at the same time my 5 year old daughter does. I think that would be a very cool experience for both of us.

    And I’ll tell her not to worry about the mistakes. :)

  31. Liz ,
    Fabulous Mingus quotes and the great omission point. Muses and masters come from all kinds of places. Jazz is rich and full. Just the thing today.

  32. Janice
    “muses and masters come from all kinds of places” – nice. This was definitely an inspiring post.

    Brian
    Learning piano with your daughter sounds like a great bonding opportunity. Not only that, learning something new gets us back into the world of being a child – when we are having to learn so many things.

    When my son was ten I learned to rollerblade with him – and had a chance to remember what it feels like to be awkward, incompetent and insecure – we forget sometimes as adults what that feels like because we stop taking on new things – it can be very enlightening and very humbling.

  33. Man…

    I guess I’ll have to start listening to Jazz!

  34. I’ll tell you what I missed when I was a starting out – http://www.youtube.com – search for learning jazz piano and you’ll find some really good vids. We had to rely on our ear to learn a lot of stuff off of records.

    A great way to learn like the masters did – use your ear. Sit down and start plunking out the melodies and improvisations that you like. A few notes here a few notes there. Forget about technique, etc. Sing a little bit of a melody or part of an improv that you like. Sing it or hum it the best you can and imitate that on the piano.

    Here’s the kicker about technique, formal training and music theory – on the bandstand it all goes out the window eventually.

    The more experienced you become the more second nature various aspects of music and performing become. You no longer have to count to 4/4, 5/4, 3/4, etc. you feel it. You eventually don’t get nervous in front of an audience, you can’t wait to share what you know and what you can do and how you can affect them. You eventually don’t think what chord changes are coming up while you’re playing, you just know them and hear them.

    Like a lot of things in life, the longer you do something, the various levels of that “something” become uncovered and you reach higher/different levels that you didn’t know existed. Oh yea, and you DON’T have to use drugs or alcohol to get there. :)

  35. I got the Eric Clapton Crossroads festival DVD a few years back and watched John Mclaughlin improvise for 10 mins! They are just following intuition in a free flowing manner but doing so from the basis of years of training. Blogging is hard work and I think you can only improvise when you know the basics well enough to free flow through that foundation.

  36. And there’ll be no blog, no music, if we don’t get up and get down and do it:

    “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.” ~ Duke Ellington

  37. Brian,

    Thanks for yet another entertaining and informative post.

    I am an acupuncturist and i listen to jazz all day everyday in my clinic. As I am writing this, a Dizzy Gillespie tune; ‘Blue and Sentimental’ is playing while my patients are relaxing in my moxa smoke filled clinic.

    Anyone could be forgiven for thinking they are in the wrong place, but the patients love it.

    I just can’t go a whole day listening to that ‘new age – Dolphins in the background music’, it drives me nuts.

    There is nothing better than going to a live jazz concert when the band is in tune with the audience…blogs indeed are no different.

    Nice one!

  38. If you are talking about Jazz, I think it’s goes well for blogging for me – soothes me up when I blog for more than 12 hours a day. Sometimes it becomes pretty stressful but jazz is great..

  39. If you “play” against the norm, you may not get as much support but at least the information will be unique and informational. Why support the norm, when people never question it. Once a norm is questioned and the more amount of times it happens, the more defined they will be.

  40. I just love this post. My blog is more about blues; the roots of jazz. However, it has given me something to ponder. In one post, you have turned me into a copyblogger fan. Keep up the good work Brian! Excellent stuff …

  41. Lovely post Brian.

    I used to spend my weekends at jazz gigs. Alas now I don’t get to go to any.

    However, you mention jazz and blues improv.

    Interesting, because I applied improv to my blogging. Here: http://iscatterlings.com/lucky-packet/

    So is anyone up for some Blogging Improv?!

  42. Funny. If you get a chance, check this video out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQCcyFrwxK8

    I said the same thing, just not nearly so eloquently. And I used the word “extemporaneous” rather than improvisation. Intended it to mean the same thing though.

    Great post Brian. I do wonder though whether blogging is changing from an improvisational medium to one that’s more “classical” in orientation. Seems so many posts these days are written in a very “well-rehearsed” sort of way, rather than the “shoot from the hip, speak from the heart” style of the old days.

  43. Hi Brian .. its almost the perfect metaphor for blogging! I’ve used it often. I felt it strongly even when I had just begun my blogging journey. More so then perhaps than now!

    Apologies for the length of this comment , but wanted to share one of my favourite quotes that reflect this – Doug Little, a jazz musician and a member of The Motion Poets, an improvisational jazz band. Doug described improvisational jazz:

    “What I play will inspire the drummer to play something. The drummer might inspire me to play something. The musicians listen to one another and make spontaneous decisions. The possibilities are endless. It is always within the form and it is always interconnected with each person but it is never the same.

    The joy of performing is the group sound. I can’t play whatever I want whenever I want. Jazz is democratic music and everybody gets to solo but only within the context of the whole. The group is what is the most important thing. Sometimes the best thing for me to do is not to play. And to respect another’s musical space.

    When I do solo, I still have to pay attention to what the rhythm behind me is. I can’t ignore it. I have to be a part of that. Playing in a group means giving up some of your space for the group. If a band isn’t playing with any interaction, I walk out because it is no fun.”

  44. I used this metaphor for blogging back in 2003 – http://tinyurl.com/398juw!