The “Personalization” of Jazz

Acknowledging the limitations of analogies, Charlie Parker , often credited as the inventor of modern jazz, was somehow able to break through the Big Band music era to push the boundaries of music, bringing jazz to a game changing transition that led from the structured Big Band era to the era of personal improvisation. I believe this parallels today’s American market, as it evolves from mass consumption to mass personalization.

Charlie Parker, while playing in genre of Big Band music, with Jay McShann’s band, practiced diligently. He said that he spent 3–4 years practicing up to 15 hours a day. The Musical standard setters of his time, like Count Basie and Bennie Moten undoubtedly influenced him. Yet, he was dissatisfied with the attainment of mastery in these limited systems and sought something more compelling and expressive, reflecting the evolving consciousness of the era.

He says that one night in or 1942, while he was playing “Cherokee” in a jam session with guitarist William “Biddy” Fleet, he had the insight that the twelve tones of the chromatic scale can lead melodically to any key, breaking some of the confines of simpler jazz soloing, an insight that led to the development of an entirely new system. The new system encompassed ways to build improvisations on top of chord progressions and methods for adding chords to existing chord progressions while implying additional chords within improvised lines. Parker recalled:

I’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used, … and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes. I couldn’t play it…. I was working over ‘Cherokee,’ and, as I did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. It came alive.

Applying insight to technique, he experienced new freedom and blasted past the self imposed limitations of popularly proscribed theory and practice. Penetrating insight into the elements of musical theory revealed to him the essence of music, and these elements emerged in ways never before experienced.

Reflections of A Changing Culture

Bebop, while revolutionary, grew out of a cultural mindstream that was evolving toward more individualistic forms of expression. The chord progressions for bebop tunes were often taken directly from popular swing-era songs and reused with a new and more complex melody. While this practice was already well-established in earlier jazz, it came to be central to the bebop style.

Bebop musicians also introduced several harmonic devices not typical of previous jazz. Complicated harmonic substitutions for more basic chords became commonplace – they emphasized certain dissonant intervals such as the flat ninth, sharp ninth, or the sharp eleventh/tri-tone.

Changing Voices of the American Experience

Bebop also grew out of a very personal frame of reference, that Parker, as an African American, understood from the inside-out. Gerhard Kubik postulates that the harmonic development in bebop sprung from the blues, and other African-related tonal sensibilities, rather than twentieth century Western art music, as some critics have suggested. Kubik states:

“Auditory inclinations were the African legacy in [Parker’s] life, reconfirmed by the experience of the blues tonal system, a sound world at odds with the Western diatonic chord categories. Bebop musicians eliminated Western-style functional harmony in their music while retaining the strong central tonality of the blues as a basis for drawing upon various African matrices.”

So, while an outside observer might attribute the harmonic innovations of bebop to have been inspired by experiences in Western “serious” music, from Claude Debussy to Arnold Schoenberg, and Claude Debussy did have some influence on jazz, as on Bix Beiderbecke’s piano playing, and Duke Ellington’s reinterpretion of some harmonic devices in European contemporary music, bebop has was a strong statement of rejection of any kind of eclecticism, propelled by a desire to activate something deeply buried in self.

A Groundswell of Change Across America

While Parker remains the leading figure in the development of bebop,  it is important to remember that the movement reflected the growing voice of the the African-American demographic in American culture.

African-American jazz musicians like Parker were growing increasingly resentful in post WWI America, of the social conventions that limited their opportunities. During the swing era, nearly all jazz bands were racially segregated, and that audiences too were separated by race, with black musicians often playing in establishments where they would not be welcome as customers.

Working independently of one another, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie became increasingly interested in extending the harmonic language of jazz. By employing altered and substitute chords, they began to use improvisation to rework and expand a song’s original harmonic structure, and developed the technique of playing complex improvisations containing asymmetrical accents and phrases at very rapid tempos. Similar experiments were being performed by pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, who were using angular melodic figures and dissonant chords, abandoning the simple riff-based melodies of swing; and by drummer Kenny Clarke who introduced complex approaches to jazz rhythm using off-beat rhythmic punctuations on the snare and bass drum.

These attempts to develop new musical strategies did not have an immediate impact. During the 1930s, since these young and innovative musicians had little contact with one another, and generally worked on their new ideas in isolation, and the early innovations that lay the groundwork for bebop thus evolved more or less independently. Only after these musicians began to interact regularly with each other did these innovations began to develop into a recognizable style.

The emergence of bebop as a coherent musical style thus required the congregation of a community of innovators in a locale that supported musical experimentation.

 Change Has a Trajectory of It’s Own

Bebop’s sweeping influence would never have been predicted by the average 1940s Anglo Saxon American male.  Here was a revolution that effected broad changes across American culture. Both as a music and in the stances taken by the individual musicians, it reflected that new confidence and self assertiveness: more than any previous form, it stressed the individual soloist, his ideas and his feelings. And in going back to the blues as the roots of jazz, it also stressed that this was a black music, changing the face of America inexorably. As Ross Russell put it:

For urban black people of his generation, Charlie [Parker] was a genuine culture hero. The revolutionary nature of his music was explicit. He had rephrased Negro music without altering its essential truth and purity. Implicit in his lifestyle was defiance of the white establishment… every episode in the cumulative legend of the Bird, however ineffectual and childish, was seen as a blow struck against the forces of oppression. In the mid-1940s there was no Martin Luther King Jr., no Malcolm X… In a sense Charlie was a fore-runner of those militant figures of the political arena. He was completely non-political, in fact never in his lifetime so much as cast a ballot… Charlie Parker was the first angry black man in music.

Applications to Today’s Markets

The American experience today is undergoing fundamental changes that in many ways mirror the emergence of bebop and a post bebop era in 1940s America. Key demographic trends are changing the American workforce. Rapid changes in demographics, technology, and the economy are leading to new frames of reference that are converging in new and unpredictable ways. Where will it all lead? As in the bebop revolution, it is probably impossible to predict with extreme accuracy. Just as the isolated innovative jazz musicians of the 1930s began to coalesce around a new musical lexicon  as they began to interact regularly with each other, the effect of social media in bringing consumers together around like interests has incredible potential.

Customization, Personalization & Community Experiences

In some ways, the example of bebop is shown in the changes that are already transforming Marketing in America today.  Just as the emergence of bebop led to a counter culture and the widening influence of African American cultural voices within the broader context of American experience, today’s consumers are increasingly self referencing, and this is changing the discipline of Marketing.

The Rise of the Individual Consumer Interest Group: Decision Analyst highlighted customization, personalization, and community experiences as a fast emerging trend.  Today’s consumer brands are increasingly reaching out to unique, homogeneous groups of consumers to deliver customized and personalized goods and services to them. The emergence of communities, where shared interests act as cohesive and binding connections, provide both insights into the needs of these unique groups of consumers and challenges of tailoring messages and products for those groups.

One implication is that social networks should continue to emerge as a major driving factor in the success or failure of certain consumer brands. These networks are growing on a global basis, with many network members only communicating with other network members on a virtual basis, and never interacting in person.

Another implication is shifting perception of quality and luxury items. Whereas in the 20th  century, price levels often signified differing levels of quality, current manufacturing techniques have almost erased this distinction, such that even the entry-level automobiles and televisions (Kia/Hyundai) are built to very high-quality standards, and the concept of high prices translating into high quality may largely evaporate. Automobiles and televisions, formerly luxury and status-conveying items, have moved from aspirational goals to expectations of basic lifestyles.

Emerging Youth Demographics: As the baby boomer generation enters retirement, the echo boomers, progeny of this baby boom generation, is about to dominate the workforce. Raised in an era of relative luxury, with immediate gratification for most basic needs, the youth of the world will play an increasingly vital role in identifying new product and service requirements, in causing a rapid spread of new trends and lifestyles, and in changing the ways in which businesses interact with them.  Key issues for youth will include:

  • the dynamic of health and wellness versus increasing obesity, the incorporation of traditional and holistic medical practices, and the exploration of health and relaxation techniques from around the world. Yoga and eclectic foods will begin to replace golf and beef steaks. In the United States, for example, golf courses are already seeing rapid declines in utilization as the golfing population shrinks.
  • As the expected life span of people continues to lengthen, this will place a related demand on medical services and assisted living facilities.

Marketing- Discipline or Art?

Another important takeaway from the example of Charlie Parker and his fellow innovators, is to look at how he resolved the tension between the discipline and art of music. The tension between the discipline and art of Marketing is summarized in the two aims of Marketing:

  • Measurable performance through application of sound principles, including optimal exposures, precise positioning and messaging.
  • Insights and innovation to blasting through market categories to achieve a highly differentiated and evocative brand.

A person relying on the tried and true technical practices of Marketing can be likened to a musician who loses himself in the technique – scales, arpeggios and chords – but never develops the ability to manifest the art in a way that transcends the self limiting conventions of the popular idiom to break through to something highly differentiated and evocative.

Today’s increasingly personalized consumer dynamics means that we must access and respond to customer insights in a more agile way. In Beyond Customer-centricity: Anticipating the Customer,  I write about moving from insight to foresight – from knowing today’s needs  to anticipating tomorrow’s needs and values.

This means that we must be forward looking and proactive. Instead of asking customers what they would like, we need to move beyond this, as customers will not always be able to anticipate their needs, and, as a corollary, from our limited frame of reference, we cannot understand their rapidly changing beliefs and values.

The foresight to anticipate what will be possible and give it to consumers before they even ask has helped propel leading technology brands like Facebook. Like this, we must continue to interact, quickly respond, test market, and to increase our ability to measure results in real time.

The insight that we bring to Marketing increasingly comes from interacting with and researching consumer groups.   We need to be able to improvise, based on sound disciplined focus on our customer segments and their core values, beliefs and preferences.

Snap! principle of Improvisational Marketing:

Know your Marketing science, but continuously strive to perfect your art.

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