The musicians were Monty Alexander (piano), John Clayton (bass), and Jeff Hamilton (drums) - a classic jazz trio. They first played together 49 years ago. In 1976, they recorded a live performance at Montreux that ended up being one of the best-selling jazz albums of the era. Last week, we went to hear them at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle and were inspired by their musical collaboration.
In the notes of that 1976 album, I found these words:
More than many other small groups, the Monty Alexander Trio has always drawn much of its creative energy from the potent kind of electricity which is generated by an appreciative audience. [It is] a process of mutual and progressive inspiration ...
That dynamic was still very much in evidence at Jazz Alley. It got me thinking in jazz about the elements that flowed together to generate such inspiration - their virtuosity, their connection, and their joy - and how those elements can show up in the conversations you convene with your teams.
There was an ease in their musical conversations that came from being masters of their instruments and knowing how to use those instruments to create music together. Their individual virtuosity complemented their collaboration, always being contributed in the service of the collective purpose.
Too often in our work and volunteer environments, virtuosity is used and seen as a way of setting a person apart as better than others. It leads to a kind of competition that focuses on control, distinction, and dominance. That dynamic makes genuine collaboration impossible. The person misusing their virtuosity takes up all the space, forcing others to withdraw and disengage, destroying mutuality and inspiration.
I think the most important conversational virtuosity for leaders to develop is curiosity. It invites others into the performance. It invites collaboration. It invites new wisdom that is generated by open conversations about possibilities.
Monty, John, and Jeff were constantly delighting in their curiosity with each other. You could hear them playing phrases that opened up the conversation - "What would you do with this idea?" You could see them getting intrigued and engaged in what they might contribute from their virtuosity. And you could sense how that virtuosity had developed as they had played and learned with each other and many others over almost 50 years.
These three did not lose touch with each other for a moment. Even in the midst of an amazing solo, at times with eyes closed and voice humming, they were in sync with the supporting rhythms and harmonies being offered. They smiled, nodded, watched, listened, and laughed throughout the performance, both with each other and with the audience. They brought their individual virtuosity into an alignment that compelled you to focus on the group, not on the individuals. And they made the audience an integral part of it.
Conversations are meant to connect people - not to cajole, not to coerce, not to control, but to connect. You do that by bringing mutual respect, interest, and enjoyment into the conversation as it begins. Then you pay attention to how the conversation is flowing and what you can contribute to making it more productive and fruitful, whatever the goal may be. Remember, those who are listening are the audience. The vibe and value that your voice is generating will engage or dismiss them. You have that virtuosity. The only real question is how you will use it, one conversation after another.
At Jazz Alley, as at Montreux 46 years earlier, it infected the whole audience. They smiled, they swayed, they tapped their toes, they laughed, they clapped, they hooted, they whistled, just as earlier audiences must have done when they were drawn into the joy generated by these three masters of musical conversations.
This, I am convinced, is what humans are meant to be. This kind of joy is what we were made for. When we are drawn into it, we feel at home - welcome, safe, inspired, and fulfilled. Any conversation, if played with virtuosity, composed for connection, and aimed at joy, can generate this kind of creative energy, the energy that inspires the best of our potential for collaboration.
And you can do it, too ...
That's what Monty, John, and Jeff did last week in Seattle. It's what you can do tomorrow in your communities - at work, at home, or in your volunteering. You can inspire collaboration every time you convene a conversation with your colleagues. Focus your talent, hone your voice, generate the vibe, and create the value.