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Tune Up: Why Branding and Playing Jazz Go Together

By Andrea Fabbri

On a spring night in Rome 23 years ago, jazz musician Sonny Rollins stood outside a theater signing my copy of the album Saxophone Colossus, his 1958 masterpiece. I trembled with gratitude and awe, noting that Rollins’ big voice matched his big tone on the saxophone. His imposing presence conveyed spirituality and grace.

After meeting him late that night I couldn’t sleep so I ended up driving around my Rome, my hometown, re-playing every note of the concert I had just enjoyed. It was as if Rollins’ notes had penetrated my soul and that night I realized that I wanted to become a musician. Since then, the passion and an obsessive desire to create and play music has shaped my life and influenced my career as a B2B brand strategist.

I started playing the saxophone with focus and intent. Some years after my encounter with Rollins, I joined a world music band, made two records, and played at the Martinique and St. Lucia Jazz festivals. I have had the privilege of playing with master musicians such as Steel Pulse, Stephen Marley, Alpha Blondy and the great Mahmoud Ahmed. On a parallel path, I built a career in branding, working with some amazing thinkers and brand builders. And these two passions—jazz and B2B branding—make me better at both pursuits.

Music and branding. Yin and Yang? Right brain, left brain? Not at all. The way I see it, playing music and shaping brands are much more alike than different. So much so, that I find myself using many of the same skills I developed studying music in my branding practice. This may sound like a stretch to you, but bear with me. What follows are several of the key ingredients that characterize great brands as much as great music. Thinking about the one helps me understand the other.

Vision. Greatness is based on action fueled by vision. In music, vision helps define what you want audiences to experience when they listen to music. Beethoven, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and other greats infused their music with a consistent vision that kept their music vital throughout their lives. The Boss, as his fans know, is still playing four-hour concerts at the age of 65, his vision undimmed. In business, vision is the lighthouse that guides a concerted effort to achieve consistent goals and build a market. Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Jeff Bezos had or have clear business vision and understanding of their audience’s needs. That helped their companies, in their heyday, create amazing products and attract world-class talent.

Structure. Music of all kinds is made by using only 12 notes, yet those twelve notes can be combined in infinite ways. Without structure, however, random notes would be chaos. In music, structure depends on a defined harmonic progression aligned with a consistent rhythm and a given set of instruments. The needs of the song set the style. Take Quincy Jones, one of the greatest music producers and arrangers of all time. Jones is a master of structure. From his 1960s jazz big bands to his masterful arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” he manages to articulate his ideas within a coherent, identifiable structure of notes, tempo, and instruments. It’s what makes his records so appealing. In business, too, assets must be integrated within a solid structure. Simply put, a business without structure, like a messy musical arrangement, fails.

Innovation. The music that stands out most when we hear it is music that breaks from the present and defines the future. In other words, it innovates. Elvis, The Beatles, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis were all great innovators. They created a new way of playing and a new way of being. Innovation, however, is not some big bang that then creates its own continuing routine. Rather, it is the constant pursuit of something new, at once instantly relevant and yet never seen (or heard) before. This is what made the artists I just cited so influential and imitated by all the artists who followed. They never stopped innovating. In business, constant innovation is key to delivering real value and a better experience consistently. Apple, IBM, Nike remain leaders because they maintain a consistent focus on ensuring their offerings never become obsolete.

Team. Great music is always played by great musicians. Technical mastery is of course essential for any great performance. But more important is having the right people with the right skills and the desire to embrace a particular vision. Miles Davis understood this: He purposely surrounded himself with musicians who were very different from one another. Each had an individual style suited to the instrument he was playing. And yet they all harmonized, as it were, around Miles’ unique vision. You can hear the results on any of Miles’ albums from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Just listen to Miles’ classic tune, “So What.” Miles plays a floating, ethereal, mystical solo. John Coltrane, his bandmate, plays a very different kind of solo—at once spiritual and powerful. “So What” wouldn’t be the iconic tune it is without their very different contributions. Miles knew this when he picked Coltrane to play alongside him. In business, as everybody knows, it’s all about people, and the group dynamic they create together. Peter Drucker put it well when he said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Indeed! You can have the best vision, the best invention, the best structure, but a business rarely goes anywhere without the right people, defined as a set of individuals with complementary skills and the same core values.

Listening. In music, listening is everything. One of the greatest things about Jazz is the conversation among musicians, each listening to the other, responding to stimuli through notes articulated with various degrees of fluidity, timing and intensity. A band of all-stars with great technical skills but an inability to listen and collaborate will not perform well. Listening is also about knowing your audience. Bruce Springsteen has said he’s been having a conversation with his fans for 45 years. In business, too often listening is a little-used skill. With quarterly results and daily work deadlines, employees can easily forget that, in the end, good listening is good business.

Emotional meaning. In music, mesmerizing technical skills and complicated arrangements amount to nothing if the music cannot inspire and heal. Remarkable musicians touch the hearts of their listeners. Similarly, a business does not succeed by virtue of the technical features of its products, any more than a musician’s excellence depends on speedy fingers. In today’s crowded marketplace, brands aren’t distinguished simply through high quality and good value. Many high-quality brands can claim the same virtues; in the customer’s mind, they become indistinguishable. To succeed, a business, like a musician, must deliver meaningful emotional impact.

Tireless pursuit of perfection. Sonny Rollins says he’s still trying to get better. That’s an incredible statement coming from an 83-year-old giant who has already shaped the evolution of jazz. In business, as in life, success is only earned by pursuing perfection every day.