What jazz has taught me about life… and running a copywriting business

512px-Louisiana_Five_Jazz_Band_famous_publicity_photoLife (and business) lessons often arrive in the most unlikely disguises.

I once went to see a guy play trumpet in a Dixieland band. I don’t love that style of jazz (as a pianist, I’ve always been more of a Dave Brubeck kinda gal) but they were minor-league famous, so I hovered by the stage, ready to clap in the right places.

Their guitarist busted a string just as the group were about to begin. He quickly replaced it but the damn thing just wouldn’t stay in tune. He slid over to the mic, shrugged and drawled, ‘It’s good enough for jaaaaazz’.

The band played a great set to roaring applause – even I didn’t have to fake it.

As a 17-year-old, I had no idea that this phrase was a “thing”. To me they were the wisest words I’d ever heard and it’s still my go-to mantra for when I can feel my perfectionist streak turning into a super-highway.

Jazz: a code to live (and work) by

Doing away with perfectionism isn’t the only wisdom the world of jazz has to offer. Those cats have got chops that would make them unbeatable small business owners. Their craft demands expertise, flexibility, collaboration and innovation – only they’d never use that kind of ‘establishment’ talk.

It took me exactly five-and-a-half jazz clarinet lessons to realise that my classically-trained fingers just couldn’t let go of ‘notes on a page’. Luckily, I’ve been more successful applying the ‘jazz code’ to my copywriting business (and life more generally).

Let’s take it from the top…

You have to know the rules to break ‘em
First there’s the expertise. Jazz musos might look like they’re just playing whack-a-mole with the notes but they know every scale up, down and sideways. They learn all the chord structures, every inversion – every rule. Then they let it all go. Instinct takes over and it becomes about communicating. That’s why jazz is often referred to as a ‘language’ rather than simply a ‘form’.

My ‘take-it-away’: technical knowledge is important but so is feel. You must be across the ‘rules’ but if you write by numbers, your copy will be robotic and blah. For an audience to really dig your writing, you have to nail their ‘language’ – that might mean starting the odd sentence with “And”.

You’ve gotta have a plan
Chord progressions are a jazz player’s strategy. Knowing where they are headed anchors their improvisation. Sure, you can use any notes you like, but your jam has to link back to the ‘plan’ at some point. Otherwise the music becomes ‘organised noise’ and the audience walks out.

My ‘take-it-away’: Copywriting is the blue-collar worker of the writing profession; it has a job to do. If your copy isn’t contributing to your marketing strategy, then it has failed. Every piece of content needs to connect with and progress your plan in some tangible way.

You gotta learn from the greats
Mentoring is an important part of jazz tradition. It would be easy to paint a portrait of success and rub out all the pencil markings but that’s all myth. Legends aren’t born, they are painstakingly carved from a chunk of potential. Every awesome jazz guitarist starts out playing along to recordings of Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. For hours. Later they take every opportunity to play live with people who play better than they do – the best education anyone can get.

Once they’ve ‘made it’, it is customary to pass on their wisdom to the next generation. There’s very little ‘rivalry’ in the jazz universe. The whole artform revolves around standing upon the shoulders of giants.

My ‘take-it-away’: Find your ‘giants’. We are so lucky in the digital age to have unfettered access to a free or inexpensive education. Blogs, podcasts, e-courses and webinars – no matter what your industry, you’ll find generous experts willing to knowledge-share. Even better, you can often personally connect with those experts through social media. Twitter and LinkedIn offer some serious opportunities to connect with potential mentors – regardless of their notoriety or location.

Infuse everything you do with your lived experience
My old jazz teacher tells a story about seeing his hero play live. The sax player was mid-solo when he suddenly broke out the theme from Sesame Street. He later confessed that he’d been hanging out with his young son before he left for that night’s set – that tune is one heck of an earworm. The result was pure genius and the audience whooped with delight.

This grand tradition is not exclusive to jazz music. Even Classical composers, like Mozart and Beethoven are known to have ‘borrowed’ themes for their famous symphonies from popular music of the time. It would have given their music relevance and a familiar ‘flavour’.

My ‘take-it-away’: your copy will always be stronger when you combine information with experience. That is what builds authenticity and authority in your storytelling.

Freedom to give stuff a go
Much of jazz music happens ‘in the moment’. This provides the artists with the perfect test-kitchen for some mad experimentation. Despite a lot of pieces becoming ‘standards’, you’re unlikely to hear a jazz solo done the same way twice. Artists constantly audition ideas, respond to the audience’s feedback and ‘sky-scraper’ older versions of the song.

My ‘take-it-away’: this attitude of innovation is easy to apply to the business world. It takes courage and support to take a ‘suck and see’ approach. When it does work, the risk pays off big-time. If not… there’s always the next gig.

Everyone gets their day in the sun
Jazz is a team sport. Unlike rock bands (where people often have no idea what the drummer’s name is), there is no real ‘lead’. Everyone gets their turns to offer up a slick, face-melting solo and bask in the glow of audience appreciation, while the rest of the group takes a supporting role. What a way for a team to work – leveraging everyone’s strengths for the sake of the song. That is real collaboration.

My ‘take-it-away’: The copy, design and tech elements of a project should ideally inform each other… BUT… each should know when to step back and allow ‘spotlight’ moments to happen. Placing the audience (and not your ego) at the centre is how you create showstopping work for your clients.

Take 5
‘Jazz’ and ‘business’ seem like strange bedfellows but it the artform offers more than just untouchable licks – it’s a way of life. I think my man, Brubeck, summed it up nicely: “Get out there & improvise & take chances & don’t be a perfectionist.”

I’m hip to that!



(Image: ‘Louisiana Five jazz band’, 1919, courtesy of Nunez family collection)

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