Jazz Improvisation and Organizing: Once More from the Top

Organization Science, Vol. 11, No. 2, March-April, 2000, pp. 227-234

Michael H. Zack
Northeastern University College of Business Administration
214 Hayden Hall
Boston, MA 02115
617.373.3166 (fax)


This is a response to the special issue of Organizational Science on Jazz Improvisation and Organizing (Vol. 9, No. 5, 1998). It is a call to unpack the jazz metaphor by extending the notion of jazz, and thereby the value of the metaphor, beyond the limited definition described in the issue. In that issue jazz was described as a process of improvising within a highly constrained structure and set of rules. Other genres of jazz, however, have gone beyond those constraints. Jazz improvisation has occurred within forms, with forms, and beyond forms. Perhaps organizational improvisation may as well.


As a former jazz musician1 and a current organization scientist, I read the Organization Science special issue on Jazz Improvisation and Organizing (Vol. 9, No. 5, 1998) with great interest. I, too, have been using the jazz metaphor for many years. I found the issue to be enlightening and exhilarating in many respects. It was exciting see the spirit of innovation and improvisation played out in this forum. Hopefully more of us will be encouraged to improvise in the creation and delivery of the knowledge of our field. However, in other respects, I found the material to be inconsistent with many of its own assertions.

Improvisation is represented as a highly constrained process.

The term "jazz" can refer to a wide range of improvisational behaviors and can be appropriated in many different ways depending on the genre being referred to. The degree of improvisational structure, in particular, is a key element that varies with genre. For the jazz neophyte (the primary audience targeted by the authors of this issue), even highly structured forms can sound chaotic. Therefore, to demonstrate to this audience that some forms of improvisation do exhibit manifest and latent structure, the focus was on more traditional structured forms of jazz such as Swing. However, over emphasizing the structure of traditional improvisational genres may limit the power of using of jazz as a metaphor for innovation2. The Swing form of jazz described by Barrett and Peplowski (1998) is a highly structured, rule-bound activity.

"…[J]azz is guided by a non-negotiable framework that constrains what the soloist can play." (Barrett and Peplowski 1998, p. 558)

Jazz improvisers

"follow those chord changes like they're a road map. To play outside of those chord changes is to break a rule. You can't do that." (Barrett and Peplowski 1998, p. 559)

Most of the audience at the conference performance, especially those not frequently exposed to jazz, were able to enjoy the Swing jazz performance because it challenged their ear to some degree (the improvised solos were not completely predictable), yet was well within the tonal language they were familiar with and could make sense of (the chord sequences and tonal resolutions were highly predictable and, to those familiar with the tunes, fully determined). We often "improvise" similarly in organizations by behaving in ways that are marginally or incrementally unexpected but well within the bounds of the grander scheme of (socially, culturally, morally, politically and organizationally) expected behaviors.

Lewin (1998) described the special issue as focusing on jazz as a metaphor for the flexibility of human capital at the individual and organizational level. If by jazz we mean the traditional genre as played and described by Barrett and Peplowski (1998), then flexibility comes from treating the basic form of the tune as a structured "platform" from which can be derived many outcomes (tune variations) as combinations of existing resources and capabilities (i.e., sequences of notes) within that structure. Platforms are an accepted approach for enabling organizational flexibility and variation while maintaining some degree of structural stability and routine (Kogut and Kulatilaka 1994, Meyer and Leonard 1998, Sanchez and Mahoney 1996). This is not unlike a job shop in which a limited set of predefined processes, capabilities and resources is dynamically mixed and matched to provide an extremely wide (although bounded) range of products and services in a responsive yet efficient way.

However, if we accept the job-shop view of improvisation, then we may be selling short the jazz metaphor and the notion of improvisation in general.

  Jazz improvisation has evolved well beyond structured swing.

To place the structure of Swing jazz in context, let's look at a brief (and admittedly oversimplified) history of jazz evolution. New Orleans jazz (1890s to 1920s) represented the precursor of swing (1930s and 1940s). Both were structured music forms in the sense described by Barrett and Peplowski (1998). Bebop (1940s and 1950s), the next major genre, made several important breaks with swing. Swing improvisation emphasized the notes of the chords forming the basic structure of the tune. There were "good" notes and "bad" notes (Barrett and Peplowski 1998). Bebop extended the notion of what could be considered good music by using those notes formerly considered bad to create new and interesting harmonies. Bebop musicians made use of chromatics (notes halfway between other notes) as "passing tones" in much more complex tonal sequences. They created more complex rhythmic emphasis than merely staying to the straight swing groove. Finally, in later bebop, the musicians improvised the chords as well as the notes. They improvised notes that implied "passing chords", secondary chords that linked the primary chords of the tune. They reharmonized tunes by spontaneously substituting a new and usually more complex set of chords that not only changed the sound of the basic tune, but provided even wider opportunity to improvise notes. Beginning in the 1960s, musicians such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, Oliver Lake, Ornette Coleman and others continued to push the notion of what was considered a "good" note or harmonic structure. They even challenged the basic concept of harmonic structure itself.

In the introduction, Lewin (1998, p. 539) makes reference to the need for theories of organizational evolution, renewal, or mutation. Yet, there is very little to suggest that the performance of traditional swing jazz represents anything evolutionary, or that those jazz groups mutate in any significant way within a given performance. So where does the evolution referred to by Lewin (1998) come from? Not necessary from within the structure or performance of swing, but from musicians like Charlie Parker and Ornette Colemen who hear the music differently. The evolution from New Orleans jazz to swing to bebop to post-bop freer jazz forms can truly be viewed as a paradigm shift, rather than as one particular jazz group improvising, mutating or renewing itself over time (although this does happen, especially within the freer forms of jazz improvisation). In fact, proponents of particular jazz idioms can become quite entrenched in their own worldview.

Breaking the improvisation rules of the current genre is typically called playing "outside", as in "outside the norm" or "outside the accepted musical structure". As jazz became more "modern", the musicians increasingly used outside notes and broke with the notion of fixed harmonic structure (Hatch 1998). While the tunes were still precomposed, their basic structure was no longer fixed. Rather, structure became one more field for improvisation. Taking improvisation to its limit, jazz groups like The Fringe began in the 1970s to base their improvisation on a few notes or a tonal concept and improvised essentially their entire performance3. Within this genre, notes, structure and harmony emerge spontaneously. There are no harmonic or scalar constraints on what notes may be played. The musicians are spontaneously and simultaneously improvising the rules for improvisation as well as the performance itself. Hatch (1998), characterizing musical structure as a safety net for improvisation, likened free jazz to "working without a net."

Playing "outside" may be the truest form of improvisation.

Several authors in the special issue described examples of jazz improvisation. However, the effectiveness of these examples was mitigated by those authors having to limit, for this particular audience, their descriptions of what constitutes jazz improvisation primarily to structured Swing. To expande the metaphor, the key question to ask is what are the musicians improvising?

Barrett (1998) suggested that to spark improvisation, Miles Davis surprised his band and disrupted routine by calling unrehearsed songs and choosing "odd" keys. While certainly a catalyst, these disruptions more closely represented minor variation within a familiar structure. Neither unrehearsed songs nor odd keys represent much of a challenge for an experienced musician. The tunes have been played over and over, and form a shared language, as Barrett and Peplowksi (1998) suggested (and demonstrated in their unrehearsed performance). Standard music training has students playing extensively in "difficult" keys. With practice, no key is more difficult than any other, as all are based on the same formulaic Western scale4. The ability to transpose tunes among keys on the fly is considered a standard skill. Even the "odd" modal tonality used by Miles in his pre-fusion period used the same scales, but starting on notes different than "Do". Where Davis truly disrupted routine, however, was in his post-bop period by challenging the language and rules of improvisation themselves (for example, compare his albums Miles Smiles or Bitches Brew to his early bebop recordings).

Weick (1998) similarly suggested that discontinuity in the form of unusual harmonic structures applied to standard tunes may spark improvisation. He cites the example of Sonny Rollins reharmonizing tunes such as Home on the Range and Tennessee Waltz, tunes not typically used for improvisation and which do not follow the standard chord progression of the tune I Got Rhythm (IGR). While this is a good example of improvising the basic harmonic structure of a tune, these tunes are as - or more - harmonically predictable and mundane than the standard IGR chord changes. It takes a true master like Rollins to get anything new out of tunes like IGR or Home on the Range. However, it is not the simple tune that sparks the improvisation, it is the ability of Sonny Rollins to reharmonize that gives new life and meaning to these simple tunes. That is, he spontaneously improvises the harmonic structure (chords) as well as the notes.

Weick (1998) endorsed descriptions of improvisation that included working with the unexpected; composing at the moment; and reworking precomposed material and designs in relation to unanticipated ideas conceived, shaped and transformed under the special conditions of performance. But key questions that must be asked are: What is it that is unexpected? What is it that is being spontaneously composed? What is the depth to which the materials are being reworked? Are we talking about improvising notes over chords as in traditional jazz, new chords and harmonic structures as in bebop, or the rules of improvisation themselves as in post-bop?

While improvisation is grounded in forms and memory (Weick 1998), each improviser must determine to what extent they want to improvise - within those forms, with those forms, or outside those forms? Variation on a theme, an old concept used even within classical composition, is one notion of improvisation. But the embellishment typified by swing jazz is but one limited form of variation. Bebop experimented with those forms by extending the notion of what constitutes good harmonic structure, but it still acknowledged structure. Charlie Parker's solos, for example, were not formless. Bebop's contribution to improvisation at that point was that within an accepted chord form there were many more notes that could sound good (if you were able to hear it that way) than being played by more traditional musicians. Parker redefined improvisation by playing every conceivable combination of notes that fit within the harmonic form. Parker had phrases and statements he often repeated, but was able to construct a virtually infinite number of different combinations of those elements. Others went even further to challenge the notion of form itself. Thus improvisation does not always come out of a melody as pretext for real-time composing, as suggested by Weick (1998). The melody may be left unstated and remain open for improvisation. Perhaps this could be considered metaimprovisation. The pretext for improvisation becomes improvising a pretext for improvisation.

Barrett (1998) suggested that errors are an improvisational spark. In some genres perhaps. But, what does it mean to break the rules imposed by structure when you are improvising the structure and the rules themselves? There are no chordal structures by which to define a "bad" note. There is no regular beat by which to define disorientation to the rhythm. There is no "groove" in the traditional sense of jazz. The groove comes from band members having a deep sense of oneness with the mutual, spontaneous act of creation of form rather than the individual creation within form.

Taking the limited view of jazz expressed in this issue constrained Berliner's (1994) interpretation of Konitz's four stages of improvisation (cited by Weick 1998). Berliner did not conceive of improvisation as encompassing the basic structure of the tune itself, therefore the range of improvisational behaviors may be greater than that suggested by Weick. Interpretation is a matter of closely recreating a composition. Embellishment is the stuff of structured jazz - improvisation within a set of strong rules. Variation is the stuff of bebop - extending the notion of harmonic structure and the rules for picking good notes. Improvisation, then, refers to the maximal innovation that comes from improvising the entire composition spontaneously: its premise, its harmonic structure, its tonal language, and the actual sounds played.

The spirit is right, but the metaphor needs strengthening.

Weick's quoting of Ryle's [1979 p129] description of improvisation as "the pitting of an acquired competence or skill against unprogrammed opportunity, obstacle or hazard." seems to be right on target. The contention is around what we mean by "unprogrammed opportunity".

In traditional jazz and, to some degree, bebop, unprogrammed-ness is a matter of choosing tonal sequences within a meaningful, predefined structure. Enjoyment in listening to a performance comes from the ability to predict the harmonic progression and make sense of the improvised notes within that familiar harmonic context and set of improvisational rules. Some like their music to be highly predictable, some like it less so, but most want it to make enough harmonic and musical sense given what they know about harmonic structure not to be too surprised by the notes being played. This is a matter of managing or tolerating uncertainty.

In freer forms of bebop and post-bop jazz, unprogramed-ness is less a matter of predicting than of sensemaking. Often the listener is not able to immediately make sense of the performance, and for some, that is a source of delight. This is a matter of tolerating ambiguity and equivocality. These listeners not only have a high tolerance for ambiguity, but find it to be a source of beauty, exhilaration, and creative freedom. They must suspend their interpretive process, stop looking for structures in memory by which to make sense of the performance, and just accept it in the moment. This is not unlike Barrett's (1998) description of jazz groups as a model of

"diverse specialists living in a chaotic turbulent environment; making fast, irreversible decisions; highly interdependent on one another to interpret equivocal information; dedicated to innovation and the creation of novelty" (p. 605)

Rehearse improvisation not routine

This is not to suggest that the ambiguous remains so indefinitely, or that order does not evolve from improvisation. Even free jazzers fall into familiar musical conversations, not unlike the improvisational actors described by Mirvis (1998). Mirvis (1998) suggests that groups practice improvisation. But again, interpreting that prescription depends on what we mean by improvisation. Rehearsing the same old tunes using the same old chord changes does provide an ability to spontaneously create embellishment. And that may be quite appropriate to a particular jazz performance or business process. The exercises used by Second City (Mirvis 1998) are geared more towards expanding, rather than reinforcing, the language and structure of innovation and improvisation. Rehearsing maximal improvisation, however, requires practicing communication that builds a deeply shared language, worldview, and an understanding of the group's purpose, mission and belief system, one part of which is to abhor complacency. Organizations need to be open to new ways of listening and observing, to asking good questions, and to accepting what they don't know. They need to suspend judgement and interpretation to accept the apparent anarchy, noise and confusion that may merely represent unfamiliarity rather than chaos.

Jazz improvisation is like conversation.

If organizations are like jazz, and jazz is like a conversation (Weick 1998), then perhaps we ought to look at organizations and jazz using the conversation as a framework. Straight interpretation of a music score, as done by symphonic orchestras, is like delivering a prepared speech. It is non-conversational. The amount of improvisation is minimal. The speech may change slightly depending on the context and the speaker, but by and large it stays the same. Swing jazz, while more conversational, represents a highly structured and predictable conversation guided by strong rules and expectations. This is analogous to strict turn-taking and the use of adjacency pairs (i.e., highly predictable statement and response pairs) in linguistics (Goffman 1981, Schegloff 1987, 1992), and is often scripted (Gioia and Poole 1984). A typical scripted conversation utilizing adjacency pairs might proceed as

Me:         Hello
You:        Hello
Me:         How are you?
You:        Fine
Me:         Have a good day
You:        Thanks
Me:         Bye
You:        Bye

But most of us don't talk like this most of the time. As Goffman pointed out, these types of conversational structures

"…are found in the artful dialog of the theater and in novels… Ordinary talk ordinarily has less ping-pong. (Goffman 1981, p. 35)

Ordinary conversation is pervasively improvisational. It is more interplay than dialog, lodging people together in an intersubjective world in which particpants mutually and iteratively create meaning out of interaction (Goffman 1981, Rogers 1986, Tannen 1989). Prealloating the order and length of turns is characteristic of ritualistic or ceremonial interaction (Schegloff 1987). Spontaneous conversation, on the other hand, implies a local, unpredictable, emergent, and mutually constituted allocation of turn-taking, complete with interruptions, digressions, side quips, non-verbal queues, and remarks made out of sequence or embedded within other sequences. Bebop approaches this notion of conversation, but it is most fully constituted within the free jazz genre.

And interactive conversation, as with less structured genres of jazz, is spontaneously constituted based on a compromise between future intention and past expression. Conversation is retrospective in the sense that what one says creates a context for further communication. However, we do not express ourselves one word at a time, but rather attempt to make full coherent sentences from entire thoughts. Those coherent thoughts are a product of prior conversation, but not exclusively. There is a balance between past, present and future and the simultaneous ongoing remarks of others. So too in jazz improvisation. Meaningful improvisation demands that the musician look ahead at what he or she will be playing so that the solo is not just a series of disconnected notes each decided only by the previous one, but rather a set of notes preconceived as a coherent whole. In more modern forms of jazz, the other members of the group are not merely comping, playing the scripted chord changes as the soloist performs. Rather, everyone is reacting to everyone else and it is truly a fully connected conversation that has infinitely more possibilities. And as in real conversation, the group may never return to the original point of departure.

In summary…

I have summarized these thoughts in figure 1. Four music genres (viz., classical, swing, bebop, and post-bop) are described according to the extent of improvisation, are mapped to Konitz' stages, assigned metaphors of organizing and communication, and labeled as to the extent of dynamism or flexibility, as raised by Lewin.

  • Classical music represents minimal improvisation, and its performance is described as interpretation. Classical orchestras are similar to functional hierarchies engaged in structured, predefined, and linear communication such as that of a speech. They are rigid.
  • Swing represents constrained improvisation within a well-structured context, and its performance is described as embellishment. It reflects the job-shop or platform approach to organizing and improvising and is conversationally reflective of the strict turn-taking and adjacency pairs of ritualistic communication and scripted exchanges. It offers structural flexibility.
  • Bebop represents extensive modification of the tune using a wider range of notes and rhythm and may involve some modification to the harmonic structure of the tune itself. Its performance is characterized as variation and is related to a network form of organization engaging in complex but structured conversations. It is organic.
  • Post-bop represents maximal improvisation of the content, structure and rules of improvisation, and its performance is described as improvisation. It reflects what may be best described as a functional anarchy5 engaged in emergent, spontaneous, interactive and mutually constructed conversation. Its dynamics are chaos6.

I am not proposing that there is no negotiated structure or pre-existing basis on which to communicate and improvise, either in jazz groups or other types of organizations. I am saying that those elements that are open to improvisation go well beyond the notion of improvisation described in this issue. The jazz metaphor is extremely useful, but we must push it further. We need to unpack the metaphor so that we don't end up using it merely as a vehicle into which we force-fit our existing ways of thinking merely because jazz is different, and using it as a metaphor sounds hip, hot, or cool. Let's really improvise.



Barrett, F. J. 1998. Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning. Organization Science. 9 5, 605-622

Barrett, F. J. and K. Peplowski 1998. Minimal Structures Within a Song: An Analysis of "All of Me." Organization Science. 9 5, 558-560

Gioia, D. A. and P. P. Poole 1984. Scripts in Organizational Behavior. Academy of Management Review. 9 3, 449-459

Goffman, E. 1981. Forms of Talk. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA

Hatch, M. J., 1998. Jazz as a Metaphor for Organizing in the 21st Century. Organization Science. 9 5, 556-557; 565-568

Kogut, B. and N. Kulatilaka 1994. Options Thinking and Platform Investments: Investing in Opportunity. California Management Review, Winter, 52-71

Lewin, A. Y. 1998. Jazz Improvisation as a Metaphor for Organization Theory. Organization Science. 9 5, 539

Mirvis, P. H. 1998. Practice Innovation. Organization Science. 9 5, 586-592

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Shegloff. E. A., 1987. Between Macro and Micro: Contexts and Other Connections. J. C. Alexander, B. Giesan, R. Munch, and N. J. Smalser, eds. The Micro-Macro Link, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. 207-234

Tannen, D. 1989. Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialog, and Imagery in Conversational Discourse. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

Weick, K. E. 1998. Improvisation as a Mindset for Organizational Analysis. Organization Science. 9 5, 543-555



1. Alumnus of Berklee College of Music

2. It is probably worth noting here that I am a great fan of swing, and do not intend this to be taken as criticism of the genre itself.

3. "The trio's musical outlook is free and all of the pieces at this concert were conceived on the spot. Appropriately all composer credits are given as by The Fringe, and in the main they are simple melodic hooks on which the players hang their personal statements. (From the Amzon.com review notes to the Fringe's album It's Time for the Fringe).

4. The Western tonal system is founded on a tonal interval call an octave. This is the tonal distance between a given note and a second whose pitch (soundwave period) is exactly double that of the first note (e.g., standard "middle A" is 440 Hz, and its octave would be 880 Hz). The octave interval is divided into 12 "half-tones", each with a soundwave set at a precise mathematical ratio to the starting tone. The major scale (i.e., do, re, me, fa, sol, la , ti, do) is made up of the first, third, fifth, sixth, eighth, tenth, and twelfth half-tones plus the octave. The remaining intermediate tones are what we call "sharps" (half-tone above the nearest primary note) and "flats" (half-tone below the nearest primary note).

5. The use of anarchy here refers to its definition as "a theory of the cooperative and voluntary association of individuals and groups as the principle mode of organized society."

6. Chaos is used here in the sense of chaos theory, which treats chaos as effectively unpredictable behavior arising within a minimally deterministic nonlinear dynamical system.