A lesson in mindfulness taken from jazz

April 6, 2017 0

Miles Davis was one of the greatest innovators in jazz. He is also an example of someone who is able to experience the present moment without judging it. In 1964, Miles began playing with a group of younger musicians that would go on to become jazz legends in their own right. They would challenge Miles and push his music into experimental realms. These men included Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and eventually saxophonist Wayne Shorter. They would be known as Miles Davis’ “Second Great Quintet.”

In an interview many years later, pianist Herbie Hancock described a late 60’s performance in Germany with the quintet:

“We were playing ‘So What,’ one of Miles’ compositions from the late 50’s. It was a really hot night. The music was tight, it was powerful, it was innovative, and fun. We were having a lot of fun. The music was on. Right in the middle of Miles’ solo, when he was playing one of his amazing solos, I played the wrong chord. A chord that just sounded completely wrong, it just sounded like a big mistake. I put my hands around my ears. Miles paused for a second. And then he played some notes that made my chord right, made it correct…which astounded me. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Miles was able to make something that was wrong into something that was right. I couldn’t even play for about a minute, I couldn’t even touch the piano. What I realize now is that Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake. He heard it as something that happened. Just an event. And so that was part of the reality of what was happening at that moment. And he dealt with it.”

Miles Davis' Second Great Quintet

Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully aware of experiences as they’re happening, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. It is a natural human ability, but because of distractions and anxieties, most people don’t typically exist in a mindful state. As a result, life is experienced through a lens of constantly fluctuating emotions and preoccupations.

Jazz improvisation is an exercise in mindfulness. The soloist must be connected to the moment, to his fellow musicians, to the sounds coming out of his instrument. Without a good sense of present state awareness, the performance might lose its joie de vivre. When you’re playing music in a group, there are things out of your control. You’re relying on other people’s talents and abilities to drive the music forward. And people make mistakes. The great thing about jazz (especially the modal jazz that Miles and company were playing) is that there is often much more freedom in individual expression than in other styles of music. So Miles Davis did not only accept the reality of Herbie’s “incorrect” chord, but he also chose to make it into something interesting. He made something wrong into something right simply by not allowing the “mistake” to dampen the excitement of that performance.

Whether you attribute this story to Miles’ genius as a jazz musician or his mastery of living in the present moment (one probably follows the other), the lesson nonetheless remains a powerful one on the value of mindfulness.

When you or someone you’re working with makes a so-called mistake, think about these two steps:

  1. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the anger or frustration that tends to follow mistakes.
  2. Can you turn the “mistake” into something positive? As Herbie said, how can you “turn poison into medicine”?

Miles himself once said:

“When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”

By the way, the song Hancock is referring to – “So What” – is from Miles Davis’ 1959 album Kind Of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time. You can listen to the original studio version below.


Also published on Medium.


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