Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Might Jazz Reveal More about Innovation than Economics Does?

Which is easier to identify: a sour note or a faltering business model? 

The fact that millions tune into American Idol each week, and can immediately identify the tone-deaf contestants immediately, should give the nod to the sour note. In contrast, even if some ludicrous businesses were included for comic relief in Shark Tank—the reality show for venture capitalists—it would take more than an instant to recognize the imposter and extinguish their chances. 

Our very well-developed auditory cortex makes assessments of musical fitness instantaneously, with no cognitive load. In contrast, even the most rudimentary assessment of the fitness of a new business idea imposes a heavy cognitive load of assessing the value of the proposition and determining its feasibility.

The huge efficiencies in sorting out good ideas from bad ideas in the domain of music could provide considerable insight for the much more arduous sorting required for economic innovation. But the visions of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and many others ensured that the contribution from jazz would be much more than an interesting parallel, or an enticing metaphor. I’ll argue that jazz improvisation is a cognate for economic innovation. That is, improvisation and innovation are identical processes applied in different domains.

An identical answer to the question “What is it?” establishes these two things as cognates: improvisation/innovation is an exploration of the adjacent possible, where exploration is dependent on productive mistakes.

A blog entry is too brief a medium to fully defend the premise that innovation is an exploration of the adjacent possible. Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation does make this case and provides a concise definition of the adjacent possible for our purposes:

"The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of thing, a map of all the ways in which the future can reinvent itself. Yet, it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field…What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen." (p. 31)

However, a blog entry is not too brief a medium to fully defend the premise that jazz improvisation is an exploration of the adjacent possible—a resounding endorsement for the efficiencies of non-rational ways of knowing. And this efficiency begins with how jazz defines “the present” or “what is.”

The lead sheet for a jazz tune contains the melody and the chord changes that provide the harmonic support for the melody. A jazz combo playing off a lead sheet defines “the present” by establishing the combo’s agreement over its parameters, and encoding “the present” in the auditory cortex of the audience. 

Then the improvised solo choruses begin. The soloists are melodically exploring around “the present,” using the tune’s chord changes still being laid down by the rhythm section, motifs from the original melody, melodic ideas from earlier soloists, allusions to other melodies, and the ineffable input from the soloists “voice.” The minimum fitness of these explorations, these new ideas, is assessed instantaneously by the audience, even an audience of jazz neophytes.

So what about those cases where the minimum fitness does not rise to the level of a pleasing performance—where the clams are much more numerous than consonant notes? 

“Do not fear mistakes—there are none” is a quote attributed to Miles Davis that provides considerable solace for the novice improviser standing to solo for the first time, and courage for the competent soloist who fashions herself more avant-garde than straight-ahead. In both cases though, the clams are likely not mistakes but non-sequiturs. The novice’s unfamiliarity with the chord changes and the competent soloist’s eschewing the chord changes means that both are some distance from the adjacent possible—playing in the totally open field. Their musical ideas are likely quite novel, but provide a visceral confirmation for Jim March’s claim that most novel ideas are bad.

March is an emeritus professor at Stanford best-known for his work with Herbert Simon and Richard Cyert, which forms the foundation of behavioral theories of economic decision-making. He has struggled with the conundrum that most innovation researchers are willing to gloss over: why is the generation of novelty seemingly irrepressible when the overwhelming majority of novel ideas are bad bets? His conjecture that generally bad but potentially useful novel ideas “hitchhike” on highly reliable but generally mundane routines might provide a resolution for the economic innovation puzzle. 

But it most definitely provides an explanation for how novice jazz musicians begin to truly improvise (explore the adjacent possible) and how competent jazz musicians move from journeyman solos to solos with artistry.

The novice improviser can begin building the needed routine intelligence to explore the adjacent possible by doing nothing more than playing an arpeggio that corresponds to each chord symbol. The improvisation may sound formulaic but this approach accomplishes two things: 1) it demonstrates that improvisation at its core is the courage to play one note after the next; and 2) that melodies are much more than notes that fit the chord structure, but are also constituted by rhythm, articulation, and swing. The boredom of playing straight eighth-note arpeggios endlessly is enough to compel anyone to mix it up rhythmically, devoting attention to this crucial component of melody that is often neglected in the obsession with following the chord changes.

The challenge for the competent jazz musician—knowing the chord changes, in full command of the routine intelligence—is how to tap into what March terms utopian intelligence. This is the ability to assess the fitness of novel ideas outside routine intelligence, many of which may still be bad, but a few of which are highly valuable. These are the musical ideas that challenge, surprise, and delight a jazz audience but which are dependent on the performer’s willingness to commit productive mistakes. The possibility that some of the mistakes will not be productive was confirmed by none other than Thelonious Monk who characterized a disappointing improvisation by simply stating: “I made the wrong mistakes.”
So how might this insight improve the study of economic innovation? 

Apart from the process of innovation, economics does have a very good handle on the conditions that foster what I will call capital “I” innovation. The National Science Foundation has a Congressional mandate to compile data on research and development (R&D) expenditures, employment of scientists and engineers, and patenting. There is a wealth of data that confirms the Schumpeterian story that Innovation results from scientific and technical discovery in pursuit of monopoly profits. 

But not all—Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps and MIT professor Eric von Hippel would argue not most—important innovation happens in R&D labs. Grassroots and user innovation are the terms given to innovation that emerges from a particular problem needing a solution or improvement, where the creative spark provides a better explanation of motivation and perseverance than the pursuit of profit. Unfortunately, this type of innovation does not usually leave a paper trail of patent applications nor is it reliant on scientists and engineers, and formal R&D budgets.

But it is the type of innovation that can contribute to job growth and economic resilience. And anecdotally, there are accounts that this type of innovation happens every day in rural America. The challenge has been in how to provide reliable data on the prevalence of, location of, and factors that facilitate this type of innovation—call it small “i" innovation. 

Imagine surveying musicians/businesses and asking, “Do you improvise/innovate?” Since both processes are highly complex—impossible to define precisely in a simple question—the data would represent little more than the respondent’s interpretation of the word “improvise/innovate.” If you could listen to the musician improvise or discuss the business innovation at some length, it would be possible to differentiate soulful improvisation from noodling or substantive innovation from window-dressing.  

The challenge confronting the Economic Research Service’s Rural Establishment Innovation Survey (REIS), currently in the field, is how to arrive at a reliable estimate of the number of substantive innovators only asking simple questions that can be understood in a telephone interview. If simple questions can weed out respondents lacking the requisite routine intelligence, we might be halfway to identifying substantive innovators.

So what is the innovation parallel to the musical question: “Do you play scales and arpeggios most days you practice?” Quite simply, they are the routines that form the basis of any continuous improvement program: “Do you regularly assess customer satisfaction?” “Do you regularly modify business practices based on customer complaints?” And “Do you document the skills needed for each position and track whether these skills are acquired?”

From the musical parallel, it is clear we are only halfway there because many classically trained musicians with no interest in improvising will faithfully practice scales and arpeggios. Simple questions to elicit their interest in developing the utopian intelligence required for jazz improvisation might be: “Have you ever tried to transcribe a solo of one of your jazz idols?” And “Do you ever play transcribed solos while practicing?” 

The parallel questions for businesses begin with “Have you abandoned any innovation projects in the past three years?” The idea here is that substantive innovators will recognize the value of productive mistakes and thus acknowledge failed attempts, whereas window-dressers will not. We then ask a question to elicit whether they are capital constrained with respect to innovation projects; that is, do they have more promising ideas than the means to pursue them. And finally, has the pursuit of any of their ideas been fruitful enough to implement intellectual property protections, even if less arduous than acquiring a patent?

Whether the proposed questions to separate soulful improvers from noodlers will work is still an empirical question. I anxiously await the opportunity to test the thesis by including such questions in the application for the as yet unannounced American Jazz Idol competition. 

But the provisional results from the Rural Establishment Innovation Survey are highly encouraging. The strongest evidence that the jazz-inspired screens work in separating substantive innovators from nominal innovators is that the industries that have the highest share of substantive innovators identified in the survey also tend to be the most innovation intensive industries using the Innovation indicators data from the National Science Foundation. 

The strongest clue we may be onto something comes from the one outlier: the industry in REIS with the highest share of substantive innovators is Computer Systems Design and Related Services (NAICS 5415) that ranks relatively low using NSF indicators. Apparently, patents and R&D expenditures do not tell the whole story of economic innovation.

And this is probably the best way to diffuse the anticipated criticism coming from colleagues in economics. Just as jazz fails to cover the full panoply of music, grassroots innovation fails to cover all of economic innovation. There is plenty of room for all genres. But for economists most interested in the democratization of innovation, it might be time to come swing with the hepcats.

Tim Wojan plays the bass trombone for the American University Jazz Orchestra, as well as second trombone for the NIH Philharmonia. The opinions expressed in this blog post are his own and may not be attributed to the Economic Research Service or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.



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