Some colleagues and I (including an anthropologist, chemist, sociologist, economist, and a computer information theorist) recently decided to start having weekly get-togethers in my living room to talk about our craziest ideas. We even gave the event a name, the George Coleman Lecture Series.
We love you, George, BUT STOP PRACTICING!!
The point was to do exactly the opposite of what traditionally happens with academic talks—that is, spending countless hours and thought preparing for the talk. Rumor has it that the great trumpeter, Miles Davis, fired his tenor sax player, George Coleman, because he was caught practicing before the gig. It was in that spirit that speakers at our meetings were encouraged to be improvisational and to not spend more than 15 minutes planning their talks. The idea was for it to be a conversation amongst friends—you simply talk about what you’re thinking about. The catch, of course, is that you do open yourself up to showing your ignorance to your colleagues.
My colleague and mentor, social theorist Mark Gould, had an interesting theory that sparked the Coleman Lectures (and pretty much all great theories are simple and elegant in hindsight). Mark’s idea was that academics should have space to play with their ideas with each other. This is EXACTLY what jazz musicians do, especially in group improvisation. Even if there is a well-defined structure (i.e. chord changes), each different instrumentalist holds a musical space while the soloist plays. There is no such thing as a wrong note. It is in this momentary state of play when we truly expose ourselves to the band and the audience that sparks of novelty arise. And it works. I used to record some of my gigs, and I was always surprised to hear how bland I sounded when I was playing the “right notes.” The sections when I had thought I was messing up turned out to be the very best parts of the recordings.