When we watch the All Blacks we’re watching jazz

Jazz... of a more popular kind.

Jazz… of a more popular kind.

They’ve beaten the ‘Boks since the article in question was written, and they played quite a few bum notes in that game which resulted in a fair few penalties, in the first half at any rate, but hey, when was jazz about sticking completely to the rules?

What the hell am I on about? An article by Matthew Syed in The Times last week which linked the New Zealand All Blacks rugby union side’s performance against France the previous weekend and the kind of teamwork that is achieved when all the players are “in the zone” to the music a bunch of jazz musicians make when they are in a similar state of synergy.

Here is an extract from the article:

… this brings me to the performance of the All Blacks against France on Saturday. There were moments, particularly during the second half, when this remarkable ensemble of men inhabited the collective zone. Despite the intensity and the collisions, there was an invisible seam connecting every New Zealand player, one to the other.

The majority of the astonishing nine tries scored during the game, particularly the first by Julian Savea, exuded a deep collective intelligence.

It is noteworthy that teamwork of this kind has the property of being recursive. None of the actions of the individual make sense without each of the actions of the whole. The run into space must be timed to coincide not just with the pass of one team-mate, but with the simultaneous movement of a different team-mate, now blocking the incursion of an opponent, and a third and fourth team-mate, creating yet more possibilities.

In short, this is not a set of sequential actions, but a unified and intricate web of human interaction. The nature of the collective zone is now the subject of serious psychological study — and one of the prime vehicles for its understanding is improvised jazz. This is where a group of musicians spontaneously create new music. It is fascinating to psychologists because, like sport itself, the outcomes are unscripted. The group are not playing from a piece of notated music. Rather, they are “freewheeling”.

Yet — and this is the key — none of the notes played by the saxophonist, or pianist, or the bass player makes any sense unless they harmonise with the rest. As Frank J Barrett, an expert in military systems, put it in a marvellous essay on the subject: “Although there are many players known for their soloing, in the final analysis, jazz is an ongoing social accomplishment. What characterises successful improvisation, perhaps more than any other factor, is the ongoing give and take between members. Players are in continual dialogue and exchange with one another”.

In his landmark study of jazz, David Bastien, the organisational psychologist, found that beneath the veneer of spontaneity was a network of hidden mastery and mutual understanding. One player might use a hand sign — four fingers — to indicate a change from 4/4 time to 4/2 time. Another might signal the end of a solo by resolving the chord. “These behavioural norms and codes are designed to create clear communication while remaining unobtrusive to the audience”, he writes.

Above all, there is a need for empathy. I do not mean this in a soft and fluffy way, but in the razor sharp sense of the willingness to subordinate one’s own ideas and interests to those of the collective. This is the hallmark of great teams, in music, sport or life: they have a shared mental model. They begin to see the world through the same set of eyes, opening up new seams of possibility.

It’s a fascinating analogy and one that left me thinking: if the 71,619 spectators who filled the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on 17 October for the New Zealand-France quarter-final could find the “collective intelligence” of the All Blacks “jazz” performance on the field so enthralling, why do our finest jazz groups struggle to attract an audience over a thousand or so?

Ah yes, it’s the lack of any winners – or, rather, losers, since everyone’s a winner in jazz.

My thanks to Richard Sewell who kindly lobbed this article over The Times‘ pay wall for my delectation.

Categories: Opinion

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Ha ha. This is probably true since I feel like my French team is probably playing some accordion based musette. Definitely no chance versus the kiwi hard swing!

  2. Hand signals is pretty standard fare, along with nods, winks, various other minor gestures, and aural indications of impending change articulated via dynamics and/or tensions in voicings/phrases et al. But I’m not sure what four fingers is gonna indicate in terms of changing from 4/4 to 4/2?!! Bastien would appear to have got hold of the wrong end of the stick there – or misheard his informant…

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