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Good Friendship is Like Good Jazz

When jazz musicians play music together, they relate to each other in the following way.  First, they agree upon which tune they will play.  Then they play the melody “straight” in order to be sure they agree on the same melody and chord changes and to alert the listening audience (if there is one) to the tune upon which they will be improvising.  Each musician then takes a solo and has the opportunity to improvise on both the tune’s melody and its chord changes (each tune has a harmonic underpinning made up of a series of logically related, changing chords.  The tune’s melody is always related to these chords). 

While each musician takes his solo, the musicians in the rhythm section (typically the pianist, bassist and drummer) support and encourage the soloist by listening closely, making respectful and non-intrusive musical comments while urging him along.  Once each musician has had his say, the group plays the melody “straight” one more time and the tune ends. We call this sequence of events the jazz dialogue.

Ideally, during the jazz dialogue, the musicians do not have expectations about how each of the other musicians solos. That is, they do not demand that the soloist say or do one thing or another.  There is a strong commitment to honoring differences. The more unique and different a soloist is when expressing himself, the more he is respected and admired—as long as what he says during his solo is still related to the tune and its harmonic underpinnings. Differences are celebrated, not punished.  When musicians are taking part in a jazz dialogue, they are literally in the “here and now” and not thinking about anything other than the dialogue itself.  When this occurs, the jazz dialogue can easily be seen as a Zen meditative experience.

Safe and comfortable friendships operate the same way.  When two or more friends spend time together, they agree on a discussion topic, listen closely and respectfully to each other, add encouraging and supportive comments to each person’s comments and thoughts, and take turns “soloing” on the topic under discussion. The safety that is generated by such open-minded acceptance builds a level of trust that leads to a deeper and richer friendship.

The more frequently jazz musicians play together, the greater the freedom they generate during their dialogues.  Over time, the increased sense of safety allows them to explore risky and difficult harmonic and rhythmic improvisations, and if one makes a mistake, the other musicians bend with them. 

The same is true for old friends.  The longer they are friends, the stronger the feelings of safety grow and the greater the sense becomes that it is okay to be spontaneous during interactions.  If one makes a mistake, the others understand it is not intentional and give lots of slack by bending, adjusting and honoring differences.  Like good jazz players, there is a “here and now” give-and-take leading to an ever-increasing sense of safety.  This safety allows a greater degree of interactive creativity to be generated between friends, whether they share a verbal or nonverbal activity.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.


Comment from Judith R.
Time: November 9, 2007, 3:05 pm

Dear Dr. C:
I really buy the analogy of “good jazz players” and “Safe and confortable relationships….” I think the safety aspect is essential in all relationships. It does seem to promote more spontaneity and honesty, as well as a more satisfying relationship.
It’s been my experience, that even long and trusted relationships can hit some stormy times over differences of opinions about difficult topics. Usually those issues are not easily addressed. However, if all parties involved keep the discussion safe, it may not only clairfy differences of opinions, but it can deepen the relationships. Thanks for your articles. They have been, and are very helpful.

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