Innovation, Miles Davis and Education?

Robert D. Austin and  Carl Stormer of the Harvard Business School published “Miles Davis: Kind of Blue” in 2008. The abstract reads:
[The study] examines how successful companies can “jump to the next S-curve” through an analogy to the life’s work of Miles Davis, especially his paradigm-shattering Kind of Blue album in 1959. Students consider how and why Davis, who had already proven he was tops in his field, created a new disruptive innovation in the field of jazz, in the process creating the most commercially successful jazz album of all time. The case also delves deeply into the creative process, and Davis’s creative leadership and ability to cultivate talent (such as that of saxophonist John Coltrane)-many of the great jazz musicians of the 20th century came out of the informal “Miles Davis University.”
In a review for Harvard Business School’s “Working Knowledge,” an on-line journal, Martha Legace bulleted the key points:
  • With Kind of Blue, Miles Davis radically detached from his comfortable but fairly safe career to craft a more interesting future.
  • Simplicity was essential to the success of Kind of Blue. Simplicity empowered and freed Davis’s players to improvise and create without requiring them to put their technical mastery on show.
  • As a manager of musicians, Davis sometimes provoked. Yet during his lifetime many benefited from their stint at “Miles University.”
Animated music can help illustrate the shift to a more simplistic style and Davis’s break with the past–points one and two above.  Compare “So What,” the most famous song on the Kind of Blue album, with Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.”


You probably notice some big differences. The first piece (“So What”) is much simpler than the second (“Confirmation”). The first piece involved fewer notes and a slower tempo. The horns played two notes over and over. Fewer and simpler chord progressions mark the real breakthrough, however.

Chords are written as letters above the notes, such a C, for a C-major chord. Chords provide the harmony or harmonic structure. The Charlie Parker song had constant chord changes, which forced Parker–the alto saxophonist–to play different notes to match-up with the chords. Parker was a lightening-fast horn player; as the leading figure in the older, Be Bop jazz style, he could more than keep up with so many chord changes. Miles slowed it down and simplified–this led to different sounding solos by the musicians in his band. By simplifying, soloists like tenor saxophone great John Coltrane could try out new ideas while soloing over the simplified chord patterns and structures found throughout the Kind of Blue album. Miles, Coltrane and the other players on the Kind of Blue recording session inspired decades of emulation and musical exploration. It’s still one of the top-selling jazz recordings (more than 50 years after it was released).

Can these same principles be applied to education? If the chords are seen as units of instruction or assessments (tests, papers, projects, etc.) is it a case of “less is more”? Would fewer shifts from assignment to assignment allow for better quality work on the part of students? Deeper? Original? Would simplified structure (basic guidelines, but with room for individual expression–like the soloists in Miles Davis’s band) allow for a more innovative educational process and/or atmosphere? Granted, teaching and learning are not the same as playing in a jazz band. But there does seem to be much that educators can learn from Miles Davis and the shift he made in the early-1960s toward a new, simpler innovative style of jazz.


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