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In the early 1940s, a new movement began among younger jazz musicians. Tired of playing the same standards to popular dance audiences, these musicians began experimenting with rhythm, harmony and tempo to create what would become bebop, or bop. Those innovations changed the direction of jazz music.

The New Era of Marketing

It appears that marketing has gone (and may still be going) through a similar evolution. Driven by fierce competition for the consumer's attention among innumerable products and services, marketers are being forced to play by a changing set of rules. Like jazz musicians, only those marketers with the talent, experience and discipline to innovate will succeed.

What Jazz Taught Marketing

1. Practice, practice, practice

I don't know anyone who talks fondly of practice. The monotonous repetition and constant focus on what one can't do is frustrating, but essential.

John Coltrane, a post-bop legend, was obsessed with practice. He would practice in his home all day without answering the phone or door. At night, during sets, he would leave the bandstand after his solos to keep practicing until it was time for his next solo.

Marketers, too, must practice the basics of their trade. Discovering what works and how consumers make choices lay the foundation for more sophisticated decision-making later on.

2. Play with people better than you

After years of practice, the only way jazz musicians can assess the effectiveness of their training is to sit in with other musicians and see whether they can survive the barrage of tempo, chord and key changes while contributing fresh ideas to the group.

Cutting contests were the proving ground of any aspiring jazz musician. Before he was ready, Charlie "Bird" Parker sat in with veteran musicians from Count Basie's band at the Reno Club in Kansas City. Bird, the man who would invent a new way to play jazz, couldn't keep up. Drummer Joe Jones threw a cymbal at him to get him off the stage. Humiliated, Bird had to return to the first step: practice.

Aside from developing collaborative and competitive skills, cutting contests trained musicians to learn from mistakes. Mistakes made while playing with pros can pay off later, when risks must be taken to innovate.

3. Find your unique voice

Imitation is the musician's first step to finding a unique voice. As with cooking soup, jazz musicians keep adding ingredients to the pot to simmer by mastering the innovations of their heroes. Over time, the soup takes on an aroma and flavor unique to its ingredients.

All of the great jazz musicians have a distinct and instantly recognizable sound. It's not unlike the success of a powerful brand that has been honed by an experienced marketing team.

4. At its best, it's collaborative

Jazz is a dialogue between musicians and, in some cases, the audience. Each musician supports the structure of the song while creating unique textures and interpretations of its melodic themes. All to the delight of the musicians and audience.

Marketing depends on the collaboration of its team. Each individual of the marketing team must support the direction that has been established. But they must contribute their unique ideas to elevate the result of the team. The audience, or consumer, can be captivated by the magic resulting from the right team working together.

5. It's a live experiment

No musician knows exactly what's going to happen until he gets on stage and begins to play. But it is the energy and anticipation of the potential result that excites musicians and audiences alike.

Like jazz, marketing is a daily experiment. What worked before may not work again… or in the exact same way. Consumer tastes shift. Competitive forces saturate a once hot market. Ads are often ignored. The goal is to keep trying to find the right mix of team, message and medium.

6. Innovation demands risk

Legendary clarinetist Artie Shaw said of Glen Miller's big band that his "biggest problem is his band never made a mistake…[and] if you don't ever make a mistake, you're not trying. You're not playing at the edge of your ability. You're playing safely, within limits. And you know what you can do and it sounds…extremely boring."

Innovation typically starts on the fringes, where there's nothing to lose. Like jazz, the pendulum of marketing continues its swing between virtuosity and accessibility. To find new approaches that generate results is the aspiration of any marketer or musician.

7. Know your audience

Big bands played for dance crowds. Miles Davis's audience didn't expect to be acknowledged. There are as many jazz audiences as there are styles of jazz. Each has its own priorities and values regarding the meaning and purpose of jazz. The worse thing a jazz artist can do is to try to be all things to all jazz fans.

The difference between the innovators and the also-rans is that the innovators produce results that make the audience come to them. The rest just play what the audience demands until someone else comes along and changes their tastes.

The Next Era of Marketing

To understand that marketing requires the same seriousness and hard work that a jazz musician exerts is essential to young marketers. Veteran marketers must also take responsibility for grooming younger generations to one day take the torch.

Marketing will always be critiqued by those who misunderstand its goals and purpose. The worse thing that a company could do is to deter its marketing team from taking the calculated risks necessary to achieve results.

As we continue to invent new ways to motivate people to choose, it may not hurt, when you get in your car this evening, to turn the radio dial to the far left end and eavesdrop on what jazz may be telling us.

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Keith Jennings is director of planning and marketing for Hamilton Health Care System in Dalton, Georgia. He can be reached at

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