Life, Jazz, and Basketball

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I was in a good mood, and I was also a little high from a (legally consumed) cannabis cookie. Perhaps that is why I was able to hear each individual instrument by focusing on it and then switch to another one or to the whole group.

Heard that way, each musician was playing his own original part. That’s what is special about jazz; you’re not just playing a set of notes someone else has written down for you. The composer or leader may set some guidelines, but you have to take it from there. You’re not totally on your own, though. What you play should contribute to what the group creates, not disorganize it. When done right, the audience hears a collection of musical voices combining to create something larger than themselves.

Prieto’s group was creating something really large. Listening to it, I heard it as a metaphor for life. Life is, or should be about adding your individual voice to the group in a way that makes the group sound good. This jazz approach may apply whether the group is a business, a community, a church, a family, a country or the whole world.

Or  a basketball team. My friend Darell became a huge fan of the Golden State Warriors professional  team, after they started winning. One night, I was telling Darrell about life as jazz, and he immediately responded, “That’s the Warriors.” He tends to relate everything to the Warriors, but after he explained, I had to agree. More than most sports, basketball is like jazz. The best players improvise; they play like themselves, but they do it in a structured system.

A couple of times, Darrell said, when the Warriors were losing, star guard Steph Curry tried to carry them by doing more on his own. More shots, more dribbling, more fancy moves. As a result, the team struggled and lost badly. He got out of his rhythm, and he took the rest of the team out of their rhythms. It turns out that moving rhythmically is very important to basketball performance. If you’re out of rhythm, your shot won’t go in the basket. It takes months or years of practice to build a team’s rhythm, and it’s important to play within it.

At the same time, teams that play a too-strictly controlled rhythm and don’t allow for players to improvise tend to be more boring and don’t win as many games. Basketball,like jazz doesn’t mean suppressing yourself for the good of the team. It means being more completely you, as brought out by the environment or group you are in.

If you do exactly what you want to do all the time, you will do the same things over and over. By responding to others, you bring out sides of yourself you might not have known.

High school coaches have a cliché: “There is no I in team.” They say that because kids are naturally individualistic, and some find it hard to cooperate. But there are “I”s on a team. To help the team, you want to be the best “I” you can.

Playing your best music involves listening to the other voices around you. I used to play keyboard in a dance band called Party of Five. It wasn’t jazz, but we had a sax player named Ray Fernandez who was our soloist. In one song, I started playing a slide, something synthesizers can do that bends a tone up or down as you play it. Ray said, “Keep doing that. It gives me something to work off of.”

I had never considered that a soloist or star relies on what the rest of the team did, but the good ones do. Everything you do may have more influence than you know, because the rest of your band or team or community notices. I have no idea how that synth slide influenced Ray’s solo. I didn’t have to know. The music still sounded great.

In jazz, you will occasionally be given an opportunity to solo. Only rarely does soloing mean playing all by yourself. Your solo will sound better and mean more to the audience if it flows from what the other players are doing. So you have to listen.

It’s like in basketball, where different players like to receive the ball in different positions and different places on the court. Learning what they like and helping them do better is a crucial and fairly rare skill in basketball. The greatest players are the ones who “make their teammates better.”

In the jazz concert of life, the band is huge, so solos are rare. When you get one, try to make the most of it. I’ve always resisted taking leadership roles or being a front person in groups, but I may have sabotaged the group more than helped it by my reluctance to stand out.

If you become a star and get more solos, that becomes your job for that time. Do it, don’t fight it. If you play a less noticeable part, like a power player in basketball who mostly gets in defenders’ way so the stars can get free, that’s important too. Whatever your role, give it all you’ve got. Be aware that your star moment may come at any time, and then you might go back to the rhythm section or contribute another way.

With apologies to coaches, there are “I”s in team. Billions of them in fact. In jazz, basketball, or life, success is not about suppressing who you are or about going off on your own. It’s about allowing yourself to flow in whatever way the situation calls for.

There are infinite games going on, which often take on intense, life-changing forms. Love vs. fear; greed vs. cooperation, oppressors and oppressed, vitally important games like that. Psychologist Deb Burgard PhD says our lives are “our turn with the ball.” Play the best you can, because your time with the ball won’t last. You do your best, and when you die you go back to the bench and trust new players to take your place.

Deb BurgardDeb Burgard, PhD

In the endless jazz concert, your part adds something, so don’t hold back. At the same time, don’t ignore the rest of the band. If we listen to the other players and add our creativity to theirs, the music will be wonderful indeed..

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2 Responses to Life, Jazz, and Basketball

  1. Tim says:

    It seems that every one of us has been brought into this world to be unique, and to share our unique gifts in a complementary way, one body, many parts. Our greatest purpose in this life is to contribute to lifting one another up in realizing our potential and exhorting one another to a meaningful life.

    But sometimes, I find myself comparing me to other seemingly great achievers, and it makes me feel rather insignificant. Then I am reminded that I contain the ability to love my fellow human beings, and that is the most noble purpose in this life.

    The human race is a team relay- run a good race when it’s your turn to carry the baton, and, eventually, we will all get there together and share in the victory!

  2. In a jazz group and on the basketball court everyone knows what the final result should be, and the individuals contribute to the final result.

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