How to Collaborate : Lessons From Jazz – #5 Define Roles

This is the fifth in a series of new posts that explain how you can apply the lessons of jazz to collaborate successfully.


Define Roles

“I don’t believe music can be free unless it has something to be free from.”
Chuck Mangione

Chuck Mangione knows his role

Collaborating successfully requires everybody to know their role and to stick to it. Roles can and should change depending on the evolution of the collaboration, but at any given time, they should be crystal clear.

In playing jazz, every player precisely understands his or her role. In a group playing a jazz standard someone – often a singer or horn player – has the melody; the bass provides the propulsive bottom end and the harmonic foundation; the drums keep swinging time and add a constantly shifting flow of responsive energy; and the piano contributes harmonic inventions rooted in the song’s familiar structure yet reflecting the mood of the moment. Each player knows how he or she can best contribute to the whole.

Of course roles can change, with bass players becoming soloists, horns joining the rhythm section, or – in free jazz – traditional distinctions being abandoned altogether in favor of a constant and relentless renegotiation of musical roles by all players at once. In fact, in free jazz, because there is no fixed structure whatsoever, collaborative rules are even more important than in straight ahead jazz, including the essential need to define roles. Except that in free jazz each player is willing and able to instantly alter his or her role, moving from a supportive role to a complementary role to a lead role at a moment’s notice, or even all three at once.

So roles may be very open-ended. They may shift. Individuals may have multiple roles (supportive, complementary, lead). But for collaborative success make sure that at any given time everyone understands both their own roles and other’s roles, and nobody usurps a role that doesn’t belong to them.

Finally, roles should line up the collective needs of the project with the collective skills of the team, with individuals deployed to maximize the overlap of needs and skills. So don’t build your band with 4 drummers if you only need one. Don’t ask your singer to be your drummer if you already have a good one. And don’t ask your bass player to solo if he or she doesn’t like to solo. Match needs and skills.


For successful collaboration, people should understand their specific roles, which may change as the project changes, but which will always aim to align actual skills with actual needs rather than aligning roles with ineffective hierarchies or systems. (Not that all hierarchies or systems are ineffective, but unless they match the actual needs and skillsets they will do more collaborative harm than good.), 


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