Jazz and journalism have more in common than you might think

In this 2002 file photo, U.S. jazzman Wynton Marsalis performs during his concert with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at the Stravinski hall stage of the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland.  (AP Photo/Keystone,  Fabrice Coffrini)
In this 2002 file photo, U.S. jazzman Wynton Marsalis performs during his concert with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at the Stravinski hall stage of the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Keystone, Fabrice Coffrini)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of reports from five Digital First Media journalists who attended ONA13 through the Digital First Represents program. 

Jazz trumpet master Wynton Marsalis once described jazz as “the art of managing change without losing the focus on substance.” Sound familiar?

Change is built into the DNA of jazz, but it’s also a huge part journalism. And Laura Amico of Glass Eye Media believes reporters have much to learn from America’s art form.

That was the premise of Amico’s talk on the first day of the Online News Association’s 2013 conference.

“Jazz offers us more than metaphor. It offers us a framework and vocabulary” for how journalism can change, Amico said.

She first came upon the concept during a concert Marsalis gave at Harvard, shortly after the  Boston Marathon bombings. The pain of the attack was still in the air, but Marsalis talked about how music captures both our sorrow and our joy.

Amico realized that the same was true of journalism.

“The reporting we do in these moments are our highest art form,” she said, because it shows a way forward.

And she believes the analogy can go further.

Jazz relies heavily on improvisation. But musicians aren’t just onstage, making things up. Rather, each solo is based on a framework of notes, scales and rhythm. Musicians must know these fundamentals inside and out before ever stepping up to the mic.

And then there’s the rest of the band. Even the best solo would fall flat if there wasn’t a good rhythm section holding down the beat.

“Improvisation is not accidental, it’s not serendipitous and it’s not experimentation,” Amico said.

“Each band member has different tasks, recognizes and understands that.”

Newsrooms also are frequently called upon to improvise, and Amico said we should look to jazz as a model for how to handle this challenge.

The key to improvisation is saying “yes.” Newsrooms need to embrace uncertainty and try something new. We already have a whole tool bag of skills at our side, it’s only a matter of using these tools in different ways.

Amico said it’s also important for journalism, like jazz, to allow our audience to dance. An audience’s reaction often changes the way musicians play. She used the story of Duke Ellington’s 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival as an example:

Amico said the same thing should happen in our newsrooms.

“The reality of journalism isn’t about what reporters do, but their interaction with the public,” she said.

That’s been true as long as reporters have conducted interviews. But unlike the days of old when readers had to wait to see stories in print, our audience now can interact with journalists throughout the reporting process now. In a way, the audience becomes part of the story from the very beginning, through social media interaction, emails, etc.

Amico encouraged reporters to embrace that audience participation. If readers take part in the process, they’ll be more invested in the product. She said it’s fine for newspapers to ask something of their readers, other than just picking up the paper or looking at a website. And readers usually don’t mind.

There are other lessons we reporters can learn from jazz music, too, as one of my Twitter followers reminded me.

Read more: Inside Thunderdome chats with Laura and Chris Amico about Homicide Watch

 

Join the discussion:
What do you think? Do you agree with Laura’s view on the similarities between jazz and journalism? What steps can you take to reach a Miles Davis level of skill? What are some other art forms or industries we can look to for insight? Let us know in the comments.

Leave a Reply