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Appreciate the jazz in your work

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in Leaders & Managers

When you hear about great leaders and the passions that fuel their ambition, you might despair of ever feeling that intense about your work.

Well, take heart from Wynton Marsalis, the great trumpet player from a family of great musicians. Now, he’s the artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, but the effervescent lover of jazz didn’t always feel that way.

In fact, when he was young, Marsalis didn’t like jazz.

“Mama took us to see classical orchestras play a few times, but I didn’t know anything about classical music,” he says. “I couldn’t get into it. Daddy always played jazz, but I didn’t like that, either.”

Instead, he played in a funk band and listened to Parliament/Funkadelic and other such groups.

One day, Marsalis came home from his summer job and listened to one of his father’s John Coltrane records. He didn’t like it. For most people, that would have been the end of it. For Marsalis, though, something mysterious was happening. Here’s how he describes it:

“I played it again. I still didn’t like it, but I kept playing it. There was something about it, something about the sound that I couldn’t get away from, something that compelled me to keep playing it and playing it and playing it. And then I started listening to other people. That’s when I started to realize I wanted to be a jazz musician. I had always played, but now I wanted to be good. I wanted to play like ’trane, like Miles [Davis] and everybody else I was listening to.”

Jazz “helped me understand life and my place in it. My whole approach to everything changed, not just playing. I remember playing a Hayden concerto when I was about 14. I began to appreciate all different kinds of music. Jazz taught me how to listen.”

Business lesson: Don’t write off fields of expertise or lines of business you don’t know about just because they seem weird or you don’t like them. Strike a little spark, and give it enough time to see what develops.

— Adapted from “My Moment of Truth: The Summer I Discovered Coltrane,” Wynton Marsalis, Black Enterprise.

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