Reflections on a Return to Vinyl (Side One)

My daughter handed me a large box.

“Dad, it’s time you returned to vinyl.”

I quickly agreed.

Then I heard the whisper from that dark spot deep in the back of my wounded psyche. I’d heard that whisper before. This wasn’t the first time I’d considered returning to vinyl.

She had been doing vinyl for a few years. My son soon followed suit. Being only 21 and 19 at the time, it was their first foray into the world of record collecting.

There have been unexpected benefits from them doing so. For example, selecting presents has become less stressful, more fun and infinitely more meaningful. When your children begin collecting albums, you want to be certain you help them get off to a good start. You provide the basics – the cornerstones – The Allman Brothers “Live at the Fillmore”, Hendrix “Are You Experienced?”, Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, along with some Stones, Dead, Doors, Carlos Santana and Rickie Lee Jones. Fatherhood is about providing your children with the basics to give them a firm foundation from which they can create their own path forward.

Vinyl records were projected to sell 40 million units in 2017. According to Deloitte, that represents a seventh consecutive year of double digit growth. Clearly my kids were not alone.
I had been lead to believe that the crisp, clarity of digital music reproduction and music streaming services had relegated the vinyl album to the dustbin of recorded music.  Apparently not.

Why the migration of music lovers to vinyl?

Some claim that the faint sizzling sound flowing from the speakers validates vinyl’s authenticity and back to the roots credentials.

Others love the album covers, which are pieces of art with or without the music contained inside: the Andy Warhol “Banana Art” that graces the cover of the Velvet Underground’s debut album, The Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” and then there is the iconic 1972 Carly Simon “No Secrets” cover, which made a lasting impression on teenagers too numerous to mention.

Others love the liner notes. Dissecting the lyrics can take on the feel of deciphering an ancient Buddhist Sanskrit tome in an attempt to discover the true meaning of Life. An age-old function of music and musicians has always been to tell stories about what’s going on around them in the culture of their time. The poetry of Dylan and Springsteen or the revolutionary calls of Bob Marley will be referenced and interpreted centuries from now by scholars intent on placing ancient events into historical context. And many simply reminisce regarding the practical utility of the two-panel album being the perfect tool to clean pot.

There are no simple answers to what’s driving an increasing number of music lovers, young and old, to discovering or returning to vinyl. Perhaps it’s a reaction to a world that seems less personal, more disconnected and increasingly artificial. Maybe it’s a quiet call for a return to more authentic, ritualistic experiences. Or, in an age of automation, Artificial Intelligence and technological advancement, it could be a siren call for a simpler time. When people feel disconnected, real, authentic experiences assume more meaning and can be nourishing for a shaken soul.

In such a world there is value in the act of holding an album and fully experiencing not only the sound but the texture, weight and feel of it. And there is a greater connection to the music in the physical act of having to change an album or to flip it over to experience Side Two. Or, in the case of Joe Jackson’s “Night and Day”, to flip  from the “Day” side to the “Night” side. This, as opposed to punching a button to listen to a play list determined by a Pandora algorithm.
Regardless, my daughter’s gift forced me to confront the musical demons residing in that dark spot in my psyche for what I did was shameful.

Fifteen years ago, I gave away my 600 plus record collection.

I have no excuses. I was told that in the digital age, the album had become obsolete. And I believed it. But I take full responsibility. Most disappointing was that I had been unfaithful. I didn’t trust the time tested beauty and authenticity of the vinyl album. With every new story of another music lover raving about their return to vinyl, I’d experience another moment of well-deserved depression.

As children often do, my daughter taught me a lesson and did me a favor. She recognized that it was time for me to embrace albums again and intervened accordingly. And as is often the case, out of the rubble of pain and shame, comes a chance at rebirth.

It’s often said that you have to hit rock bottom before taking your first step on the path to salvation. Fortunately, I had, without realizing it at the time, laid the groundwork for my personal musical redemption.

I didn’t give all of them away.

There were several that I simply couldn’t bear to part with, regardless of whether they would ever spin on a turntable again. Out of the ashes, there were remnants upon which to rebuild.
Among the handful of survivors was Tom Wait’s “Nighthawks at the Diner”, Woodstock, the collection of Robert Johnson’s original songs, recorded in hotel rooms in Dallas in 1936 and San Antonio in 1937, Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam”, Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” and the Kansas City Blues Shouter, Big Joe Turner’s “Greatest Hits”, with a cover photo that perfectly depicts just how big Big Joe Turner was.

I’d also kept a personally inscribed copy of Koko Taylor’s “From the Heart of a Woman”. “To Gerd: With Love, Koko Taylor”. Give away a love note from the Queen of the Blues? I may have been foolish in giving away over 600 albums, but I wasn’t delusional.

Experiencing the depths of despair can also open your eyes to new opportunities. I began to look at my Father’s album collection in a new light. In cleaning out my parent’s home after their passing, we came across a couple of boxes of albums. I stored them in a back room and didn’t give them much thought. But when you are back in the record collecting business, boxes of 100 or so slices of vinyl suddenly become of great interest.  Regardless of how old or the fact that some were recorded in “mono” or “DynaGroove”, was an entertaining bonus. According to the liner notes, “DynaGroove is a product of research and development assuring that this record is as modern as the latest advances in engineering and science.” And I imagine that back in the day, it was very comforting for listeners of another disc to know that is was “Electrically Recorded.”

Talk about a gold mine!

Lot’s of Al Hurt to scratch my New Orleans jazz itch, a few choice slices of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass for a Latin fix and some Benny Goodman Big Band recordings. Throw in a few choice tidbits like Jimmy Smith and Count Basie and the result is the making of a small, but solid foundation upon which to rebuild. It made me realize that maybe the “Old Man” was a bit more hip than I had imagined.

The path from my daughter’s gift and instructions to the boxes of my Father’s old records made me appreciate something far more important than the warm sound of vinyl. While my Dad is long gone, he did what Fathers do. He provided me with some basic building blocks – a good foundation upon which I can recreate my own musical path forward.

Despite having to once again experience the pain of the loss of a lifetime album collection, I am thankful to have been provided a wonderful opportunity to do the same for my children. 

Jazz as a Leadership Development Tool

What do Vince Lombardi, Tony Dungy, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis have in common? The answer is that to achieve the level of success they have all had to be great leaders.

Say what? Football coaches and jazz musicians are leaders of equal effectiveness and influence?

Absolutely. In fact, given that April is Jazz Appreciation Month, the following essay will make the case that jazz may be a more effective leadership development tool than football for the 21st Century.

A common cultural belief is that nothing instills in participants, character traits such as discipline, personal responsibility and leadership skills, than participation in team sports. The leadership skills that are taught and developed on the playing field, it is said, carry over to effective leadership off the field. The notion that team sports and, in particular, football builds leaders is a long-held and very powerful justification for our continued investment in them as an effective educational tool.

But the fact is, music also provides opportunities to exhibit and develop leadership skills. There is no difference between a team and a band in terms of the requirements for reaching the predetermined goals of winning (football) and achieving a particular sound (music). In short, any team (band) setting offers tremendous opportunities to develop leadership skills.

But the elements and characteristics required of good leaders are not static. Effective leadership requires recognition that worker attitudes, work environments and productivity expectations can change. That being the case, desirable and effective leadership skills and styles must also evolve. There was a time, for example, when the iron-fisted “my way or the highway” style of leadership was considered very effective. But times change, people change and entire industries can change. Employees now demand more respect and collaboration.  As a result, effective leaders can no longer simply demand performance; they must nurture a more collaborative work environment if they wish to maximize worker and company productivity. Employees today don’t want to feel like cogs in a machine. They want to be respected and have a part in the decision-making process. Smart and effective leaders understand that. Employees who are more invested in the decision-making process are more productive employees.

Frank Barrett, in his book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, elaborates:

We have grown up with a variety of models of organizations, most of which have relied to some degree on a mechanistic view of top-down approaches to change. Command-and-control models of leadership stress routines and rules. They demand rigorous and clear organizational structures reinforced by rules, plans, budgets PERT charts, schedules, clearly defined roles, and the use of coercion or intimidation to get worker compliance. These might have worked well in the first part of the twentieth century when organizations were designed like machines, tasks were broken down into small parts that could easily be replicated, and people could be replaced as easily as machine parts. But as we enter the knowledge-intensive demands of the twenty-first century, we need to rotate our images and increase our leadership repertoire beyond these hierarchical models, so that we can more fully appreciate the power of relationships.

This begs the question. Given this shift in desired leadership style to a more collaborative focus, how does the traditional leadership style of the football culture hold up versus the jazz influenced leadership style outlined by Barrett? Barrett continues:

This new era demands focusing on teams rather than individuals, encouraging ongoing learning and innovation rather than compliance to preordained plans. Leaders don’t have the luxury of anticipating or predicting every situation, training and rehearsing for it, and getting learning out of the way before executing. Rather, leaders must master the art of learning while doing and spread this mastery throughout their systems. That’s why jazz bands are such provocative models for us to consider as we create teams and organizations in the twenty-first century.

How do organizations thrive in a drastically changing world predicated on uncertainty? By building a capacity to experiment , learn and innovate – in short, by engaging in strategic, engaged improvisation. The model of jazz musicians improvising collectively offers a clear and powerful example of how people and teams can coordinate, be productive, and create amazing innovations without so many of the control levers that managers relied on in the industrial age. An improvisation model of organizing created a kind of openness, an invitation to possibility, rather than leaning toward a narrowness of control. “  (Barrett, 2012, pp.xiv,xv.)

In short, both football and music teach leadership. But is it possible that while football’s style of teaching was better suited to the Industrial Age, the jazz-influenced model of leadership style may be more effective in the creative economy and workplace of the 21st Century?

Now that’s something to consider not only during Jazz Appreciation Month, but year-round.