Jazz and Peacebuilding

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When it comes to leadership, jazz is a rich resource. As part of their art, jazz musicians listen, improvise, empathise, make mistakes, learn from mistakes, adapt to different contexts, and engage dynamically with their audience. All important leadership lessons, and the list could go on. A not-so-usual suspect in terms of using jazz for learning purposes, however, is the practice of drawing comparisons between jazz and peacebuilding.

Inspired by a stimulating discussion on jazz and leadership that the Global Leadership Initiative hosted earlier this year with Professor Pete Churchill, I invite you to explore four ways in which the vital process of peacebuilding might learn from the creative process of jazz.

  • The process is as important as the result, and sometimes is the result itself
  • Persistence and endurance
  • Both require a balance between community work and individual work
  • Empathy is key to success

Since improvisation is one of the main features of jazz, the best jazz melodies are the result of mastering improvisation techniques. The main secret behind good jazz improvisation is the ability to apply previous lessons and melodies to new contexts and adapt accordingly. This is why the process of creating jazz music is as important as the result: without the process, there would be no outcome at all.

In the same way, one single act of peace is the outcome of a long process of negotiation, building of trust, and dialogue. As the peace processes of Ireland, Colombia and South Africa show, peace negotiations are usually slow and lengthy, agreements come after prolonged discussions, and reconciliation does not immediately occur after an accord is signed. In these moments, jazz might bring valuable lessons for peacebuilding leaders, reminding them of the need to improvise, adapt, be patient if the results they want to achieve are not immediate, and make use of previous lessons to move the process forward when it is wedged.

Precisely because jazz is a process, persistence and endurance are at the core of the best jazz melodies. Luck may create one-hit wonders, but prolonged success is only the result of perseverance, determination and discipline. Similarly, peacebuilding leaders should always keep in mind that peace is not built in a day.

Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi are two great examples of the persistence and endurance needed to build stable and long-lasting peace in their countries. Yet, peace will only continue to last if persistence and endurance are ways followed by those who come after. Peace is most often the product of a long process of healing the wounds of conflict that affect all of the society.

No matter how talented an individual musician might be, marvellous jazz melodies need group work. It is the balance between the different instruments and players that creates a great jazz melody; together with the ability to know when to play and when to keep silent, when to go solo, and when to create sounds with different instruments and voices jamming at the same time.

Similarly, even though peacebuilding requires the decisive work of committed leaders, without the efforts of their teams and actively engaging society in the process, the successful implementation of peace agreements is almost impossible to achieve. The role of women was as decisive in ending the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, as the lack of citizen support in Guatemala’s 1999 referendum was critical in undermining the legitimacy of the peace agreement with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit.

In 2011, UNESCO declared April 30 as International Jazz Day. One of the main reasons that motivated this decision is jazz’s power to create unity, bring together communities and embrace the values of freedom and diversity. Empathy–understood as the ability to understand other people’s perspectives or, as Adam Smith said in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, “conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation”–is at the core of these positive traits of jazz. Without empathy, the jazz musician would not be able to hear what her jazz colleagues are playing, and respond with an improvised tune that goes along harmoniously with the melody.

Correspondingly, empathy is utterly needed by peacebuilding leaders in every step they take towards reconciliation. They need to feel what both victims and perpetrators feel, respond to the perceptions of society as a whole, and make sensitive decisions that consider the different passions and feelings that war usually creates.

In sum, jazz can teach important lessons about patience, persistence, endurance, and empathy highly valuable to peacebuilding leaders. It should be no surprise that in the last two decades, innovative initiatives to encourage peacebuilding through jazz have begun to emerge, like the Jazz for Peace Concert hosted by the United Nations in New York after the 9/11 attacks.

As International Jazz Day approaches, I invite you to continue giving peace a chance through jazz by hearing this version of John Lennon’s hit sang by Louis Armstrong, and by fostering ways to include jazz in peacebuilding practices.