Jazz talk

Today I read an interview with Christopher Guest, who was talking about how he makes all of those delightful improvised films like “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show”. He explained that the key is to work with people who understand how to improvise. In a Christopher Guest film, there is no rehearsal. The actors first read the plot outline and character sketches, which Mr. Guest and Eugene Levy have prepared beforehand. Then they just start filming, right out of the gate. In the interview, he likened the process to a Jazz ensemble. When you play with a band long enough, you intuitively pick up on the rhythm. You know what chords and riffs to reach for, and when to go for the solo.

Coincidentally, I had my own little jazz moment a few days ago. I was scheduled to give a talk at a small conference, and I didn’t want to give the same old talk, so I thought I’d try to shake things up a bit. Sitting in the back seat of a car on my way to the conference, I started pulling images from the internet that went with the general theme of what I wanted to talk about. When I had gathered enough images, I arranged them in what seemed like a nice order.

The whole process took maybe twenty minutes. The car got to the conference just as my talk was scheduled to start. I got up on stage and started speaking, with a slideshow of those newly found images as my visuals.

It turned out to be one of my more successful presentations. Afterward people seemed to think I had worked really hard to polish my talk. In fact, I suspect that it was lack of polish in the preparation that made it all work. I was actually forced to think while I was up there on stage, and I ended up making connections in a fresh way, rather than just repeating variations on things I’d already said at some other conference.

After reading the interview with Christopher Guest, I now wonder whether it might be a fun to try putting together this kind of “Jazz talk” as a group activity. Give people a general theme, and, say, twenty minutes to pull some images off the web and put them in some sort of order. Then each presenter needs to get up and give a talk, using those images as their visuals.

Better yet, switch it around: Have one person assemble the images, and a different person give the talk. The general hope is that the presenter will be surprised into saying something new, something even they hadn’t thought of before, as they find themselves talking their way through this novel visual landscape.

I suppose each presenter should get a few minutes to look over the sequence of images beforehand, so they can build a general story in their head before they get up to talk. We’d need to play around with it a bit, to find the sweet spot.

Anyway, it’s worth a try.

5 thoughts on “Jazz talk”

  1. That sounds like one of those bar games that’s become fashionable in the past few months:
    PowerPoint Karaoke.
    Pull any PowerPoint presentation from the web and then improvise to it.

    Probably not quite as target oriented as your suggestion, but certainly a whole lot of fun after a few drinks 😉

  2. Ah, I hadn’t heard about that. That doesn’t seem as appealing – since existing PowerPoint presentations already come with their own agenda. In that sense PowerPoint Karaoke sounds more like a kind of business presentation version of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”. Funny, but not all that generative.

    By the way, it’s a shame that Microsoft so completely dominates this particular discourse, since I much prefer the sound of “KeyNote Karaoke”. Don’t you?

  3. I suspect that the Guest left _editing_ out of his interview on the process of making his movies. For his pictures especially, this is the element that give the whole enterprise spark. As we’ve seen from SNL and other sketch comedy troupes and in improve comedy clubs, the performers, in finding their way, often don’t know how to end well. Things usually just fizzle out.

    Jazz Talks seems promising even if presenters fizzle. The idea has a nice structure.

    I wonder: would your talk have been as well received if your audience had known how it was constructed? How would that knowledge affect the reception of a Jazz Talk? One difference, of course, is that the audience would be thinking as much about how they would approach the same problem or their upcoming problem as about the material being presented.

  4. In high school debate, we had something like that, called something like an Impromptu. We were given a brief topic (a word or a quotation). We were given a few minutes to think about it, and then had to give a 5 minute presentation on the concept. It would be a lot of fun to do that sort of thing again.

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