professor, Marcus Shelby, taught me a lesson on leadership.
Shelby is a jazz bassist and the leader of the Marcus Shelby Trio. He has
been teaching classes at Cafe Royale on jazz and jazz musicians.
Duke Ellington's birthday is this week. Since Duke is Shelby's favorite musician, the
lesson this week was all about him. Shelby taught his rapt students that
one of the secrets of Ellington's success was his willingness to highlight
other performers in solos. He also changed his music with the times —
which allowed his musicians to grow as artists.
was the bassist Jimmy Blanton. Duke had such a high opinion of Blanton
that he created a record entirely of Ellington and Blanton duets. This
meant that, thanks to Ellington, even though Blanton died at the age of 24
in 1942, he left a legacy that has influenced bassists in the decades that
example was Ellington's partnership with Billy Strayhorn. Marcus Shelby
explained that Ellington met Strayhorn one day after a matinee in
Pittsburg. While Ellington's personal assistant was working on Ellington's
hair, Strayhorn played Ellington all of Duke’s solos note for note. Then
Strayhorn played variations on those same solos.
secure man would have thrown Strayhorn out on his ear. Ellington called
Harry Carney (a good friend and saxophonist, who played with Ellington
from 1927 until Ellington's death in 1974) to hear Strayhorn's
arrangements. Thus began a great partnership — and a new chapter in the
history of music. Together Strayhorn and Ellington created such classics
as "Take the A Train" and "Lotus Blossom."
reminded of Ellington when I read about Undersecretary of State John R.
Bolton's nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
supporters have praised Bolton for his loyalty and his decisiveness,
critics have pointed out his overbearing manner and tendency to
micromanage. It has been amazing to see the number of people who are
willing to testify to Bolton’s heavy-handed behavior — even at the risk of
their own professional careers.
recurrent theme is the behavior of Bolton toward his employees. Not only
didn't he allow them to shine, but he even tried to break their morale.
Bolton is an
example of a politician who doesn't allow the spotlight on anyone but
himself. He is an example of a politician who surrounds himself with
sycophants to ensure that they take all of the blame — while the
politician gets all of the credit. San Francisco has several of these
politicians: people who surround themselves with yes men who are too
insecure to challenge their boss. Choosing insecure men and women for
their surrounding circle actually weakens these politicians, because they
lack confidantes who will correct them when they are wrong and challenge
mistaken policy decisions. Politicians need subordinates who will remind
them that politics is about community service — and not getting what you
want from the community.
courage to surround yourself with people who can sometimes outshine you.
But it can also make sweet music. And if you don't believe me, then listen
to Ellington and Strayhorn as they "Take the A Train."