Trumpet blows blue notes out of business of lectures

December 22, 2006

Noel Dennis has a unique way of livening up his lectures on business theory.

The 28-year-old principal lecturer in marketing at Teesside University thinks nothing of switching off the overhead projector, picking up a trumpet and breaking into some improvised jazz.

Sometimes his students even find that their seminar room at the Business School has been converted into a mock jazz club in which they are asked to sit around tables listening to and helping direct a jazz band.

To the surprise of students - and perhaps the incredulity of some colleagues - Mr Dennis, an accomplished jazz musician, is building a career around his theory that live jazz and business teaching are perfect partners. And not just because music can keep students awake.

"My performance background comes in very useful in the lecture theatre, and I often use music to illustrate key points. I have developed a workshop that involves using my jazz quartet to demonstrate how improvisation can add value to organisations.

"The students get the chance to watch the band perform and they also get the chance to direct the group. The students really engage with it."

So what on earth have jazz and marketing got in common? "We demonstrate how a jazz band is reminiscent of an effective marketing organisation, in that it uses improvisation, self-leadership, sharing of ideas and collaboration," he says. "It allows us to demonstrate important points in an entertaining and, therefore, memorable way."

Workshop participants receive cards that they can hold up that will direct members of the band to play on certain beats.

"It usually sounds horrendous at first. But eventually the students learn how to collaborate and work as a team to produce a reasonable sounding piece of music. It's great, because it helps to teach people how to work together without having the time to think and plan."

Mr Dennis first picked up a trumpet at the age of eight, just as he was beginning to take an interest in the workings of his mother's family business. He remained equally interested in music and business into his teens, and he faced a tough decision when it came to choosing a university course. In the end, he plumped for a marketing degree at Teesside, which he followed up with a postgraduate degree in enterprise - but he remained a committed jazz performer.

He explains: "Although I love jazz, I decided it is hard to make a decent living out of it. I felt that if I went into marketing, which I am equally passionate about, I could still continue to play."

It was not long before he realised that he could marry his two passions - not just in his teaching, but in his research, too.

In 2003, he won an award from the Academy of Marketing for a conference paper in which he contrasted the strategic marketing approaches of "jazzer"

organisations, which had the ability to be flexible and improvise in the manner of jazz bands, and "reader" organisations, which stuck rigidly to their plans rather like individuals in an orchestra follow a musical score.

Last year, Teesside awarded Mr Dennis a £5,000 research grant to further develop the use of the jazz metaphor in marketing education. He is now working on a PhD paper that explores whether or not jazz-style improvisation within strategic marketing planning will give companies a competitive advantage. The paper will draw on data collected in his jazz quartet marketing workshops.

Mr Dennis is also working on a joint project with a company called Jazz Services Ltd to develop and edit a new academic journal that will explore business, cultural and sociological issues in jazz. The plan is to launch the journal early next year.

These latest developments have left Mr Dennis with the feeling that he has everything to play for in both his areas of expertise.

He says: "I do love my job. I get a real buzz out of watching people develop their knowledge of marketing and inspiring them to learn, just as much as I love going out and playing in a jazz band. I am lucky to be able to combine my academic and jazz careers very well. In fact, I would say they are a perfect match."

I GRADUATED FROM Teesside University

MY FIRST JOB WAS teaching trumpet in a local primary school

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS to develop strategies to market jazz more effectively in order to ensure a healthy and sustainable UK jazz scene

WHAT I HATE MOST is a lack of critical thinking and poor spelling and grammar in academic essays

IN TEN YEARS I will have completed my PhD and will hopefully realise my ambition to be a professor

MY FAVOURITE JOKE Two snowmen in a field. One turns to the other, sniffs and says: "Can you smell carrots?"

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