It’s Jazz Appreciation Month, so here are five life lessons this much-loved music style has taught us about failing

Jazz threw away the rule book in music, and now it’s time to do the same in your life

From Miles Davis to Ella Fitzgerald, the jazz greats knew a thing or two about embracing failure. Photo by Jens Thekkeveettil on Unsplash

Jazz is the siren song of imperfection – it gained popularity through risk-taking, improvisation and, most importantly, owning its mistakes. It is the ideal soundtrack to remind you that perfection is overrated, and failure is just an opportunity to try something new. 

Originating in New Orleans towards the end of the 1800’s, jazz exploded in popularity in the 1920’s with the rise of speakeasies during America’s prohibition. It is characterized by complexity and the rejection of technical rules, which often leads to “mistakes”.

Trumpeter, and jazz legend Miles Davis famously said, “There are no wrong notes in jazz.” As testament to this, many of the technical imperfections were left in his recordings, giving them authenticity and allowing people to connect with the songs emotionally.

Jazz teaches us that taking risks is more important than fitting the mould, and there is plenty we can learn from it about embracing failure. We round up five life lessons from the greatest jazz musicians to ever grace our ears, for Jazz Appreciation Month and beyond. 

Jazz Appreciation Month was created by the National Museum of American History to celebrate one of its most successful artforms. Photo by Janine Robinson on Unsplash

Every failure is an opportunity

Wrong notes in jazz are just a chance to explore and improvise. Scat singing, a type of vocal improvisation where the singer mimics the instruments, was supposedly invented by Louis Armstrong in 1926, when he dropped his lyric sheet during recording “Heebie Jeebies” and had to improvise. We could all use an idol who keeps going in the face of disaster and casually invents a new vocal technique.

You aren’t judged on your failure, but on what you do next

Miles Davis once said, “When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.” Translation: whether you fail is determined by what you do after a mistake – roll with the punches like the jazz greats and you are destined for success.

Own your mistakes – perfection is overrated

Ornette Coleman, the main founder of an experimental style of music called free jazz that ditches set chords or time patterns, recounted that, “It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was onto something.” Society teaches us to fear failure, but if we lean into it and embrace the mess, we can push the boundaries of what is expected and blaze our own trails. 

If you don’t mess up, you haven’t given it your all

Giving something everything you’ve got is a risky business. Nine times out of ten you will lose it all, but it’s better than regretting not trying in the first place. American saxophonist Coleman Hawkins said, “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying.” 

When you love what you do you can’t go wrong

In a career of nearly 60 years, The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald amassed 14 Grammys and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, so if anyone knows a thing or two about success it’s her. She had one key piece of advice for anyone who is worried about failing: “Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” You heard the Queen of Jazz – do what you love and don’t worry about the rest.