Jazzing Up Leadership

One look into Rob Alley’s office can tell you everything you need to know about his approach to teaching and life for the sake of art.

The retired saxophone that’s taken up a new job as a desk lamp on the corner of his desk, the leather trumpet case resting on a chair in the corner across the way from an overflowing wooden bookshelf and the various posters celebrating music and performances accentuate just how critical music is in the definition of his life and work.

“I’m a musician, I play the trumpet,” is this first descriptor in describing who he was, followed by a long list of his musical accolades, including a Masters in music arrangement, his classical training and prior tenure with the University Symphony as well as his current performance opportunities at Tuscaloosa’s 301 Bistro on Sundays playing traditional jazz with a New Orleans-based band.

Photo of Rob Alley playing the trumpet while wearing Mardi Gras beads

Rob Alley playing with the Voodoo Saints at 301 Bistro

This intense love of music and jazz led to him developing “Leadership Lessons in Jazz,” an Honors course that “explores examples of how the world’s best, most admired leaders not only survive and thrive in today’s rapidly changing world, they create and innovate by leading their teams using the same principles and philosophies that jazz musicians do,” as noted in his syllabus.

While this course, as with any, has required texts including “Say Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz” by Frank Barrett and “Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life” by Wynton Marsalis, it also has a required soundtrack: Miles Davis’ album “Kind of Blue,” including the liner notes. Davis’ 1959 album,” the best-selling jazz record of all time” as noted by NPR, supplements the lessons students take away from this class regarding how jazz functionality and improvisational skills, when applied to life, can “help people be more free.”

“We’re happiest when our skillset meets the challenges, such that if your skills are too low and the challenge is too high, you’re just confused and frustrated, and the converse is also true,” Alley said. “So if we have that balance of skillset and challenges, we tend to be in flow. And that’s what jazz encourages. Jazz as a music and jazz as a culture and jazz as a pedagogy, encourages people to learn to achieve a balance in a collaborative environment.”

For Honors College students, whose degrees cover every college of the University from engineering and theatre to social work and education, this class gives them the room to explore beyond the grading scale and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This aspect appealed to Jacqueline Morgan, Director of the Honors College-based University Fellows Experience and one of the first people Alley spoke to when he began brainstorming the kind of course he wanted to teach within the Honors College. She noted that Alley’s teaching style and passion for music and art creates a unique opportunity for students to take a class that stands out from their standard coursework and offer them a wide range of experiences.

“One of my areas of expertise and interest is leadership, that there is a sense of having to do it perfectly and students have not been given a lot of room to take risks, think creatively and do something out of the box,” Morgan said. “[Alley’s] style of teaching, his way of embracing life is stepping outside of his comfort zone, taking risks, learning how to fail, learning how to work as a team member. I thought it would be a good, very different experience for our students, very different than a lot of the other classes that you have when you’re trying to get that 100 percent because you know all the information. It was worth the risk for us to try something different.”

As with any jazz improvisation, the course doesn’t look the same semester after semester. One of the major aspects Alley prides himself on is applying feedback from current students to improve or revise the current curriculum to better serve the next group that rolls through his classes.

“I realized that if you approach any subject from where the student’s understanding is, and you add things to that, then they understand it more and it’s more meaningful to them and they’re more appreciative and more energized and enthusiastic about it,” he said.

Scarlet VanMeter, a senior studying business management who has also served as Alley’s TA for the last three and a half years, notes that the collaborative environment he fosters in his courses extends to the planning of each class semester after semester.

“Many professors find a rhythm and stick with it semester after semester, but Rob doesn’t like to be constrained to repetition,” VanMeter said. “He is a jazz musician and with jazz the song is different every time. He runs his class the same way. It will hold the same theme and concept but the notes might be slightly different each time.”

She shared that Alley is constantly asking for feedback from his students and adjusting his classes as needed.

“As his teaching assistant for the past three and a half years, it is really fun to watch the class change and grow– to see what goes and what stays,” she said. “After every semester, we meet up and discuss the class and how we can improve it next year. He gladly accepts the critiques because he just wants the students to take something away from the class. He wants you to learn and apply those lessons to your life. It’s not about the grade with him.”

Between the balance of the coursework, feedback and life lessons Alley brings to the classroom, the more students are challenged to step beyond their comfort zones and face different challenges. For students looking to lay off the metered rhythm of the average college course, Leadership Through Jazz is a risk worth taking.