A Conversation With Bill Bruford. Part Three: Leader and Contributor


Part Three: Leader and Contributor

In the first two parts of this article, we have explored the drumming and composing as forms of creative work. In the third and last part, we turn to the social dynamics found in musical groups. During his career of leading and contributing to rock and jazz bands, Bill has played with some of the most distinctive musicians in rock and jazz.

Read the previous two parts of the series: Part One and Part Two.

Saku Mantere (SM): Looking at the kinds of contexts where you have practiced your art, I am struck by how so many of these groups consisted of artists with very distinctive individual voices. In particular, the classic line-up of Yes, the 80’s line-up of King Crimson, your first solo group Bruford, and the trio with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez all appear to be contexts of intense interchange between strong individuals with recognizable styles that impacted the culture of their instruments.

Bill Bruford (BB): A fair description of my preferred musical sandpit.

SM: You said earlier that during earlier parts of your career, you were “just trying to be a progressive musician. My considerations were likely: “Is this something no-one else seems to be doing? Can I get away with it? Will the other guys buy it?”” It seems that you have worked in groups where there have been musicians trying to “get away with” quite a bit, as you put it. How did working in groups that consisted of musicians with so many distinctive ideas shape your own development?

BB: It was simply the waters in which I swam; I knew no other. Only later, when I was able to surface and look around, did I notice that others had wildly different conceptions of what it was that popular musicians were for. The re-establishment of the short song in the immediate post-progressive 1980s tended to constrain whatever unlikely activities the instrumentalist might try to “get away with” in the sandpit. If one skill of the seasoned instrumentalist is to know when to project and when to sublimate his or her musical identity, then the post-progressive period was all about constraint and sublimation to the identity of the songwriter and/or singer.  The game had changed.

King Crimson in 1973. L-R: John Wetton, David Cross, Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford.

SM: Howe, Holdsworth, Belew and Fripp are all pioneers of guitar culture, “cultural entrepreneurs” rather than mere followers. The same can be said of the influence that Wakeman, Squire, Berlin, Levin and many of the other instrumentalists that you have worked with have had on the practice of their instrument. How does working in a group where every member pushes the envelope of their own instrument shape you as a practitioner?


BB: It makes you want to “push the envelope” of your own instrumental practice as well. Some cite the classic John Coltrane quartet in this regard. If Coltrane, in his “sheets of sound” period, is going to play like this, and the drummer Elvin like that, then McCoy Tyner has to refashion his piano playing into powerful block chords if only to be heard in the maelstrom. The old ways no longer work, so find something new, or at least something that will work. That’s what we progressives thought musicians did. When I started with Yes and Chris Squire, there were no mics on the drums, which were thus the least amplified instruments on stage. To project anything – perhaps not yet anything as important as an identity – I had to find a way of being heard. The high ringing rimshots on the snare drum seemed to do the trick, and quite quickly I seemed to sound less like, or not at all like, others. Surprise was valued as a signifier of creative difference.

“When I started with Yes and Chris Squire, there were no mics on the drums, which were thus the least amplified instruments on stage. To project anything – perhaps not yet anything as important as an identity – I had to find a way of being heard. The high ringing rimshots on the snare drum seemed to do the trick, and quite quickly I seemed to sound less like, or not at all like, others.”

The Autobiography. Published in 2009.

SM: What I read in your Autobiography is that as a leader, you had a respectful and developmental attitude towards the younger players in your own group. Also, earlier you said that “incoming musicians to all my groups were fully entitled to, and expected to, upgrade that and improve on things, but the music would work if they chose not to. They only ever made it better, as might be expected.” You appear to have sought and nurtured talent, given them freedom and resources to work with.


BB: Yes, I would hope so. I’m far from a leadership scholar, but I am just at the early stages of some work on the topic, for which, as you see, I’ve interviewed a number of recent colleagues with experience of giving and receiving leadership.

To many in jazz performance, the leader is the person who originated the text. He or she may have an ulterior motive for seeking leadership. Saxophonist Tim Garland explains that “I like to know the music really well and from memory and this comes easily when I wrote the music.” If you have ten pieces being played by a ten- person ensemble, and each piece has a different originator, there will be, sequentially, ten different leaders, who may lead or direct the performance of their piece to greater or lesser degrees. When Tim is directing or leading the performance of one of his pieces in one of my groups, my over-arching leadership of the latter takes a secondary position for that musical moment when Garland is in control.

For Iain Ballamy, leadership sometimes “feels like a weighty responsibility, one that comes with a palpable expectation from audience, promoter or reviewer. If your name is on the poster as the leader, there is increased pressure than that of a sideman. I try to put these thoughts out of my head and dismiss it as unhelpful interference.”  In his experience, the knowledge that maximum preparation, rehearsal, effort and thought have gone into the performance helps to counteract or neutralize feelings of imperfection or failure.

Bruford Levin Upper Extremities. Left to right: Chris Botti, David Torn, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin

I was, I felt, always only too aware of my leadership functions, even in the heat of performance. In stark contrast to that, my co-leader in the group Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (B.L.U.E.), Tony Levin was cool as a cucumber. He told me that: “When performing, I’m pretty oblivious to my role in the band, be it leader or backup player or some other variation. In the bands where I’ve clearly been the leader (Tony Levin Band comes to mind) I’ll have chosen or written the material and the style we’re playing in, and have chosen players to implement that well, and left the rest to them. So nothing during the performances impacts on that.”

 “I was, I felt, always only too aware of my leadership functions, even in the heat of performance. In stark contrast to that, Tony Levin was cool as a cucumber.”

SM: In your Autobiography, you provide vivid insight into how many of your earlier groups worked, e.g., how Yes compositions often emerged in a process of Jon Anderson’s ideas being transformed by the instrumentalists, or how Robert Fripp withdrew from decision-making during the recording of Red. You also talk about how tensions between artists and craftsmen in the group U.K. facilitated creativity and then split the group, leaving the craftsmen.

As a leadership scholar, I am curious to learn what broader insight you may have gained regarding what it is that makes a group of innovators function, and what undermines creative practice in such groups. I was fascinated by the parallel that you drew earlier between organizational integration (Lawrence and Lorsch’s work) and your work in the band context. In organizations, integration is necessary in situations where specialization risks driving different departments into conflicts and common goals need to be actively maintained to compensate for this.

In the context of healthcare, for instance, a surgery team may do a fine job replacing hips, but who assesses the steps necessary to assure that elderly clients don’t fall and break the newly replaced hip after being discharged from hospital? Who assesses whether such operations lead to better quality of life for clients, and under which conditions? Healthcare is a nice context for understanding this fundamental tension in all organizations: we can all relate to the trials of clients trying to navigate within the complex and at times fragmented organisation that is tasked with their care. How do we integrate, coordinate action to refocus on the quality of care as well as performing well in specialized tasks? One way of course is leadership: those responsible for the performance of the entire organization are expected to see “the forest from the trees”; in the case of healthcare, to focus on the performance of the organization in the conduct of its core tasks. I cannot help but see an interesting analogy between leading a group of artists and a complex organization.

BB: A group of collaborating artists is surely a complex organisation although happily a numerically small one!  Usually a group member can have a close unmediated real time relationship with a handful of others, such that several layers of potential large scale or interdepartmental miscommunication are avoided.

There are a number of theoretical frameworks that encompass organisational leadership. At the risk of gross oversimplification, I sketch below three strands of thinking that, woven together, produce a useful framework to understand the various degrees of leadership “fit” in music performance:

First, the dominant–linear–hierarchical strand (a one-way street), exemplified perhaps by the classical conductor and the older jazz and soul band leaders: James Brown, Ike Turner, Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington. Authoritarian leaders impose their rules, their goals and the way of achieving them on the group. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this leadership style is recognized as ineffective in the type of successful peak-practice behaviours of my research participants and colleagues.

Second, the visionary–inspirational strand (a two-way street). In this view the leader establishes trust, appeals to ideological values, proffers intellectual stimulation and high expectations for performance beyond the call of duty. Central here is the idea of exchange (see Leader-Member Exchange theory – LMX).  A high LMX relationship is characterized by mutual trust, loyalty, and behaviours that extend outside the employment contract. A low LMX relationship is one that is within the bounds of the employment contract such that the employee performs his or her job, but contributes nothing extra. Miles Davis exemplifies the two-way street of the visionary inspirational model when he asserts that: “I don’t lead musicians, man. They lead me. I listen to them to learn what they can do best.” In the late 1980’s my own group Earthworks was built upon just such an LMX relationship: “As an older, less skilled but more experienced musician I was able to offer an international platform to younger, more skilled but less experienced colleagues. The exchange was balanced and to mutual advantage, supporting the development of all parties and auguring well for a successful outcome” (Bruford 2018:68). 

Third, the plural–shared–distributed strand (a shared space that minimizes the segregation between multiple leaders and followers). Leadership here is a shared, distributed phenomenon in which there can be several (formally appointed and/or emergent) leaders within a group. There appears to be broad consensus on two issues: (1) leadership is not just a top-down process between the formal leader and group members; and (2) there can be multiple leaders within a group.

SM: Could you say a little more about bands where leadership was distributed between several group members?

BB: In these groups there was a strong sense of leadership being rotational and shared. It existed on a spectrum from a project initiation polarity (the first communication to the first potential co-performer) through to a project conclusion polarity (the last communication to the last co-performer of the decision to continue or terminate the project). The leadership focus at both polarities might be characterized as extra-musical, being centred on everything necessary to enact the next performance. At the centre of the spectrum lies the performance itself. As it is approached, extra-musical concerns fall away to permit an increasingly sharpened focus on the musical. Very quickly post-performance, however, extra-musical concerns are re-established in the form of post-performance reflection, logistics, forward planning and so forth. Extra-musical leadership functions may be distributed around the group in imaginative ways to support a sense of group cohesion.

Earthworks in 1991. L-R: Bill Bruford, Iain Ballamy, Tim Harries, Django Bates.

While one might contest the idea that handling the responsibilities for something equates to leadership, it undoubtedly leads to a sense of “group”. In saxophonist Iain Ballamy’s view “It is unusual for people to share the administration, organisation, legwork and musical contributions equally. Someone always has to take the initiative to make things happen.” Ballamy goes on to distinguish between “players of ‘lead’ instruments” who are “often more likely to have learned to initiate than say rhythm section players who are used to being invited to play and spared the burden of the organisation, promotion, administration and presentation that go along with making musical progress a reality.” Emerging rapidly here is a duality of “on-instrument musical leadership” and “off-instrument extra-musical leadership”. Without the latter, the results of the former will likely reach fewer ears. Both are essential components of successful performance, and may require different types of leadership and different qualities of leader.

SM: You have had a front row seat to witness and participate in occasions of both functional and (I am assuming) dysfunctional leadership in highly creative musical groups consisting of pioneering instrumentalists. Are there any lessons that we could learn about what leaders (you, and leaders that you worked for) did to facilitate such creativity?

BB: The topic of leadership, like that of creativity, is seldom discussed within popular music performance, in part because of its many variations and degrees of enactment. So an examination of its several dimensions might prove useful. Typically required to perform quickly, efficiently, at short notice, and with minimal background or contextualising information, the practitioner will benefit from an accurate assessment of leadership and by whom it is being exercised. In In Tony Levin’s view, leadership may reside, at minimal, in “the person whose name labels the group” and “who may do as little in the leadership role as simply choose the material to be played.” The wise leader secures the services of the “right” personnel, and leaves the playing to the players. Particularly wise in this regard, in Tony’s opinion, are colleagues and guitarist-leaders Robert Fripp and David Torn.

Nominal, stable and overt leadership roles at a macro level may co-exist with actual, fluid and covert leadership at the micro level. In one passage of music, for example, the drummer leads and others follow. In another, the ensemble “takes its cue” from the singer, “conducted” by his or her body language. The name of the nominal leader may be at the top of the marquee but that individual may have only an extra-musical function. In another instance the backing musicians follow covert leadership from one of their number as a de facto music director or M.D. Leadership is an unstable and many-splendoured thing.

SM: Another thing that strikes me in your Autobiography is that sometimes creative masterworks arose out of what appears to be a pretty dysfunctional leadership practice or perhaps in conditions where leadership was not practiced at all.

BB: In my brief time in Yes, leadership was seen as a gateway to power and permanently contested. Contested leadership may be resolved by the “bravery” of an incoming sideman. Guitarist Steve Howe describes his negotiating skills in an interview with Chris Roberts in a recent issue of Prog magazine (September 2018: 62):

“When I joined Yes, Chris and Jon […] often didn’t get on. They both wanted to run the band. Then I came in, and in a way I said, “Well, okay, I’ll run the band then!” Now none of that went down in that kind of sentence, but I saw two guys squabbling, so I’d say, ‘This guy is right on this’. And they’d be surprised, but take it. Then on another time I’d go, ‘But today, that guy is right on that’. I’d side with the idea, not the person. I helped to make the group strong by bringing it balance.”

Desire for further leadership responsibilities is immediately disavowed:

“I didn’t want to be the leader, but to be a strong voice on the team, brave enough to speak up”.

Going the other way, sidemen may be shackled to a dysfunctional or disputed form of producer/artist co-leadership. Ever the consummate negotiator, Tony Levin suggests finding a compromise part, or way to play, that can be “a growing experience” for both people:

“That is often the case in the recording studio, where there can be said to be two leaders, the record producer and the artist. Both may have ideas about parts on each instrument, and (hopefully they agree with each other) those ideas are a priority for the recording. So I’ll listen gratefully to ideas about my part – and if it doesn’t seem ideal to me, I’ll try to incorporate what’s special about it into my sense of the part. Put a different way, I’ll bring the ‘bass player’ sensibility into their ‘singer’ or ‘producer’ sense of the part.”

SM: In your Autobiography, you write about the creation of Close to the Edge as being an at times chaotic and excruciatingly slow (apologies if I am overreaching) process. History has proven it to be a masterpiece. King Crimson’s Red is another example; reading your account, I get a sense that the formal leader of the group decided to expressly not practice leadership over the music. This appears to have resulted in another undisputed masterpiece. Are there any lessons that could be drawn from such experiences, or do we have to contend to accepting the influence of the hand of fate?

BB: I think chaotic and slow is about right. The self-appointed leader of Yes, singer Jon Anderson, was unfortunately the least equipped with the appropriate music tools to get his strong ideas across. He therefore had to wait for an approximation of his ideas to emerge from the more or less reluctant noodlings of his colleagues before he could take them further, hone them. This was an exasperating and uncomfortable position for him to be in, which occasionally became combustible. The hand of fate should not be underestimated. It delivered the favourable ecology within which we were working in the early 70s: expanding audiences and record sales, developing technology, and a thirst for innovation in the domain by consumer and producer alike.

“The hand of fate should not be underestimated. It delivered the favourable ecology within which we were working in the early 70s: expanding audiences and record sales, developing technology, and a thirst for innovation in the domain by consumer and producer alike.”

A final thought about my own experience of leadership. In ensembles like B.L.U.E, Earthworks, King Crimson, and to the extent that leadership could be said to be present in any shape or form, it tended to be covert, worn lightly, and to be found in the lightest of light touches, the smallest of small suggestions, planted or ignored. All group members contributed in any way that seemed appropriate in the context of the nascent composition, improvised in private in the rehearsal room or in public on stage. Certainly no-one instructed anyone else on what to do. The many years of experience and the recorded options already made in so many music situations, it was assumed, would lead to a satisfactory outcome. All participants reserved the right to change any aspect of their contribution at any time prior to or during performance.

“Leadership tended to be covert, worn lightly, and to be found in the lightest of light touches, the smallest of small suggestions, planted or ignored.”


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