In many ways, the improvisational style of jazz is at the heart and soul of the business of event design and production. Certainly King Dahl, executive director of event design at MGM Resorts Events, would say so. In fact, both King and jazz move to a syncopated rhythm that defies all the rules.
“Improvisation is the way I’ve lived my life,” King says. While this evokes the image of someone living in a pinball machine being bounced around by chance, King’s meaning is just the opposite. Because to him, the only way that true improvisation works is through total preparation.
“To live and work by improvisation means finding freedom through structure.”
King uses that philosophy in his event design. “Sometimes an event goes exactly the way we envisioned it. Sometimes it doesn’t. When that happens we have to improvise on the spot. And we find it just comes out so much more successfully when we are super prepared.”
When one learns that Dahl is a trained jazz musician, his ability to riff and segue effortlessly into a new direction or rhythm all begins to make sense.
“You can tell when someone knows what they are doing and can mix color and texture, and you can tell when they don’t,” he says. “It’s the same with music. The musicians who understand scale and harmony in the most advanced ways are the best free jazz players.”
King, which is short for Kingsley, attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. He learned structure and foundation by day and at night he learned how to improvise by playing to live audiences. After college he moved to Los Angeles at the invitation of his brother, Curtis Dahl of Curtis Dahl Photography. “After a little while, I realized it was not going to be easy making money at jazz,” King says.
To earn money he had been working for Cheryl Fish at her company, It’s The Main Event. “After about six months I went to Cheryl and said ‘I love this industry and the bass is going in the case.’ I was deep into my music but I knew to become just as good at event design I had to focus and dedicate myself. My goal then was to become a world-class event designer.”
When Cheryl Fish sold It’s the Main Event and went to MGM Resorts Events in Las Vegas to produce events, King began his own company, King Dahl Event Design. Ironically, he would follow Cheryl’s footsteps to MGM Resorts Events, selling King Dahl Event Design to Carol Matteson. But the decision to sell and go corporate was not an easy one. For someone used to their own rhythm, having to fit into someone else’s, especially a huge corporation with 65,000 employees, was daunting.
“You need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
MGM Resorts Events, being a completely different instrument in the band, gave King much to learn. “A lot of what this corporation excels at with regard to managing and developing employees is something that could help small business owners. Ultimately, the event industry has many incredibly talented people, but they are not always the most financially successful people due to their devotion to the craft. But that balance between fiscal responsibility, professionalism, and creativity has never been more important.”
King underwent serious executive development training to understand the business of business. “I learned so much about leadership, how to get the most from your team and how to face the harsh realities when they occur and confront them. Creative people like to be creative. It can be difficult to deal with brutal realities one minute, and then design something fantastic the next. We tend to shy away from confrontation, but not doing so can bring so many companies down in the end.”
Through the security of the corporate world, King was given a large stage on which to perform. It’s safe to say that the events he produces, like his philosophy towards life, business and creativity, always hit the right note.
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Here two short interviews that feature King, speaking from the heart, riffing on improvisation on business and music.
And to see more of King’s work and stay in touch with his projects, click here.