What Charlie Parker And Thomas Edison Knew: Jam Sessions Make New Ideas Happen

Because one man's hackathon is another's jam.

In jazz and in enterprise, jam sessions are designed to foster novel insights and accelerate learning. Jazz players engage in active experimentation, follow hunches, and build on others' ideas. Jam sessions are open and collaborative environments, with a band that's a collection of diverse specialists combining different instruments, backgrounds, a variety of preferences, styles, and skill levels—the same as a startup office.

This is how jazz players develop skills and the art form evolves. New ways of playing and schools of thought emerge. The great saxophonist Charlie Parker, affectionately known as "Bird" because of the way he could fly over the chord changes fluidly, had formative moments while jamming. His experiments changed the history of jazz.

In jam sessions he was able to stretch out and experiment with the phrases he was hearing in his head, extending his solos in unexpected directions. It was through these experiences that he and his friends created "bebop" music and changed music history. These are innovations that could not have happened if players were acting independently. Jam sessions allowed the accidental discoveries that led to the bebop movement as players passionately engaged in inclusive, spontaneous conversations and shared their ongoing experiments.

Some of the most impactful ideas have come from settings similar to jazz jams.

This is what Thomas Edison did so well. He was hailed as a creative genius, but focusing on individual genius misses the point—this is what leaders need to understand if they want to nurture creativity. Edison had a jazz mindset. The inventions that have been attributed to him as a lone genius were the result of collaboration among a group of diverse specialists in Menlo Park, New Jersey. They worked in a common space, experimented on an ongoing basis, produced several failures, but continually learned from one another. Edison was not so much a great inventor as he was a designer for jam sessions.

Steve Jobs understood the power of jam session, the informal interactions that lead to happy accidents, the unplanned and unexpected exchange that creates impact. In his biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson relates the story of Jobs' personal investment in the design of the Pixar building. Pixar is the animated movie studio responsible for Toy Story and other animated blockbusters. When they needed a new building, John Lasseter, the Director of Pixar Studio had assumed that it would be a building in the tradition of Hollywood studios, with different departments and functions having separate quarters. But Jobs sense that a traditional design would create isolation. He knew that these were engineers who, left to their own devices, would stay in their offices and tinker with their own ideas and prototypes. He insisted that Pixar building should be one building with a large open space that facilitated accidental encounters and random conversations. That's leading with a jazz mindset. Like Edison before him and Charlie Parker and other bebop players, Jobs understood that creativity comes from spontaneous exchanges between diverse experts.

The open source movement and crowdsourcing are activities that have much in common with jazz jams. These movements have abandoned traditional, closed, proprietary modes of innovation in favor of the open collaboration. They too are designed to foster serendipity. There are several examples of this kind of loose and informal collaboration in which creative people engage for the sheer joy of learning and curiosity, sharing ideas across boundaries, creating subgroups that organically emerge around an experience, much like the engineers in Edison's work bench in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Or consider IBM's innovation jams. Leaders in IBM grasped the significance of the jazz mindset. They create large-scale events that elicit high degrees of participation. Ideas rise or fall on their merit rather than where they originate in the hierarchy. IBM involves large groups in brainstorming sessions, with thousands of people contributing ideas and building on one another's contributions. One session actually included 150,000 people from 104 countries over a three-day period. These jams have created several innovations, including the creation of new businesses. IBM has used the jam process to create their value statement.

Jazz improvisation and creativity in organizations are inherently social accomplishments. They involve making connections between past experience and present intuition, trying out ideas with no guarantee of where it will lead in the presence of other committed and skilled players. This might be one of the unrecognized skills of entrepreneurs—the capacity to put together combinations of interesting people, tools, and ideas and letting them loose. Serendipity doesn't just happen. Successful entrepreneurs know they need to design for it. They know how to jam.

Frank J. Barrett is the author of Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz.

How do you jam at your office? Toot your own horn below.

[Image: Flickr user jaxxon]

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  • Bill Cushard

    Funny I am reading this article now. I am planning a second new hire on-boarding program for senior managers and designing a jam session called "Product/Client Jam." In June, I did a similar session for a small group of sales people. I had very little time to put together a program, so I decided, "Why not just get these new sales folks in the room with our marketing, sales, and client management teams so they can kick around ideas about our client segments, what problems they have that we can solve, what products can help solve those problems, what products are working and not working, where are opportunities for second and third products for existing clients, etc. 

    I just created some discussion questions and let 'em fly. We received positive feedback....so we are doing it again for a different group of new senior managers. 

    Timely article, for me.

  • Ed

    Not to unduly rain, but that's not how Bird (or more precisely Yardbird) got his nickname. Likewise,  the scene at Mintons (for one) had a number of different ways they could clear the bandstand of Those Who Could Not Hang, primarily tempo and reharmonization. So, not quite the freewheeling, spitballing any idea kind of thing the article intimates. Sure, you get exposed to new thinking; that was mostly developed in the shed, not on the stand. And you get to hear how stuff you've been shedding works in the real world. But it really is more an exchange of peers, rather than a "Now that we've heard from the COO, let's hear what the interns think..."
    There's a great anecdote in the book THINKING IN JAZZ; the scene is the after hours jam session, so the house if full of musicians and everyone's hanging and networking and what have you, while the band on the stand is playing. And in the "vanilla" or easy parts of the tune, everyone hanging is talking and carrying on, until the tune hits a challenging part of the progression and everyone stops to listen to how the soloist navigates it. Then the hubbub picks back up until that section comes back up and everyone quiets down again. And this repeats until the soloist starts repeating ideas and then it's non stop chatter till the next one steps up....

  • Brian Fraser

    The most common form of jazz in human experience is ordinary conversation, so we are all jazz musicians and every conversation is a jam session.  The question, as Barrett says so clearly, is how engaged and creative we are in making the most of those conversations.  Leaders create and sustain space for this to happen, listening for and building on the meaning that emerges from the conversations.  Barrett's book is brilliant!  Read it as soon as you can.

  • RJ Redden

    I've agreed with the point of this article for years. What I have also been wondering is, how would you create a "jam session" without the benefit of architecture? I'm the owner of a small business, and I often see other small business owners struggle with the same types of problems. It seems that many could benefit from shared ideas. However, it seems that there is nothing out there that fills this need. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.

  • Michael Rock

    Join a local business leads group that meets q few times a month. Some Chamber of Commerce organizations can be a good resource as well.

  • Roger

    The best jam sessions just happen. You tell someone in or outside your organization a thought, a need, something you just can't quite get your arms around. There comment can be the start of your " jam session".

    I specialize in one ofa kind products of my design or from my customers designs. I am not afraid to ask questions about why they want to do something a particular way, or why it is designed this way. I help them fine tune there ideas.

    The other thing is don't specialize in what you know. Become more of a generalist. The more you know, the better the jam session becomes in your head. You have more information to pull from.

    When I am confronted with a new challenge , I try to forget about it for two or three days. Then , when you least expect it, usually when I am in the shower, bam, the answer hits me and I am off to the races.