• 09.04.12

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

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

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

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]