Gary Smith on Bebop As a Model For Innovation

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Community of Practice, EDA, skmurphy

I cannot remember what reference led me to read “Gunfire at Sea” by Elting Morrison but I thought it captured some fundamental truths about innovation so well I bought several copies of “Men, Machines, and Modern Times” by Elting Morrison and started sharing them with friends in 2005. I had a conversation with Gary Smith about the book sometime that year and he said he had written a thesis at the Naval Academy on the subject of bebop as a model for innovation. I pestered him for several months afterward to dig it up because from his description I really wanted to read it.

On January 23 2006 I emailed him the following (hyperlinks added for context):

I attended an SDForum Collaboration SIG tonight on “How Hackers Collaborate” where they had folks from the Home Brew Computer Club and the West Coast Computer Faire and your analogies for Bebop about critical mass and remixing and viewing each other’s performance where very salient. I represented them as best I could but now I would really like to read the original. I think you are on to something. What’s interesting is how little effort any of the principals made, even years later, to look for historical or other contexts (e.g. community of practice theory) to get a better handle on what happened.

This prompted him to admit that he had not been able to find the original but my encouragement, like the grain of sand an oyster uses to make a pearl, had prompted him to rewrite and update his original essay from memory, which he emailed me. It follows below

The Birth of Bebop:
How It Compares to Innovation in Electronic Design

Gary Smith, Gartner Dataquest (Jan-2006)

I’ve been a semi-professional musician since I was in junior high school. While attending the Naval Academy, I was the bass player for the NA 10 and a side group that performed Modern Jazz at various parties throughout the Washington-Baltimore area. Therefore when it came time to do my senior year English project, I picked the Birth of Bebop as my theme. I have since lost the paper, but I will outline the important parts as far as innovation goes. I will also add quite a bit from my experience in Electronic Design. The rest of the paper covered: who was involved, where they performed and various breakthroughs that eventually brought the Jazz world from the era of Big Bands to the era of Modern Jazz.

Looking back I should have included a section on the economic impact of the Bebop movement, but at the time I didn’t think too much about economics. Rather, the important issue was the innovative imperative. Although the Big Band Era was at its height during the 1940s, the innovative period really happened in the 1930s, generally by Black Bands who seldom received the credit. Duke Ellington and Count Basie being the two major exceptions.   What was happening in the early 1940s was that White Bands were taking over, the bands were getting larger, and the music was becoming more scripted. This led to less and less innovation. This is what I concentrated on, although there was a large economic impact.

In the 1940s Big Bands played large Ballrooms, while in the 1930s most Bands were small enough to play in large Nightclubs. This meant the small venue market was being abandoned, so there was an opportunity for small four or five piece groups to make some money. Not much but enough to live on plus free drinks from the patrons. So this is where Bebop started; out-of-work musicians and musicians from large bands would get together in after hours clubs and jam, generally just for drinks and a chance to innovate.

This happened on 42nd Street in New York; in fact it happened in a four block area of 42nd Street in New York. Now this isn’t new for music. Jazz originally came out of New Orleans, actually out of Rampart Street in New Orleans. It then moved to Chicago and then on to New York. 42nd Street wasn’t the first small area to give birth to Jazz innovation but it may have been the smallest area and it was the best documented. After that there were other musical innovations: West Coast Jazz out of LA, British Rock out of Liverpool and the San Francisco Sound out of Height-Asbury in San Francisco are the best known.

So what actually happened? The normal routine was for a group of four or five musicians would get together and jam. Other musicians could sit in and eventually they started doing cutting contests. That is you could play as long as one of the people sitting in didn’t out play you. If he did, he got your seat and you were out for the night, at least at that club. The musicians that got cut moved on to another club to see if he could cut someone else. Even the players that weren’t cut in on went to other clubs during their break to see what the other groups were doing. So all in all it was a very competitive environment and soon only the top musicians made their way to 42nd Street. Or if they went they didn’t bring their horns.

This was specific to 42nd Street; I could find no evidence of cutting contest becoming the major drive for innovation in any other of the locations. One of the main things that would get you cut was if you copied someone else; you had to be innovative to win. Because you couldn’t copy others and the area was small, constant listening to other musicians became important. I concluded that what they were picking up was what “not to do”. In essence, any innovative procedure includes exploring false paths. Many of these are eliminated while “Wood Shedding” -that is going off by yourself and trying things out without the fear of embarrassed yourself in front of an audience. That will only get you so far. In the end it is the audience, especially an informed audience, that is the best judge of you performance. And 42nd Street had the best audience you could get; other musicians all out to change the direction of Jazz.

Let’s go forward eighteen years to Silicon Valley. I was now in the semiconductor business and had heard the call of Silicon Valley three years earlier. For those that weren’t there the message was load and clear. If you were in the semiconductor business, and wanted to get in on the “real” action you had to move to Silicon Valley.

So there I was at Victoria Station, standing next to a table of three engineers. They were the top bipolar designer at Signetics, the top bipolar designer at National and the top Bipolar designer at AMD. They all knew each other; in fact they were good friends. They had actually all worked together at one time of another. Being a curious type, and not wanted my engineer to give away any Signetics secrets, I listened in. The conversation was all about what “didn’t work”. And that was how I stumbled across the critical mass secret. Just as the musicians couldn’t copy the other musicians, these engineers could not tell their competition what worked because it would have been illegal. But the innovation cycle had been significantly shortened.

So basically that’s it. Critical Mass (a large group of innovators in a small area that are often in the company of other innovators) causes a major increase of innovation by a collective elimination of false paths. My experience says that this is an informal process that must be done face to face. There is some advantage in having a wide spread network, Design Power Users are a good example, but that only goes so far. They need to be in physical contact during the period of innovation. That can’t be done by e-mail. Plus if companies found out what was going on, they would probably shut the door on this vital tool for innovation.

[end of original essay]

 The Value of Startup Post Mortems

I think Gary was really on to something with his concepts of critical mass and sharing dead ends. I think his model points out value of what I had called “Picnic In the Graveyard” where you research earlier failed efforts before making your own start, and of sharing both successes and failures in entrepreneurial Communities of Practice.

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Comments (6)

  • Jeffrey Taylor


    Sharing what doesn’t work is so rare, at least in published work. The only instance I know of is the paper on NQSLR(k) parser generators (Not Quite SLR(k)) by the original author(s) of the SLR(k) concept. They were approached by people who were sure they had found an improvement on the SLR(k) algorithm. It’s didn’t quite work. It happened so many times that finally they published.
    My wife’s major professor (Botany) was horrified that she might mention something that didn’t work in her published work. Only “success” was permitted.
    I think that it happens best among friends outside of official or paying environments.


  • Sean Murphy


    Suppressing failure is also the problem with published pharmaceutical research.
    But there are conference like FailCon and back when Lean Startup Conference was called Startup Lessons Learned entrepreneurs would share the failed iterations and pivots on their path to finding product/market fit.


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