I am on the road this week, without a lot of good reading material– which makes this a perfect time to depart from the text-heavy last couple of posts, and share a simple quote with you by legendary jazz musician Charlie Parker:
“Master the music, Master the instrument, then forget all that shit and play.”
Parker knew a thing or two about innovation. He practically ushered in a new era of jazz known as “bebop,” and is known as the father of modern jazz, having later influenced more modern masters than perhaps any other jazz musician. Jazz is a perfect picture of replicable innovation. It can tell us a lot about creating and sustaining innovation–at least I can’t think of a better analogy to describe the enigmatic evolution of America’s purest art form throughout the last century. If you have never been to a live jazz concert (and I am not talking about lawn seats at Kenny G), I highly suggest it as a routine-breaking activity (In Austin, try The Elephant Room; In Houston, try Cezzanne– both are seedy, intimate spots where you can sit close to the action). “Real” Jazz as some people call it, is best described as a frenetic interplay between improvising musicians, with the tempo controlled by the drummer to provide a structure for the other musicians to float notes between. This interplay is what keeps jazz fresh and exciting, and is precisely what Parker is hitting on here. The best jazz musicians master the frameworks of jazz– classic compositions, note structures, rythym, and the command of their own instrument. Knowing what what has been done, what the instrument is capable of, and what they are capable of, they are free to improvise– to move between structures– to color outside the lines. Without this mastery, they might hit something new and fresh by letting notes fly, but immaturity eventually catches up to limit this approach.
So, the implication to innovators is this: foster a healthy respect for what has been done and what you are capable of doing with available resources– then work within it to find synergy and defy expectations. Perhaps don’t completely forget about it, but don’t be afraid to let “notes” fly and soar within structures. The counterargument to this approach is most often that new and exciting often evolves out of naivety and disregard for the masters. This is most evident in the art and world, with people who defy classical training and do what feels right to them. There is merit to this for one-shot innovation, but the world of business is so much more constant and pragmatic than the intermittent work of artists.
Are you attempting to innovate without first developing or mastering a framework? Did you master the process, but then become a slave to it– unable to get outside of the rules? Are you even aware that you are in one position or other, and if you are, what impact this has on your ability to innovate?
If you can’t make it to a concert, try a few of his classic albums. I only own one in my small, but growing vinyl collection, and recommend it as a great place to start. It is a collection of his Savoy recordings, and the second disc features legendary drummer Max Roach, as well as a young Miles Davis.
Charlie Parker: Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes)