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Former IBMer Jim Bell finds inspiration in music

Photograph courtesy of Jim Bell
Jim Bell plays jazz with the Jim Bell trio.

When Jim Bell interviewed for his first job at IBM in 1959, he was asked about his hobbies. “I like to play music,” said Bell.

Picture this: It’s post-World War II Pittsburgh. On a smoky stage in Italian working-class neighborhoods, this 25-year-old musician is playing jazz piano with pals like Bobby Vinton. He is ex-Air Force, with three years in Okinawa. He’s heard a rumor that if he’s lucky enough to be hired, IBM will pay for his engineering degree.

“You’re gonna give that up, aren’t you?” the interviewer asked. Back then, the image of a musician didn’t match that of a corporate man. “Of course I lied,” Bell recalls. “Music has been the one constant in my life, since I was 4 years old.” He got the job.

By the 1970s, Bell had worked his way up from punch-system repairman to systems engineer. A big project with Westinghouse got enough attention to move Bell, his wife and three children out to a big software division in Palo Alto, Calif. “I looked around, saw palm trees and the Pacific Ocean and thought, ‘What am I doing in Pittsburgh?’” In Palo Alto, Bell programmed some of IBM’s first major mainframe applications—a process he likened to writing a piece of music: They both required the ability to see new possibilities, new ways of solving a problem. “I’ve always felt a definite relationship between those thought processes.”

Over his 40-year career with IBM, Bell created an interface between IMS*, a hierarchical database first developed for the Apollo space program, and Telecommunications Access Method (TCAM), which linked the database with terminals. He also worked on the job forwarding program (JFP), the first application that made it possible for computers in one location to send jobs to another. “I’m an inventive kind of guy,” says Bell, who as a kid enjoying taking apart his dad’s radios to see how they worked. “I like to tinker around with new ideas, and IBM gave me the opportunity to put that tinkering to use in really productive work.”

Bell’s worlds came together in the late ’80s when he became a manager in IBM’s multimedia software department and patented the first method for musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) file translation. Synthesizers, keyboards, drum machines and computers communicate through MIDI. But Bell and his coworkers realized there was no way to automate playback of music files. “We came up with a means for specifying that, for instance, program number 29 will always be trombone.” His invention quickly became a standard.

After retiring in 1991, Bell continued to work as an IBM contractor for several years. He still builds websites for a few clients, still performs every couple of months. From an electronic recording studio in his home in Saint Helena, Calif., he composes music for jazz combos and has written a complete five-part symphony. Music, that constant, still pushes him. “It’s my life’s dream to have it played by a real orchestra.”

Sara Aase is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.



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