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Vol. 4, No. 1, 2005
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Robert J. Lewis
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Wayne Bremser produces, a web site on the history of jazz. This article originally appeared in Newsday.

* * * * * * * * * *

Jazz is one of the most complex forms of modern art, yet it remains accessible to millions of listeners. Fans don't need university courses to dissect the magic of jazz; we've been educated by our own music collections.

The older among us remember that wonderful dinosaur, the long-playing record, which came with a trove of information to help a listener better understand the music. In the days before MTV, record labels made the album an immersing experience with striking graphic design, moody photographs, and informative liner notes written by prominent critics such as Stanley Crouch, Amiri Baraka, Dan Morgenstern, and Ralph J. Gleason.

In the age of the CD, the large graphics and photos have shrunk considerably, but we have gained better sound quality and exhaustive boxed sets that still include essays and detailed performance notes as well as alternative takes of favorite tracks that were cut from the original LPs.

With all of this written and recorded information accessible in one package, it is easier than ever to track a jazz musician's ideas and techniques evolving day by day, session by session, which is how the art form advances.

Appreciating this, our ears are not so startled when the smooth Miles Davis of Kind of Blue produces the menacing Bitches Brew of 10 years later. Understanding this progression, we can make some sense of Ornette Coleman's listener-unfriendly Free Jazz the first time we hear it.

© Paul G. DekerFor the players, this same information has been the doorway to the past -- the primary source for studying who played what, when and with whom.

How long this tradition of jazz education will continue is in serious doubt, however, with the growing popularity of digital music online. Young people are no longer tethered to albums or discs. They are downloading a large portion of their music illegally and purchasing the rest of it from digital music stores like Apple Computer's popular iTunes Music Store, which has sold more than 100 million songs.

Online music has great potential for musicians and students of jazz. Imagine typing Night and Day into your computer and listening to dozens of versions of the song. Or accessing Duke Ellington's entire catalogue with a few mouse clicks rather than driving around town searching record stores. That's the good news for jazz. The bad news is almost everything else.

Millions of young listeners are buying music that is sold without liner notes, correct recording dates, and session information. Even the musicians' names are often removed from their performances.

Ben WebsterThat's the state of the art at iTunes. Search for one of my favorite albums, Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster. You'll see that iTunes lists the release date of this 1957 session as 1997 (the date the CD was released). Curious about who plays bass? Good luck, iTunes won't tell you. (It was Ray Brown.)

In the liner notes, Ben Webster is interviewed by the legendary critic Nat Hentoff. Webster explains the influence of Coleman Hawkins: "I dug his big tone and that drive, to me he was saying more than anybody else on his horn. . . . There are times when he'll play what's in vogue for three or four choruses and then, on top of that, he'll play something he's been doing for a long time." The CD version includes further reminiscences by Hentoff, written four decades after the original notes.

You won't find any of this information on iTunes or the other online music stores.

Another drawback is that the typical digital music file is but a fraction of CD sound quality. It's like comparing a jug wine that you might drink at a beach party to a glass of good Merlot that you want to smell, taste, and savor. If this seems like the audiophile snobbery of a jazz fan, download Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing from To me, his guitar solo sounds as if it was recorded underwater in a swimming pool.

Which is a reminder that thousands of songs scattered out of context with virtually no identifying information are a threat to the growth of all forms of music, from folk to rock to pop to bluegrass to classical. There's no way to find out the names of the conductor or orchestra on certain classical compilations sold online, let alone the names of the soloists. A new fan might be curious about who sings and plays guitar with Eric Clapton on his most famous album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. It's impossible to learn this through iTunes.

Louis ArmstrongThe less that contemporary players in all genres know about the past, the less likely they will be to advance the music. But jazz is perhaps at the greatest risk for two reasons: Listeners require at least a small level of explanation to approach it, and improvisation is at the core of its DNA.

Composition in jazz occurs session by session, club by club, date by date, player by player. In turn, the players need an educated audience that will encourage them to keep pushing the limits. Knowledgeable fans who are enthusiastic about jazz's possibilities can support a musician's ability to innovate.

Already there is a growing audience for jazz that's accessible rather than challenging. We have seen the popularity in recent years of cookie-cutter ‘smooth’ and ‘quiet storm’ jazz radio stations offering a soothing background tapestry to daily activities with a program of music that doesn't engage the audience in any kind of dialogue.

Will a listener schooled on this music, whose source for more diverse jazz recordings is an online music store, be receptive to the intensity of a performance by Ornette Coleman or Sonny Rollins that might touch a much wider range of emotions? Or by someone new who is inspired by these players?

A great work of art can be enjoyed without explanation or context, but nobody would claim to truly understand Cubism by glancing at a few paintings or try to explain Fellini by watching just one film. Appreciating jazz means listening to the work of a large network of players who developed a musical language together across decades of recording sessions.

© Lois SiegelIt's impossible to study the great mid-1950s recordings of Miles Davis without knowing who John Coltrane is. And it's hard to appreciate the accomplishments of Coltrane without understanding the influence of Charlie Parker, who fashioned bebop along with Dizzy Gillespie, who in turn was influenced by Roy Eldridge, who followed in Louis Armstrong's footsteps by playing with the Fletcher Henderson band in the mid-1930s. It's the proverbial great chain.

Just as you can be a baseball fan without memorizing statistics, it's not essential that listeners or players learn every detail of jazz's great genealogy of influences and ideas. But to become a fan and certainly to pass the most basic stage as a musician, you need at least some familiarity with the lineage.

The best hope for the future of jazz is that the online music stores will add features in the next generation of software. The information that has been removed from jazz albums can still be replaced. But consumers probably will have to demand it first.

We live in a time when many listeners don't care who plays bass on a Jay-Z track or which 1970s funk band was sampled on a Beyonce single. The culture of music videos leaves a large number of musicians unseen and anonymous.

While the market might not demand more information about music right now, companies such as Apple, Sony, Wal-Mart, and Napster, which have worked closely with the music industry to build their online stores, need to remember that tastes will change, people grow up, and someday listeners and musicians might want to know more about what exactly they are listening to.

In the case of jazz, the future of improvisation really depends on it. Leaving this information out for a generation is the first step toward losing it forever.


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