jazz & blues music blog with news, reviews, concerts & more, with a Canadian focus

August 23, 2005

Jazz and Technology

Written by
cindy mcleod

Jazz music developed over the last century, beginning in the southern US, spreading north, and eventually throughout the globe. The evolution of jazz has remained current with the climate of the times during which it lives, Dixieland, Hot Jazz, Cool Jazz, and Fusion being significant markers along with the cultural evolution of America. The innovators expand the definition of jazz with new harmonic sensibilities and rhythmic developments partially by integrating with other cultures, and through mirroring the voice and condition of their environment.

Two significant markers in the development of jazz involve the invention of electric instruments, courtesy of Les Paul and his electric guitar, and synthesizers courtesy of groundbreakers such as Dr. Moog (see my previous post). We are now witnessing a new step in the development of jazz, which is the advent of the computer and music generated via technology. Computers have made the accessibility of music as easy as one click of a mouse, introducing the art form to a wider and more diverse audience who might otherwise have never been exposed, whether due to their remote locales, a lack of music education in public schools, the increased costs of accessing live music, and the movement of jazz music to indoor licensed establishments, causing the natural generational flow through the mentor/apprentice relationships to cease. According to the great trumpeter Clark Terry, this was the single major factor in the decline of jazz and created a marginalized market for the genre.

Computers have spawned a generation who’ve been re-introduced to the jazz greats, whose works are integrated into the layers of computer generated ‘beats’ and samples. I hear remixes of Miles, Ella, Dizzy and many other pioneers re-emerging in today’s music, redefining jazz culture anew. There is also an exciting and innovative integration of sounds and rhythms of modern day culture, such as traffic sounds, television, and a myriad of other technological input becoming a part of the music, just as vital a ‘folk’ music form as ever.

The word itself, as defined above by Merriam-Webster, is characterized by specific attributes; syncopated rhythm, polyphonic ensemble playing, improvisation, and bending of pitch and timbre. This is in some cases embraced in the new ‘jazz’ music we hear today, but in many cases it suffers a lack of the ingredients defining the art form. There are often pieces ‘composed’ and executed without any human interaction save a programmer through a series of commands. It often leaves me cold, for it is the humanity of music that grabs at my heart, mistakes and warts are easily as important as the perfection in music. Can computers cry? Or laugh? Celebrate birth or bury the dead? Music is the accompaniment to the human condition. Does the wail of a newborn or the song of a robin reach the belly through the gift of a musician, or through a soundbite from a computer? Do computers have souls? Can they ‘tune’ to divine inspiration?

Did Les Paul, Dr. Moog or Steve Wozniak have any idea what kind of impact they would have on music? What would Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie say about it? Clarke Terry has embraced it, the last time I saw him he told me he�d just been in the studio recording a rap project, and arguably, he is one of the original rappers� have you ever listened to ‘Mumbles’? Quincy Jones, whose body of work began at the age of 12 playing trumpet in a horn section chair beside Mr. Terry, has stayed on top of the charts through decades of music evolution because he is open to change and the developments in music, today he is one of the most prolific producers of rap and hip-hop music in the world.

This is a topic for thousands of years of debate, and there are many valid arguments for all aspects of the debate. My ears are open, and I am entranced by the explorations of new dimensions of my beloved art form. As long as jazz is being created, explored, expressed and shared, I will know that it lives, is vital, and has a place in our hearts.

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