Jazz Composition in the Digital Age

By Ted Gioia  •  December 17, 2015

Technology has always impacted jazz composition. The earliest jazz stars learned from ragtime player piano rolls. Even today, performers need to secure a “mechanical license” to record a song, but how many of them realize that the term (which dates back to 1909) first referred to the player piano mechanisms that were our first copy-and-playback devices?

And not every early jazz technology was profound. A toilet plunger could serve as a mute. A hat could do the same. A knife on a guitar might produce sounds hitherto unknown in Western music. Jazz has always made use of ready-at-hand objects, and still does today — when anything from a laptop to a conch shell might show up on the bandstand.

In fact, a new technology seems to emerge every 20 years or so that changes everything in jazz composition. The rise of microphones in the 1920s allowed for a new intimacy in jazz performance, and the Golden Age of American Song (the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, etc.) might never have happened without this breakthrough. The advent of the long-playing album in the 1950s opened up the door for extended jazz compositions. The availability of affordable synthesizers changed the rulebook again in the 1970s, and the rise of web-based technologies did the same in the 1990s.

That last revolution may be the most disruptive and long-lasting. And the digital world impacts more than just the construction of the music — it has also changed distribution, dissemination, remuneration, and virtually every other aspect of the life of the musical work after it has been composed. Not since the birth of the recording industry has the making of music been so inexorably altered.

It’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of this shift. Musicians find it harder than ever to monetize their work in the digital age. So much of the ethos of the web is based on giving content away for free. Musicians who resist these urgings have to swim against the tide — and the waves get bigger every year.

The traditional business model may not have been perfect, but all parties worked together to create a viable financial model for jazz. Everyone from the label execs down to the Main Street retailer wanted to sell product. When I met with Max Weiss, founder of Fantasy Records, that was exactly the word he used: product. “You can’t fall in love with the product,” he insisted. You had to sell it. And I might gripe about his mercenary attitude, but he lived up to his self-image. He sold millions of albums, and turned many jazz composers into stars.

I prefer to treat music as art. But, if forced to choose, I would rather view music as product than content. At least people pay for a product.

Musicians find it harder than ever to monetize their work in the digital age. So much of the ethos of the web is based on giving content away for free. Musicians who resist these urgings have to swim against the tide — and the waves get bigger every year.

But not everything digital is bad for jazz composers. The tools and resources have streamlined almost every aspect of writing a composition. I recently purchased the software package Finale for my 15-year-old son, and must say that I am a little envious. I wish I’d had access to this technology when I first started to write music. Scores can be prepared in a fraction of the time they once demanded. A composer can hear everything before the musicians ever see the chart. And the scores simply look so good, in their glistening Adobe pdf format. I’m almost ashamed to show musicians my old handwritten pieces.

But digital tech has done more than change the written score. Even more to the point, it alters the sound of the music. Composers can bypass traditional notes and instruments, and build their works from digital snippets. You can sample it, you can group it. If it’s got a backbeat, you can loop it.

Even before the digital age, composers dreamed of capturing the non-musical world in their compositions. ASCAP avant-gardist George Antheil put airplane propellers in Ballet Mécanique, and the Beatles included a real blackbird on The Beatles (The White Album), albeit drawn from a sound effects collection. But digital tech makes it easier than ever before to bring unexpected and unconventional sounds into the music. One of my favorite albums this year, titled A Guide to the Birdsong of South America, features the works of various Latin American composers who mix the songs of endangered birds from their home countries with undulating waves of electronica. It’s wholly natural — all proceeds go to birding charities — but also entirely digital.

Most jazz composers tend to work with traditional instruments, even in a digital age. Yes, I increasingly see musician credits that include “laptop” or “software” or “DJ,” but this happens on just a tiny portion of the new releases I hear each week. Yet even if the jazz composers stay loyal to traditional sounds, some other creative individual may take their work and turn it into a remix or a sample or some other ingredient in a new work.

At the Punkt festival in Norway, the remix is almost as important as the jazz concert. Audience members can go to a nearby hall to hear guest artists remix the music they just heard on the main stage. For many listeners, the remix is more exciting than the original performance. Some traditionalists may chafe at this digital usurping of the music, but I see this creative extension as very much in the spirit of spontaneity, interaction and improvisation that serve as core values of the jazz idiom.

As a jazz writer, I am especially pleased at how digital technologies have given me easier access to the music — and not just to the recordings. I often like to examine the musical score, but before the rise of the web, this was almost impossible. In the not-so-good old days, my easiest option was to transcribe the music by ear off the record. But now I can send an e-mail to a jazz composer, and get a pdf of the chart a short while later. What a blessing for a critic or student! Now we can go straight to the original source — the same score the musicians use when recording the piece.

Ah, but this revolution is still in its early days. Jazz composers have only begun to take advantage of the opportunities presented by software and the web. Many of them still operate with the same attitudes and expectations that were prevalent a half-century ago. In fact, I don’t think we have yet met the great digital age jazz composer.

We still need to find that great visionary who can take all this tech and use it with the same originality and creativity that Duke Ellington applied to the toilet plunger and other mutes back in the 1920s. Maybe that’s in store for us in the next Roaring Twenties, the decade that will be at our doorstep in another 50 months. If so, I will be waiting for it. PB

TED GIOIA, an ASCAP composer and publisher, is the author of nine books on music, including The History of Jazz and The Jazz Standards, both published by Oxford University Press. Visit him online at www.tedgioia.com.