A New Media Saga: Creating the Jazz Keyboard CD-ROM

A New Media Saga:
Creating the Jazz Keyboard CD-ROM

by Joel Simpson
copyright © 2000 Joel Simpson

I have always been fascinated by the panoply of styles. James Joyce in the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter of Ulysses had succeeded a parodying the entire stylistic history of English prose up to his day, and I was spellbound. I collected books of parodies. Then when I went into jazz I became fascinated by the great stylistic chameleon, Dick Hyman, who in 1977 put out a record on which he played "A Child Is Born" in 13 different styles.

Eighteen years later, after cutting my teeth on musical computer programs about New Orleans style piano, gospel piano and blues piano for a company in Canada, I came up with the idea of tackling the entire history of jazz piano using Mr. Hyman's talents. The company president approved of the idea, and I approached Mr. Hyman, who saw it as a means of putting his own 2-hour illustrated jazz lecture into permanent and more extended form.

Then I had some disagreements with the company president, so set out on my own to form my own company and do it my way-with no compromises over the amount of material to be included and the number of licenses we'd need for the music.

I formed an L.L.C. in the fall of 1995, raised the initial capital, and had a contract drawn up for Dick Hyman (whose lawyer is the dean of entertainment lawyers, Bill Krasilovsky, whom I had once met on a plane to MIDEM, the international music conventionin Canne, France). We began recording at his studio in Venice, Florida, in May of 1996. Yamaha kindly lent us a Disklavier, the premier reproducing piano, at no charge. That's the advantage of working with an artist of Dick Hyman's stature.

Dick lives in a veritable paradise: in two houses side-by-side, one of them his studio and guest room, where I stayed, and the other his residence, along with his lovely wife, who is an accomplished sculptor. He has elaborate gardens outside, which I photographed exensively (I'm a serious nature photographer), and a swimming pool for his wife which consists of two lap-lanes of water.

In his studio house he has a wall of records, including about six feet of his own recordings (measured across the spines), and now stacks of CDs. He has all his old 78s and 45s, with a 3x5 card catalogue system to locate them. He is not computerized. He also has an archive room, where he showed me his scores to Woody Allen films, the Eubie Blake tribute he did a number of years ago, and many other things. He also has a filing room, where he keeps files on all the individual tunes he knows, arrangements, sheet music, etc. And he has an impressive collection of classical music and music related books, including histories, biographies and illustrated books. He generously lent me anything I needed to produce the project.

We substantially finished the recording process by that fall, after an initial two sessions in the spring totaling 13 days, two summer meetings and one fall meeting. My brother, the videographer and PR advisor for the project, conveniently lives in Tampa. I'd fly into Tampa and drive down to Venice, about 90 minutes south of him. My brother did the videos of Dick's lessons on a number of key styles. These videos are on the second disk.

Dick had settled in Venice because of its proximity Sarasota, which has the largest community of jazz lovers in the country due to the popularity of the area among retirees. The great age of jazz was 1938-48, when it was American's main popular music. The young people of that era are now in retirement.

In August of 1996, I faced my next scariest task, after the creation of the company. I had to write the biographies for what turned out to be 62 artists. I had never undertaken such a large writing task. Even my doctoral dissertation (in comparative literature) was only half as long as this turned out to be.

I divided the names into long, medium and short bios, based on the relative importance of the artist to jazz piano history. There were about 12 names in the long column, bios which ranged from 20 to 40 single spaced typed pages; about 20 in the medium column (10-19 pp.) and about 30 in the short column (9 pp. or less). I would spend as long as a week on the long bios, and as little as a day on a short one. The task was essentially finished by January, 1997, although when I discovered there was a book-length bio of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, I felt I had to use that material for the project.

Many authors of published biographies generously gave their permission to quote as much as I liked from their works: Stanley Dance (Earl Hines), S. Frederick Starr (Gottschalk), John Edward Hasse (Duke Ellington), Linda Dahl (Mary Lou Williams). I paid for permissions for the others.

I felt honor-bound to have living artists look over their bios to check for accuracy. I was flattered at the generous attention which idols of mine like Dave Brubeck and Horace Silver gave to what I had written about them. But one in particular floored me.

Keith Jarrett is known for his reclusiveness, his difficulty with critics, also for his interest in primitive instruments, like Andean flutes and drums. So you can imagine my surprise, when in February, 1997, I received a call from him. I nearly fell off my chair! I had taken special care to emphasize the spiritual side of his music, which he is very explicit about in the liner notes to his Changeless CD. Jarrett gave me several minor corrections, some useful confirmations, then lamented that his son, a bass player, had no sense of the greatness of Pat Metheny, whom he had set him up with. Having him on the line was too great an opportunity for me to miss asking him the futile question of whether he'd be interested in doing a similar project.

"Of course not," he said. "I don't even own a computer. I'll probably get one after it's become a primitive instrument."

We laughed, and then I felt a scruple coming on.

"I must tell you," I said, "Dick Hyman did you in the program."

"I don't have to listen to it, do I?" said Jarrett, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing then that despite his opposition to the computerization of music he wasn't going to try to oppose his inclusion.

"One last question: you're supposed to be so difficult with critics, why did you call me?"

"You took the proper tone in your biography," he said.

I had guessed that. I really wanted to present each artist not only in the most sympathetic light but as far as possible in the way they saw themselves and their art. If I had succeeded with Jarrett, one of the greatest pianists of our time and one of the most demanding of himself and his public, I knew I was on the right track.

Two months later I was trying to come up with an image of a ticket to a rent party. The biography of James P. Johnson had made reference to them, and I wondered whom I could contact who might remember what they looked like. Rent parties flourished from about 1925 until 1940 in the African-American sections of most Northern US cities. Dick Hyman had lent me a book entitled The Autobiography of Black Jazz by Chicagoan Dempsey Travis. His father had been a pianist on the rent party circuit, and he remembered attending the ones his family threw and carefully counting up the nickels and dimes the following morning with his mother.

I tried to reach Mr. Travis by phone one Thursday afternoon in May through his real estate office but only got an answering machine. The following morning I was listening to NPR's Morning Edition and they mentioned the birthday of Studs Terkel, longtime jazz fan of the old school. Studs would know, I thought. I called information, but he was unlisted. So I called my cousin, Dr. Quentin Young of Chicago, a dedicated physician who has taken risky political positions in his lifetime (e.g. opposing the AMA) winning him a thick FBI file, which is a badge of honor.

I reached Quentin immediately and asked him if he knew how to reach Studs.

"Sure, Joel. I'm his doctor," he said, and gave me the number, then listened with fascination to my description of the project.

I called Studs; he was in the bathroom, but he called me right back. He was also delighted to hear about it, but said that unfortunately he had never attended a rent party, even though he was in his 20s when they were going on. He recommended I call-Dempsey Travis.

So I called Mr. Travis back, this time with the recommendation of Studs Terkel and left a message with his secretary. Mr. Travis himself called me back very soon thereafter.

"There were no tickets to rent parties," he told me. "News got around by word of mouth."

So we made it so that the second story window lights up when you pass the cursor over it.

The project was dragging on and on. We had a Japanese distributor interested in it, promised it to him by December 1997, but that turned out to be just the beginning of the long cycle of error correction. Bob Coleman had come up with brilliant graphic representations of street scenes and club interiors, but to get the whole thing to work, all the jumps, all the spellings correct, took minute editing, many times over. My waggish brother was beginning to call the project Dick Hyman's Century-and-a-half of Jazz Piano.

We went to two conventions to promote the project, the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) in Los Angeles and the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) our natural purchaser base, in various cities. In 1998 it was in New York. We had talked up the project the previous year and had been sure we'd have it the following year, but we didn't, so I had bottles of hot sauce made up with the label calling it "Dick Hyman's Hot Piano Sauce." We took the main photo I had taken of Dick and put a derby hat on his head, a la Willie "The Lion" Smith and others, and listed the main selling points of the program. We had 100 six-ounce bottles made up and 400 1.5-ounce bottles. I flew up to New York with most of them.

So when I saw Marian McPartland, who had been skeptical of the program from the beginning (I got the sense she thought I was some kind of upstart, daring to tackle the entire field of jazz piano), I went up to her and identified myself. The gentle, self-effacing lady I had come to love on her radio programs looked up at me from her seat.

"When's that f.... thing going to come out?" she said, not concealing her impatience. I realized my credibility had long worn thin with her. Dick had said "some people" were already raising their eyebrows, back in September, although by then he was resigned to the long haul and realized it would take as long as it took to get the thing right.

I explained to Ms. McPartland that we wanted to get it right and were taking the extra time to perfect everything, and I handed her a bottle of hot sauce.

"What's this!?" she was a bit non-plussed, but it seemed to mollify her impatience. She has since been very gracious regarding the program, and I was very relieved to send her her copies.

That May we finally had a prototype ready. I flew to Tampa with my daughter Molly (age 14). My brother Mark me and we drove down the following day (along with his daughter) to show the program to Dick. Dick's wife has become a kind of surrogate grandmother to the girls, so she took them swimming while we hunted for a computer to look at the program on. We ended up in a gated community outside of Sarasota, at the home of a neighbor of a friend of a friend of a local journalist, who had been a supporter since the beginning. Our host had never heard of Dick Hyman, but he generously showed Dick, my brother, the journalist and me to his bedroom where his new computer was set up.

I proudly took Dick through the gorgeous graphics which Bob Coleman had created, but Dick didn't seem to be looking. He was listening intently at the music, and apparently deciding what he was going to say.

"I hate to bring you down, Joel, but I can't allow the program to be released with the music sounding like that. In the fast tunes it's ok, but in the slower tunes there's no dynamics or pedaling. Sorry."

It was a blow, a setback, but I realized he was right, that the lush ballads sounded like they were being played on a pinball machine. We'd have to find a way to play waveform recordings during the virtual club tour, which was the main part of the program. I had had it set up so that you heard QuickTime translations of MIDI recordings in the clubs and the straight MIDI recordings in the MIDI Studio, but this was inadequate for the music.

Back home in New Orleans I came up with a simple solution. The MIDI files contained all the information for very realistic playings. The computer medium we were using was just inadequate to translate them into sound. I'd have to play all the MIDI files through an electronic piano or module and record those soundwaves digitally, like a CD, rather than playing the encoded notes through the computer's low-end synthesizer. Since there wasn't enough room on the CD-ROM for CD quality sound (44.1 KHz sampling rate) we'd have to do it a one-quarter that rate. We ended up with recordings that sound like they come from a somewhat used LP, but definitely from a live source. They just fit into the 230 MB left on the CD medium (total 640MB) I was grateful to Dick for insisting on the improvement.

The error-correction process went through the summer and into the fall. We finally send away the disk for manufacture at the end of November, 1998. But when it came back I soon realized that those sound recordings were too noisy on Windows machines. We could have done better. So I sent the boxed product back to the plant, where they removed the disks, keeping the boxes and printing for the improved disk. I then rerecorded all 103 tunes at a lower volume, so there would be less distortion. The results were considerably better, but it took us until May. So we didn't have the really good disks for either convention this past January. I was doing this for the long run, however. I didn't want any critic to have any foreseeable reservations. It had to be as good and as complete as we could make it.

Finally, this past May we got the new disks in, and they were fine. I began sending out review copies, and we've gotten a good response. Dick sent one to The New York Times without my cover letter which offers an overview of the program, and the reviewer was a bit overwhelmed, writing contradictory criticisms (too much Dick Hyman, too many artists covered), and getting stuck in the quiz, a relatively minor element of the program, which is part of the MIDI Studio. It would have been funny, if it hadn't been The New York Times. The music press has been uniformly laudatory, even dithyrambic.

Dick finally got a good look at the program himself and was suitably impressed. He's so uncomputer-oriented it took him until this past Febrary to get into it. He had trusted me with a part of his reputation, and while very helpful, he never says a word he doesn't mean, so it was especially gratifying to receive his praise.

Now we're trying to get the word out to the music world and beyond. Our budget is limited, but Hal Leonard, the largest music distributor in the world, is doing their share of promotion, and we're grateful for their help and interest. We're still looking for reviews, in the U.S. and Europe and Asia, Australia, wherever CD-ROMS are sold. Any interest and help is greatly appreciated.

E-mail: JssMusic@compuserve.com

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