Jazz vs. Computers by Howard Mandel

Jazz vs. Computers

A paper delivered to New York University's School of Continuing Education faculty colloquium, November 1996

by Howard Mandel
Copyright © 1997 Howard Mandel

I'm a writer and editor, critic and journalist, radio producer and professor. Jazz is my discipline, and I've got a problem with computers.

That should be no surprise -- don't we all? They're new to most of us; marvelous tools, yes, but not simply magic. You really have to know your computer and software to maximize their potential. You've got to be able to afford one, or find one free, and it's got to be the right one, with the right program installed, and because of market conditions right now they're expensive and continuously changing. But that's not the computer's fault.

As for jazz and computers, the question is what they could possibly have to do with each other. The values and processes of the one -- an art of spontaneous, inspired collective improvisation, evolving through an oral tradition, born of African-American culture but accepting creative individuals by way of true meritocracy -- seem antithetical to the other. I imagine the discipline of computer science is one demanding the close study of machines and artificial intelligence systems as they've been created and deployed from the top down, originally at the behest of what we used to call the military-industrial complex, in the past 10 or 15 years promoted by an insidious, self-perpetuating conspiracy of conglomerates that want to foist digital, binary thinking on our every waking

Oh, it can't be as bad as all that. That's just the Luddite in me -- the shadow of my otherwise free jazz radicalism that rejects change, that's essentially conservative, that compels me teach, in fact. Aren't most of us professors conservators, who plan to pass on what we think we know?

Because I really don't know anything about computer science, and indeed shudder at the thought of sitting down to spend even an hour or two perusing the bad writing of a computer or program's instruction manual, I started asking my friends and students the links are between this newly necessary technology and jazz.

Most everybody cited computers as time-and-energy-saving devices for composers, allowing them quick transposition and printing of parts. Of course, most of the greatest jazz composers -- Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus -- seldom worked up complex scores that demanded arduous copying; they depended on the skills and knowledge common to the artisans they hired, men and women who could create, transpose and refine musical parts in their heads. Jazz would probably be a different music, maybe with longer, more complex phrases than those figures we call riffs, more through-composed and less encouraging of democratic personal expression, if the computer had been as readily accessible in the last century as, say, the saxophone.

Some of my friends and students said computers could help musicians find fans and network for gigs -- true enough, and useful, really an advance on the telephone and other long-range commerce, but not essential or specific to jazz, the art, as it is to music, the business. Indeed, to the extent that people rely on computer networking in the place of face-to-face contact, the immediate, tangible feedback loop between jazz players and their audiences that prompts shared esthetic epiphany is disrupted. The advent of broadcast radio certainly helped disseminate jazz, but the popularity and dominance of television has arguably had an ill effect on nightclubs in New York City since the 1950s. Computers don't precisely "bring us together."

My one pal who's worked long and hard on a strictly voluntary basis to help me with the semblance of a computer platform came up with a correspondence between computers and jazz. "They're the two fields where most of the significant work is done after midnight," he said. That made me envision the lone hacker, toiling away on the frontiers of an arcane language, fed on sheer determination -- an image rather like that of Charlie Parker secluding himself in a cabin in the woods to practice scales and chord progressions in every key and tempo, until he commanded such virtuosity on the alto sax that the assumed limits of harmony fell before him, and bebop took flight.

Well, Bird still needed colleagues to light his fire -- like a network of hackers who set up their own revolutionary web-server? Forging paths everyone can access, given their application of enough attention and RAM? Maybe that's how our two disciplines are alike.

Mmmm, I still have my doubts. Jazz is an art form linked forever, I hope, with popular entertainment. My four year old sings with new swing after she's listened to Louis Armstrong records. She delights in playing with CD-ROMS, too -- I'm not saying computers don't have their place, just that the values, principles, and practices they assume or enshrine are not so widely adaptable or applicable as those of Armstrong, who teaches rising above adversity and honoring the universality of human spirit by the way he takes life at the pace of breath and walking, and burnishes the blues to gold.

I'm sure I'm not being fair to computers. But then, I'm not so sure they're fair to me. I have to learn to do things their way to get anything out of them, though maybe the computer scientist would suggest my thinking and doing would be more economical and logical if I adopted computers' processes of thought and action, if I took consideration of the computer's manner of apprehension and comprehension into the classroom. Nah, no one would say that, would they? But they might say the computer is a tool, just like the trumpet or sax, and you've got to learn how those instruments work if you're going to get anything out of jazz, right?

Wrong: jazz is music that we hear like any other audible event, and organize for ourselves in our minds. You don't have to know squat about any given instrument or notation or the structure of music to be moved by it -- but if you don't know how to create and open a file you can't proceed to simply document your thought. I suppose computer sciences assume that much proficiency as the entrance fee to getting into the good stuff, which might be the creative construction of a universe of information, and the joy of being able to splash about in it like a kid in a puddle.

Each kid to their own puddle. Yet if we're going to live in the 21st Century, we have to get down and dirty with computers, no two ways about it. But in light of what's happening in our time, our world, our institutions, we owe our students the truth of the distinctions between implements and expressions. We ought to examine our disciplines to depths beneath their glittery surfaces. We have to be real, accept the realities of technology, its impact on social and economic practices. With clear eyes we have to consider who and what such technology serves.

As an art form, distinct from a business, jazz has no master yet can serve all who turn their ears to it. As a science, computer science serves those of us who turn to computers, let's say to better the world.

I can imagine computers delivering goods and services on a global scale, much more efficaciously than ever before. But I have a hard time conceding they'll ever provide us with the sustaining reflections of jazz.

As I said, jazz is my discipline, and though I use them in my work, I have a problem with computers.


C o m m e n t s

computers will win 1 of 6
nevermind May 08, 97

this is just utter troglyditism. The JJA ought to be ashamed to have a pres with his head so in the sand. Way to go, electronicaa. And leave the past behind.

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