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The lost language of jazz in online age

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.

For 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 catalog 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.

That'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.)   Continued...

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