Panelists Discuss Interplay Between Jazz and Technology at Angel City Jazz Fest
Posted 10/24/2013

The Angel City Jazz Festival has consistently been the best jazz festival in Los Angeles for the last few years. The thoughtful bookings around the city offer compelling and challenging music conveniently squeezed into a pair of October weekends.

This year’s edition augmented the musical performances with an Oct. 11 symposium titled “New Technologies in Jazz and Journalism,” held at the REDCAT Theater. The panel discussion preceded performances by the trio of Jim Black, Tim Lefebvre and Chris Speed and John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet.

Los Angeles-based jazz critic Greg Burk moderated a discussion with four panelists: jazz critic Kirk Silsbee (a longtime DownBeat contributor), flutist Nicole Mitchell (who topped the Flute category in the 2013 DownBeat Critics Poll), film producer John Comerford and keyboardist Adam Benjamin, who was broadcast via Skype from New Orleans on a large projection screen.

The discussion opened promisingly with Mitchell describing her successful virtual concerts with bassist Mark Dresser, pianist Myra Melford and trombonist Michael Dessen held last April. The quartet communed via webcams and performed live, combating the glitches inherent in the technology.

“You have a delay and you are trying to play something that is very in sync,” Mitchell said. “That propels us to compose in different ways. Maybe that latency can be used while the technology is catching up to what we want to do.”

Benjamin, who has participated in several web performances with the group Kneebody, embraced that idea. He said, “The tools that are available at the time are very much steering the creation of the music.” Benjamin cited Herbie Hancock’s career as a great example illustrating the concept that technology can significantly shape one’s artistry.

While the musicians touted the benefits of technology, Silsbee expressed skepticism about the new digital technologies that rapidly share journalism in the modern age. He matter-of-factly recounted a story about how his lack of presence on social media resulted in his loss of paying work for an arts website. “Some of us keep banging our heads against the limitations of the print media,” he said.

The panelists also discussed the dynamics of online debates and arguments. Free social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have made considerable waves in the jazz community recently, serving as digital battlegrounds for writers, listeners and artists. These forums have resulted in global discussions that are both essential (Nicholas Payton’s #BAM movement) and ridiculous (Kurt Rosenwinkel’s comments on Vijay Iyer’s MacArthur fellowship).

Comerford closed by discussing the success he has had in distributing his essential documentary Icons Among Us via technologies new and old. TV broadcasts have given the film tremendous exposure and subsequently broadened the profile of the featured artists.

“You don’t know when you are out there in the world pushing tweets and Facebook posts how it’s really affecting the world, but with social media a little bit more comes back to you,” he noted. Comerford then walked the audience through the film’s online digital archive, which showcased hundreds of minutes of interviews and performances left on the cutting room floor.

The symposium missed an opportunity to highlight one of the most prevalent uses of technology in the jazz world. Considering the topic of the symposium, it seems a shame that the discussion was not broadcast or streamed via the Internet. Failing to take advantage of communication channels can only hurt the jazz scene. The fact that fans in Japan can watch a live set at a New York venue on their phone hints at the untapped possibilities for expanding the audience for jazz.

Sean J. O’Connell


John Comerford, Greg Burk, Nicole Mitchell, Kirk Silsbee and Adam Benjamin (on screen via Skype) discuss technology at the Angel City Jazz Festival.

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