Thursday, July 19, 2012

Modem Jazz: Riding On A Rec.Music.Bluenote

In 1995, about a year before a couple of grad students at Stanford started a project they’d eventually call “Google” (the previous year, two other Stanford grad students renamed their own project: “David and Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web” would henceforth be called “Yahoo”), I pitched an idea to the quarterly jazz magazine I freelanced for: howzabout an article on this amazing online discussion group I was a part of, called

Back then, the internet was shiny and new for most folks. Up to that point, if you weren’t in academia, unfettered internet access was 1) difficult to achieve and 2) hardly worth the bother: once I hook my computer up to this internet, what exactly do I do with it?

For me, accessing RMB meant unplugging the phone and hooking up the modem, initiating the sequence of blips and blops and subdued screams and incantations the modem would selflessly endure to establish the connection, and then ... waiting. The connection was painfully slow, subject to frequent interruptions where I’d have to start all over again, and liable to enrage my normally patient spouse, who’d regularly try to call home in this pre-cell phone era only to be infuriated by the never-ending busy signal.

Why the heck did I bother? Read below to find out.

There are two things I find especially notable in this 17-year-old piece. First, it foreshadows big changes in the online world and in society in general — there’s even a hint of the emerging “Us vs. Them” politics that have helped make modern life suck more than it needs to.

Meanwhile, I’m struck that many of the squabbles and brouhahas and kerfuffles that would momentarily rile up the RMB world look pretty damn familiar in its modern offspring like Sax On The Web: newbies (a term helpfully defined in the article) are still annoying; people sometimes seem to just plain want to argue; online anonymity can still encourage loutish behavior. It remains true that on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

One last thing: in its day, RMB was flat-out glorious, and it saddens me to visit nowadays. They’ve trashed the joint. It’s not like visiting a faded Rust Belt city — it’s more along the lines of taking a stroll through Chernobyl: don’t breath the air, and be aware that anyone sticking around must be nuts. You probably shouldn’t stay long...

This article appeared in
Midwest Jazz Fall 1995 (Vol. 2, #3),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.

For your consideration, the following Twilight Zone episode:

Dad’s in the den, grooving to Miles’s Live At The Plugged Nickel — he’s on his third disc, only five more to go. Mom’s got Trane on the headphones: she’s brushing up on his ’61 European tour with Eric Dolphy, listening to some bootleg recordings that came in the mail just today. Junior is in the basement, practicing his alto sax — Cannonball is his hero (he assumes “Kenny G.” is a reference to Kenny Garrett). Little Sis is in the living room pecking out “Maiden Voyage” on the piano — she doesn’t remember the B section, so she’s just repeating the A section over and over — when Fred, the next door neighbor, rings the doorbell. He wants to borrow Mingus At Antibes; it seems his daughter took his copy off to college.

Eerie, isn’t it? In fact, it makes your flesh crawl: a world where they all love jazz!

Now back to reality: your spouse is lovingly tolerant of your idiosyncratic taste in music, and will remain so as long as you keep receipts of recent CD purchases carefully out of sight. Domestic tranquillity is preserved through a simple agreement: if you’re going to listen to “that Threadgill person,” you’ll use headphones. Your next door neighbor, who oohed and aahed when he first saw all of your CDs, was surprised to discover he’d never heard of any of those artists.

Of course, as “jazz people” we’re in the minority. However, while we may not be in every household, or even on every block, we know where to find one another: at a downtown club where a local quartet is playing, or in a nearby university music department, where talented kids smitten by this deep and challenging music try to emulate the masters.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to many of us, a whole community has sprung up that might be straight out of our Twilight Zone scenario: every resident is a stark, raving jazz fan, ready with almost no provocation to discuss the relative merits of Booker Ervin, Ornette Coleman, Lee Morgan, Steve Lacy, Lennie Tristano, Charles Gayle, Dexter Gordon, Keith Jarrett, and countless others. Here, the word on the street might concern the best sounding reissues of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. Neighbors consult one another across picket fences: does one really need to own the Monk Riverside box? You might get the impression that most residents know the phone number of Cadence Records by heart.

This “town” goes by the ungainly name of (RMB for short), and to visit you need a computer and a modem.

RMB is a part of the massive Usenet system, a vibrant electronic meeting place where literally tens of thousands of people from around the world discuss topics as diverse as French culture, knitting, arthritis, low-fat cooking, kayaking, home beer-brewing, soap operas, and Star Trek.

And on RMB, of course, jazz.

Each of these focused discussion groups on Usenet is called a “newsgroup,” encompassing a collection of messages (“posts”) on various sub-topics (“threads”) within the general category.

RMB got its start back in 1987, when a couple of music enthusiasts running electronic mailing lists on jazz and blues joined forces, creating the newsgroup to focus on those two related musical genres. (Recently, with some controversy, blues fans who want to discuss blues-and-nothing-but-blues-dammit have split off from RMB, creating

In the years since, RMB has grown to become a thriving virtual community, a righteous place for its worldwide devotees where jazz information, commentary, and camaraderie are shared. On any given day, one might find general discussion of jazz history and current issues; appraisals of specific artists; record reviews; discographies; technical discussions on music theory, practice routines, and instrumental technique; club listings and tour schedules; jazz festival updates; performance reviews; discussions of jazz books, magazines, and radio; and even listings of jam sessions.

To understand what information is found on RMB, you have to understand who contributes. The RMB community is not as diverse as the “real world” — these individuals are not only drawn to jazz: they also have computer knowledge and access to Usenet. Consequently, computer techies and people at universities are perhaps over-represented, though this demographic is rapidly changing as commercial on-line services begin to provide their users with real Internet access.

Participants on RMB may be roughly broken down into three “factions”: musicians, scholars, and enthusiasts. (There’s actually a fourth group emerging: music industry types, sometimes operating undercover. We’ll save discussion of them for a future article.)

The large number of musicians on RMB run the gamut from novice to pro, with local heroes and national names also involved. Not long ago, saxophonist Steve Coleman explained his practice strategies, sharing insights he’d gained from folks like Von Freeman.

The musician contingent insures that music theory is a daily part of the menu, addressing burning issues like what to play on a minor ii-V7-i progression, the use of the phrygian mode on Miles’s Flamenco Sketches, or how to build a Super Locrian scale.

Music scholars abound as well in the RMB universe. Noted Mingus and Ellington authority Andrew Homzy, of Concordia University in Montreal, recently sang the praises of reissues of the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band, and helped to clarify the precedents for the chord changes to Take The A-Train. Eric Nisenson, author of Ascension: John Coltrane & His Quest, offered valuable insight on a discussion of Trane and LSD that stemmed in part from his book.

The jazz enthusiasts who are not players run the gamut from those with a casual interest to those who’ve devoted intensive study to the music over the years, becoming scholars of the music in their own rite.

RMB provides a nurturing environment that brings these three groups together, allowing each to learn from the other, enhancing every participant’s understanding of the art form. Marc Sabatella, a pianist and software engineer respected for his knowledgeable posts and wise voice on a variety of jazz topics, is perhaps one of RMB’s “stars.” He describes how the newsgroup encouraged his musical growth:

“RMB has helped me move from a more traditionalist standpoint to where I am today. Recommendations for specific Anthony Braxton albums have helped introduce me to a man whose music I otherwise would probably have ignored; ditto David Murray and Carla Bley. Don Pullen I had discovered on my own, but most of my other jazz fan friends ridiculed him, so I think the collective support of RMB was important to me there as well.

“In general, I have probably gravitated musically toward what I perceive as the center of RMB taste, which is considerably ’left’ of the center of the general ’jazz’ public’s taste.”

While RMB has expanded his jazz horizons, Sabatella, who has developed a highly-regarded jazz primer that he plans to release on CD-ROM, sees RMB as having some potential “practical” benefits for his musical career as well: “I value what my ‘fame’ on RMB might mean for my career. I expect it will generate sales for the CD-ROM version of my primer, and that if I decide to go touring, it will help get me gigs. It has already gotten me a few extra attendees at some of my performances, including the Denver correspondent to Cadence, which has in turn garnered me some nice write-ups....”

Mark Ladenson, a professor of economics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, is an erudite commentator on jazz whose reports on the Chicago Jazz Festival appear annually in Marge Hofacre’s Jazz News. His photographs of jazz luminaries can be seen in almost any issue of Cadence. While he’s not a musician or musicologist, his knowledge of jazz is disciplined and extensive. For him, RMB is an informational gold mine:

“There are some very good things on RMB. Someone posted a good obit on Woody Shaw. Through RMB I got a definitive answer to the use of the pseudonym ‘Hen Gates,’ which Dizzy used on the famous Koko session with Bird; later his pianist, James Forman, used it as a nickname.”

For Bill Kenz, a government documents and reference librarian at Moorhead State College in Minnesota, RMB has brought about some valuable collaborations:

“Of particular importance to me has been the time I’ve spent putting together discographies or helping other compilers. Fellow RMBer Patrice Roussel and I will have our Steve Lacy discography published this year — or so says the publisher! A modified form of it is already included in Steve Lacy’s book Findings. I think this sort of activity is truly helping the cause.”

Sometimes people who’ve “met” on RMB become “real world” friends, as Kenz relates:

“Through RMB, I got a note from someone at Bryn Mawr who was interested in something I posted regarding fusion. He e-mailed me for further info. We continued to correspond, and when a library convention was held in Philly, I was invited to stay with his family. He and his wife are librarians, so we attended the convention together, and also visited a fair number of record stores! I’d have never known these people without RMB!”

While RMB is still a community brought together by its love for jazz, an influx of new arrivals from some of the commercial services is giving it growing pains. Some of this can be attributed to the typical mistakes of “newbies,” an occasionally disdainful term used for newcomers to the Internet who perhaps haven’t learned proper “netiquette” yet, or who make bonehead errors like posting the same message ten times. These newcomers threaten the almost intimate sense of family that has developed at RMB.

While some of the underlying antagonism felt toward the newbies can be attributed to resistance to change among some RMB old-timers, a few of these recent arrivals really do have a hard time making friends and influencing people: witness the fellow from America On-Line who dismissed postings he disagreed with as “venal tripe.”

Of course, even before this massing of new refugees onto the RMB shores, there were sporadic family fights. Sabatella recounts one early issue that still occasionally surfaces today, when practicing musicians and knowledgeable enthusiasts come to disagreement:

“I got into a huge argument with another RMBer on the subject of Wynton Marsalis, whose music he dismissed as ‘nothing new.’ I challenged him, observing that as a non-musician he might not be equipped to appreciate how Wynton’s approach to standards might be subtly but qualitatively different from, say, Clifford Brown’s — so that while he might not have heard anything new, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing there. This quickly was misrepresented as ‘Marc Sabatella says that only musicians are entitled to opinions,’ and for a while a lot of people disliked me.”

Once upon a time, those two words, “Wynton Marsalis,” were a surefire way to stir up trouble: arms were drawn and battles waged. Nowadays the “Wynton” topic area seems exhausted, supplanted by two new (but related) words: “Stanley Crouch.”

There are plenty of other topics that in recent days have engendered unfriendly fire. One rancorous example regards the “racial ownership of jazz,” with some claiming jazz as an African music rather than an American one (leading some to counter, tongue in cheek, that by this logic baseball is a European game). As in society in general, topics dealing with race matters often have great potential to frustrate and inflame, as an ongoing discussion on racism toward white jazz musicians has shown.

Two other recent bench-clearers have been the suggestion of plagiarism in Miles’s autobiography, and, cough-cough, second-hand smoke in clubs.

Sabatella notes the increase of controversy on RMB:

“The more politically-oriented discussions — such as the ones on racism, smoking, and a recent one on NEA funding — are fairly new. To me, it seems more or less consistent with the general polarization of American society into ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ camps (although I think of it more in terms of ‘libertarian’ versus ‘socialist’) that has occurred over the last four or five years.... I think that the recent increase in these type of arguments in RMB is just a reflection of the fact that RMB is starting to resemble society at large: it is no longer limited to a few computer science grad students who are totally into jazz, but instead has many people from more diverse backgrounds dropping in and out of discussions....”

As Kenz puts it, “it once was more like a small group of people sitting around chatting; now, it’s like we’re in a football arena and everyone’s shouting at each other.”

Sometimes, Kenz notes, the regular influx of new people means the same stale questions are posted over and over again: “It seems that more and more jazz ‘novices’ are on-line, and they ask a lot of those basic kinds of questions. This is fine, but how often do I really want to answer those ‘what are the 5 best jazz LPs’ or ‘I heard about Miles Davis — which CD should I buy’ kinds of queries? Since my profession is the provision of information, I don’t get upset by those asking for this basic kind of stuff: I just let others answer!”

On the other hand, he points out, new folks on RMB mean fresh perspectives on jazz: “With the increase in RMBers, there’s been an increase in the number and kind of experiences discussed. I enjoy reading about peoples’ reactions to hearing Coltrane at the Village Vanguard in 1961, or someone who heard Art Pepper in the mid ’50’s.... You’d never learn about this without RMB. It’s amazing what people know, and RMB has helped bring these experiences to a big audience. It’s also great to have some musicians I really respect, like Elliot Sharp and Richard Tabnik, on-line — and I only found out about them through RMB.”

In this way, Kenz sees RMB as an alternative to more “mainstream” sources of jazz information: “RMB has been a boon for me and lots of others I know. I can hardly read the typical jazz press anymore. I cringe reading Downbeat and the other more popular magazines like Jazziz. I know how silly and inaccurate they often are.”

Kenz says that RMB also helps him overcome geographic isolation: “For me, stuck out here in Moorhead, where Garth Brooks and Boston rule, RMB provides a sense of balance. I’ve gotten to ‘know’ many people whom I’d have otherwise never met. Also (and I’m not trying to brag), I have so many recordings and books and articles, it’s nice to be able to help people with things, including taping, copying liners, etc.”

So, despite the occasional squabbling, RMB remains a place that brings together people with a unique interest, knowledge, and love for jazz. Says Sabatella: “I think it’s great to have a forum with so many other people who are very interested in jazz. It is comforting just to be able to share with others my own love for the music. While I have some friends locally who I can talk to, their range of experience isn’t as broad, so there isn’t much new to talk about.”

Perhaps Sabatella sums up the group for many of us: “It’s a major part of my life, and I can hardly imagine being without it!” While RMB may be an atypical community, it’s not a scary Twilight Zone locale after all — in fact, for numerous dedicated jazz fans, it’s nearly home!