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Looking for the Band: Walter Benjamin and the Mechanical Reproduction of Jazz

Karl Coulthard

Published: 2007-05-03

Using Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as a template, this paper examines the impact of recording technology and the recording industry on the development and dissemination of jazz and on past and present popular perceptions of this musical form. For an unwritten and improvisatory art form such as jazz, the implications of the mass distribution of recordings become particularly significant, as one cannot, as with sculptures or paintings, compare the reproductions with the original work. This condition raises significant questions concerning the concept of original versus copy and whether it is really possible, in the case of performance art like jazz, to identify an “original.”

Listening to a live performance of jazz is a very different experience from hearing it on a recording, which is a medium that is filled with numerous, often questionable, degrees of mediation. There are many elements, including racial prejudices, corporate and advertising interests, and the ambitions of individual musicians and producers, that have affected and structured many of the recordings that we now regard as “classic” jazz. The recording industry was also responsible for the vast proliferation of jazz across North America and eventually around the globe, however, introducing jazz recordings to scores of listeners, as well as many future jazz musicians who made significant contributions to the development of this art form, and who might otherwise have never even encountered this style of music. The music that we now know as jazz has been the product of a complex developmental process that flows freely between the media of live performance and sound recordings. As such, one should be wary of dismissing the role of recording technology in the development of jazz as being inherently corrupt and of regarding the sound recording as a fixed text.

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If people talked the way they drummed in improvisation, then I think the world would be a lot nicer…

– Youth participant, ICASP improvisation workshop