Jazz of Code

Posted about 10 years ago.

I went to the Jazz Standard in New York City the other night to see a violinist play. She didn’t please.

This isn’t because she’s not a good player. She definitely is. It’s because of a deep-rooted bias I have: the violin is not a jazz instrument.

That’s not to say the violin isn’t a good instrument. It is. It obviously has a place in an orchestra. It’s beautiful in a string quartet. It can play raucous bluegrass.

It just doesn’t swing. It doesn’t have the vocal earthiness of a horn. It doesn’t have the stomp and swagger of piano.

So while it has its place, that place is not in a trio, or a quartet or any other scenario where it leads a form that swings. Instead, it works where the music is straight-ahead no matter the time signature or tonal dissonance.

I’m not sure why this is. A violinist can make beautiful runs, can get behind and ahead of the beat, can do all the other things that single note instruments like trumpets and saxes can do, but it ends up sounding flaccid in a jazz setting.

This might be a string instrument thing. Few guitarists outside of Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery have really left their mark.

Sure, you can point to people like John McLaughlin but I’d argue that his improvisational innovations and excellence fall outside of jazz. And when I say ‘fall outside of jazz,’ I’m simply alluding to the fact that while jazz is improvisational, not all improvisational music is what we typically think of when we think of jazz.

Begin hedge: I recognize that’s a giant soggy towel of a statement, and I’m going to sidestep it and let it hang out there to dry since if you want in on a dirty little secret, I’d argue that all improvisational music is jazz, that jazz precisely means improvisation and that it further means dialog amongst many members who navigate their own voices as they come together in a collective give and take conversation. What I’m saying here though, is that despite the very large and significant exception I just outlined, when we discuss ‘traditional’ jazz forms, the violin just doesn’t cut it and don’t even get me started on the flute. Thus ends my giant hedge.

It might be a timbre thing, because when I mention strings I’m excluding bass. Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, Eddie Gomez, Dave Holland and so many others that have had us bob and weave our heads. Nuff said.

This might be more on point because as I think about it, and all apologies to Benny Goodman, the clarinet doesn’t grab the gut either. It’s too thin. Too reedy.

I won’t mention the violinist by name because golden rules say that if I don’t have nice things to say, I shouldn’t. Besides, when she came onstage I recognized her. I’d seen her play before in an Americana roots band and her playing in that context was lovely and admirable.

Her pianist is impressive. His name is Jason Moran and his style ebbs, flows and splashes with short phrases and lines. He then stomps, rags and strides before emerging with tonal sheets laid atop one another like McCoy Tyner’s done throughout the years.

What’s important though is construction, of creating wholes out of disparate parts, and of understanding the parts or ingredients used to construct and create the whole. What’s important is choosing the parts that come together to form the whole.

This is true be it music, visual art or software.

Software? Yes.

It’s a creative art that comes together to create a platform or environment on and within which users (i.e., audiences) interact.

I choose software deliberately. It’s a provocative art and our code slingers are poets to the highest degree.

They write a syntactic language, they abide by, break and create new rules, they alter and modify, they edit and purify, they create the altogether new, they open up unique possibilities of understanding and interacting with the world with their discoveries.

It’s a shame that most don’t see the craft behind programs but only the programs themselves. This would be like not being able to see Goya’s brush stroke, hear Hendrix’s guitar riff or watch Almodavar’s video frames pass by.

Artistry is hidden in software. Even more, the poetry of code has two distinct anomalies working for and against it.

  • It’s obscured, meaning few see it. Possibly only other coders on a team in closed systems. More, obviously, in open source systems.
  • It’s foundational, meaning that while code is poetry with its own logic and syntax, it also serves as a basis upon which others create objects that are totally unrelated in language if not necessarily in purpose.

For example, the code of Final Cut Pro allows for a music video. The code of Photoshop allows for an image. The code of Abelton Live allows for music. The video, the image, the music are all creations on top of creations and highly significant in that they could not exist if the original wasn’t birthed into place by poets slinging, then refining code.

Let’s add this to the mix: Code as collaborative art. Code as jazz. Developers as a band that brings their unique take together to create a whole.

The reason I suggest this is because the art of software necessitates not just layers, but the interplay of layers. That interplay is an interlocking of back-end and front-end and all possible layers in between.

There’s someone who’s tuned a database and someone who’s written code to get and put information from and into that database.

Then there’s what we interact with. What we “see”. This is user interface. It’s the pretty design colors and buttons we press and how forms act and react to our choices and interaction.

Taken all together is an orchestrated piece, a program. And taken together it’s code as jazz. It’s a navigated dialogue between the front-end and back-end.

Keeping things simple, the back-end and database is our rhythm section. Our drum and bass. It needs to be tight, it needs to be fluid and can’t falter or fall apart.

Graphics and general user interface — our front-end — are our soloists. The work together to create melody and harmony. They work with the rhythm section to create a composition.

Which brings me back to the violin. As said, it’s a very good instrument but has its place. So too in the jazz of code.

Just because techniques, languages and other whizbangery can be done doesn’t mean they should be.

And now for a listen… it’s a nice song.

A version of this article originally appeared at ScribeMedia.org.