The Jazz.com Blog
September 23, 2009 · 2 comments
As seasoned readers of this space may recollect, perhaps with a shudder, jazz.com's version of Sherlock Holmes, intrepid curmudgeon Alan Kurtz, last year led us to Buddy Bolden on the Holodeck, for a voyage so fantastic it seemed like science fiction. (Hmm, maybe it was science fiction.) Now Holmes—make that Kurtz—briefly returns from his self-imposed exile amid the fog-shrouded bogs of Dartmoor, where he has taken refuge from the tar-&-feather brigade of irate bass players, to tell us about … the phone that did not ring. T.G.
On September 22, the philanthropic MacArthur Foundation announced its latest Genius Awards, selecting 24 Fellows for their "creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions" in the arts and sciences. Jazz.com's Chris Kelsey summed up the results with a droll Variety-style headline on his own blog: "2009 MacArthurs Announced, Jazz Gets Bupkis."
As in previous years, recipients learned by a phone call "out of the blue" (as the Foundation likes to put it) that they'll each receive $500,000 in 20 quarterly installments, with "no strings attached," and "may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers." Considering jazz's current economic outlook, if a jazz artist were to win such a grant, the latter choice might be wisest. In any case, it was the phone that did not ring that caught my attention, much as the dog that didn't bark intrigued Sherlock Holmes. For nowhere on that list of newly minted MacFellows was the one name I'd expected: Dr. Clive Cabman, director of Cabman Laboratories, cutting-edge developer par excellence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality systems applied to jazz.
This was, I knew, not a simple case of snobbery, for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has proven itself a generous patron of jazz. To date, of 33 Genius Awards in Music, 40% have gone to jazz artists, including such notables as Regina Carter, Ornette Coleman, Steve Lacy, Max Roach, George Russell and Cecil Taylor. However, it was not among musicians that I'd expected to find Dr. Cabman, for he has never played, sung or composed a note. Rather, I looked for him in either the Computer Science or Technology & Invention category. Inexplicably, he was missing.
How could this be? Surely the Foundation's hundreds of anonymous nominators couldn't overlook so conspicuous an achiever as Dr. Cabman. I realize that Genius Awards are not based on past accomplishment, but rather serve to encourage individual recipients to fulfill their potential for the future benefit of humanity. Yet that's precisely why Cabman's omission is so glaring. Who has more humanitarian potential than a scientist striving to relieve homo sapiens from the dangers and drudgery of creating jazz? It must've been the Foundation's 12-person Selection Committee that failed to recommend Cabman to their Board of Directors.
As for why, you need only recall that the MacArthur Foundation was a principal sponsor of Ken Burns's epic documentary JAZZ (2001), which has served since its premiere as flagship for the controversial Axis of Evil comprising Burns, Wynton Marsalis & Stanley Crouch. No doubt neocon cultural politics were responsible for snubbing Dr. Cabman. After all, not once in Burns's marathon of ten 2-hour episodes does a jazz-playing robot or android appear, nor is a single cyberneticist invited to join the scatting heads. Yes, the terrible triumvirate's bias against nonhuman jammers could not be more apparent. They ought to rename themselves the John D. and Catherine T. MacLuddite Foundation.
Indignantly, I set aside my customary morning reading of Hunting Quail in Your Retirement by Dick Cheney and began the painstaking process of telephonically tracking down Dr. Cabman for comment. Hours later, I finally reached him in the south of France, where he was inspecting producers of top-of-the-line saxophone reeds.
"Saxophone reeds?" I repeated incredulously. Cabman was always up to something.
"My latest project," he explained. "Robo Bird."
"Hasn't that already been done?" I inquired, reminding him of the YouTube video where an electromechanical device toots John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" on a disembodied tenor sax.
"Ridiculous," scoffed Cabman. "A clumsy gadget unfit for a high-school science fair. Godfried-Willem Raes's Autosax plays better, but is no more anthropomorphic than a lawnmower. It's damn silly looking, if you ask me."
"Something more humanoid, then." I mentioned Toyota's 5-feet-tall robot violinist with computer-controlled joints in its arms and fingers; in 2007, this remarkable invention took to the stage at a Tokyo showroom and fiddled "Pomp and Circumstance" with childlike naïveté before invited guests. The YouTube video of this momentous event has since amassed 1.3 million views and been rated an average 4½ out of 5 stars by thousands of impressed respondents. (By comparison, YouTube's clip of a proper English symphony orchestra doing the same piece conducted by its esteemed composer, Sir Edward Elgar, 1st Baronet OM KCVO, no less, has attracted a million fewer visitors.)
"A fine technical achievement," Dr. Cabman allowed of the Japanese Perlman, "but artistically infantile. Robo Bird can render not merely a familiar melody, but improvised passages of dazzling complexity and infinite variety. Come January, this shall all become clear." Cabman laid out his breathtakingly ambitious demo plan. Equipped with an ordinary alto sax, Robo Bird will re-create "Now's the Time" as recorded by Charlie Parker's Reboppers in November 1945. However, instead of Bird's three ad lib choruses, Robo Bird will deliver, at the same laidback tempo of 144 BPM, a staggering 1 million uninterrupted, uniquely extemporized choruses, breaking only as needed at irregular intervals during bars 11 and 12 while technicians hurriedly exchange his mouthpiece to keep Robo Cop supplied with a fresh reed. The total performance will last 231.48 days and will be freely available on the Internet as live streaming video. "Wait till next year!" Dr. Cabman exhorted. "Those clowns on MacArthur's Selection Committee can't possibly ignore me again!"
And then a sinister, devilish, brilliantly paranoid thought hit me, as out of the blue as a MacArthur Foundation phone call. What if Cabman, that secretive, reclusive figure who has never been photographed—does he even have a passport? It's rumored he travels abroad entirely by automated corporate jet, programmed to land at only the remotest private airports—what if Cabman himself is … well, a robot? A magnificent android of his own design! Maybe the MacArthurs passed him over not because of interference from the Axis of Evil, but due to his indeterminate species, like last summer's star athlete of unclassified gender.
I was thunderstruck. This, I perceived with blinding journalistic clarity, is big. Watergate big. If I can dig to the bottom of such an important story, I'll probably cop a Big Mac in 20 quarterly installments myself. Hell, one of 2009's winners is an investigative reporter. Why not me in 2010? Yes, I must now take my leave to solve this urgent mystery and spare humanity the pain and suffering of a million uninterrupted choruses of "Now's the Time." Who knows? Next year it might be my phone that rings out of the blue.
This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz