Changes and Challenges in the Digital Age

I’m in my forties, but I feel like a grumpy old man. Technological changes in my lifetime have been staggering. Computers, smartphones, and the internet have revolutionized the world, changing the way we live and work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. I still have a flip phone so maybe I’m a partial Luddite. I embrace the march of technology. But technological progress hasn’t come without its downsides.

Many of the changes have been good.

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My parents bought me my first digital piano in 1988, a Yamaha pf 85. The hernia machine was nearly 100 pounds and took two people to carry. Now I play a Casio Privia. It’s light and has a superior piano sound and feel.

I remember the first time I booked a gig by email in 1999. It was a novelty then. Now practically everything is set up by email or text. It’s fast. It’s easy. The thought of calling someone on the phone now seems quaint.

In 2010 I worked in a trio led by a bass player friend. He used a Google calendar for the band’s dates. “Start a calendar and share it with me,” he said. Oh no, I thought. He’ll see my whole schedule. Now I won’t be able to lie about my availability if there’s a job I don’t want to do. I’m all for transparency, but that felt like too much.

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My mind’s always wandering back to the ’90s. The halcyon days. Life was slower and simpler before we were all staring at screens. I’d go to the library. I’d rent movies at the video store. You had to work for knowledge back then. It required effort. Now it’s all at our fingertips, a mind-numbing mountain of information, a Library of Congress on our smartphones.

In the old days we would pass around VHS tapes of concerts and instructional videos. Now I watch everything on YouTube. When I think I’ve exhausted all the Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans clips another concert or interview pops up. It’s endless. I’m currently on a Dave Mckenna kick, the quintessential saloon piano player, earthy yet elegant. I swear he had an invisible third hand.

YouTube has been an invaluable asset. Anyone can make a video—from their bedroom, or basement—which can reach a world-wide audience. It’s a marvelous thing. But it’s also created a world of monumental saturation, making it difficult to get noticed. How do you make an impact now? I feel like I’m dropping a grain of sand on the beach, or throwing a pebble into the ocean when I put my music out into the world.

I remember life as a young musician coming up in the ’80s. My father is an upright bass player and retired music teacher. He got me into jazz. It’s his fault. Why couldn’t he have been a bone surgeon or banker? He showed me the correct chord changes to tunes like “Tea for Two” and “Stardust.” Guess I couldn’t have gotten that from anyone at Goldman Sachs.

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I discovered Oscar Peterson in my father’s record collection: We Get Requests, The Oscar Peterson Trio. “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Corcovado,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” I listened to those tracks every day before and after school in 7th grade. I can still sing every note on that record. My parents took me to see Oscar in New York City in 1986. From the first to last note, it was dazzling, like a ride on a high-speed torpedo.

Many albums were out of print or difficult to find. You had to hunt for them. A drummer I knew had a herculean record collection. When we rehearsed at his house I always brought cassette tapes to make copies. I’d go home with gems from Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland, and Wynton Kelly. Those tapes were gold.

In those days you listened to records over and over. You immersed yourself. You absorbed the music. But now I find myself overwhelmed with options. I bounce around, listening to a bit of this, a little of that. My attention span is fragmented. I feel overloaded and desensitized and never spend much time with anything. It’s a modern problem.

Is it better to listen to one record a thousand times? Or a thousand records one time? I think it’s the former. The same goes for practicing. I never make progress when I practice too many things. But when I hammer away at one or two I see slow gains.

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Some of the skills we cultivated in the past have been made obsolete by technology. As a young piano player I was told the importance of learning tunes in different keys, an invaluable skill when working with singers. I can’t play every tune in every key, but I’d be comfortable moving around meat and potatoes standards like “World on a String” or “Squeeze Me.” “Stella By Starlight” might be a different story.

I was at a NYC jam session in 2007. A female singer called “Embraceable You” in B flat. After a flash of panic I did some quick calculations in my head and made it through the tune. The transposition gods were with me. But now it wouldn’t matter. “Embraceable You” in B flat? “Lush Life” in F sharp? No Problem. Whip out a phone, get the chart on iReal Pro, switch the key—and voila.

I’ve used these tools. Being able to read a chart in a pinch can be a life saver. But at the same time something is lost, something’s cheapened. Like a fake Rolex, like a Mona Lisa print, you might get by, but there’s no substitute for the real thing when you see it—or hear it.

Every era has advantages and disadvantages. It’s a great time to be alive in many ways. I just read about a trial of a new cancer drug where every participant had a complete remission. Progress can be a wonderful thing. But I find myself wistful for the old days. Playing smokey restaurants and bars with real pianos, with people asking for “Melancholy Baby.” “Melancholy Baby” was the “Free Bird” of jazz. People yelled for it at every gig.

Changes and Challenges in the Digital Age
Vintage robot jazz: Edouard R. Diomgar developed the idea for “Les Robots-music” while being held in a German POW camp during WWII.

The world’s changing fast. According to one estimate, artificial intelligence (AI) could displace 45 percent of jobs in the next 15 years. I wonder what’s around the corner? Will I lose my lounge gig to some stride-playing version of the Terminator? If so, would anyone even notice?

Guess I’m just an old man floundering in the digital age. But I’m trying my hardest to adapt.

Henry Peterson

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