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The Sound and the HTML: Introducing the AAJ Orchestra

Peter Cobb By

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In many discussions about jazz's future, people have argued that the Internet will be the next 52nd Street for the music. Sadly, like many things Web, there has been more sizzle than steak. But not always—this past weekend I played a gig with the All About Jazz Orchestra (AAJO), a group that existed purely in binary code up and until the moment we performed.



The orchestra grew out of the lively online forums on the All About Jazz website, probably the oldest and definitely the largest jazz website in existence. It's a tremendous resource to the jazz community, a place to learn about the music's history, recordings, new releases, venues and individual artists. One of the best features of the site is the "forums" section, where hundreds of jazz musicians at all levels of development contribute, as well as many aficionados too (the influence and popularity of of online forums has been well-documented already). Want to know the difference between "hard bop" and "post-bop"? Having trouble with your Hammond keyboard? You've come to the right place.

However, behind the avatars are real people/musicians. One of the regular contributors, Jay Norem (a drummer from Atlanta) is probably the "father" of the the AAJO. A little over a year ago, Jay threw out the following challenge to the All About Jazz forum community (almost directly quoted):

"Okay I'm inspired. What could it possibly take to get every player on this board to participate in a mammoth session? I mean everyone... There are at least four, five drummers here. Lots of guitar players (no shortage of guitar players), many bass players, keyboard players, a great many brass and reed players... And a world-class arranger... Can you imagine what it would sound like if we all got together and played some music? Goddamn! That would be the sickest [stuff] ever heard! I don't mean next week or anything. But come on. This would be absolutely f*$%&*g historic... I'm putting this out to the AAJ staff and to every member who plays an instrument. Let's just do it."


The response was overwhelming. Over the next year—and through dozens of forum threads—the group began to coalesce around a few key contributors, and Jay, Jerry Engelbach (a pianist from Brooklyn) and trombonist Ed Byrne (though he had to pull out before the actual performance) took the lead logistically and musically. With the help of All About Jazz, and particularly through the efforts of Bernie Ente, the group secured a performance space and date: August 14, 2009 at Pier 66 in New York City.





By the time I got involved with the project it was already in its final stages (no pun intended). Jay, Jerry and Ed wrote and arranged roughly half a dozen pieces for a large combo/big band, though with flexibility in the parts given the difficulty of guaranteeing the attendance of a full big band They also reserved a web page where members of the band could go and download and listen to the final versions.

So, armed with that elaborate web preparation (and one brief rehearsal the night before), 11 musicians from all backgrounds, ages and walks of life showed up at Pier 66 this past Friday, having never played together or even met outside of a jazz website. It was a great night for it—one of the hottest days of summer, at sunset on the Hudson River (at least I think it was the Hudson, I still haven't figured out my NYC geography yet), and one of the best-looking crowds in the history of jazz. No kidding. I could have sworn that I saw Lara Croft... although the light may have been playing tricks on me... well, either that or the boat motion. We were playing at "The Frying Pan" an old barge turned into a restaurant, and it was rocking a little with the waves. Or perhaps the music.


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