October 2002

The Jazz Detectives: Identifying Unknown or Mislabeled Musicians

If you’re a collector of old jazz recordings you’re familiar with these scenes:

While reading through personnel list you come across “bass player unknown,” or “drums unidentified.” Somehow, somewhere along the line, the name of the musician who was playing that particular instrument on that particular date got lost.

Or how about the times when you’re listening to a record that is allegedly by your favorite jazz musician, but deep down you know that the playing doesn’t sound like his style.

While many might not be bothered by such inconsistencies, dedicated jazz aficionados often are. Fortunately, the jazz detectives have arrived.

Tom Smith and Gary Westbrook, both professors at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina, are attacking the problem head-on. Using SpectraPlus sound wave technology, Smith and Westbrook analyze old recordings in an attempt to name unknown or mislabeled musicians.

“It concerned me that when you go over these old recordings you see ‘personnel unidentified,’” Smith says. “It could be this guy, it could be that guy. And then when you investigate it, the guess is coming from some guy who used to hang around the clubs, not a musician. Or someone would say, ‘Well, I used to play with this guy all the time,’ so he thinks he knows what someone sounds like. Or, ‘It had to be this guy, since I was on the session too.’ It bothered me because jazz history is being written now for the next 1,000 years, and it’s either going to be what Donald Byrd called ‘the lie that’s agreed upon’ or it’s going to be the truth. So why not at least open the door and use some scientific technology as opposed to this guesswork.”

This is how their detective process works:

Smith selects a recording that is under question and brings it to Westbrook, who is the statistician. They isolate the instrument being analyzed and compare the sine wave reading to other recordings until they find a match. Each musician has what Smith calls a “musical fingerprint,” based on the amount of breath support, the diaphragm and facial bone structure, among other things. Smith and Westbrook work until they find an exact match before confidently concluding who the musician is. “This fingerprint remains with you throughout your career,” Smith says. “What’s fascinating is that some people will change their style, the way they play, or play differently when they get sick, but they come up on the machine the same way. Sonny Rollins changed to adjust to Coltrane when he went ‘under the bridge.’ But his ‘fingerprint’ comes out the same as it was before he changed his style.”

While much of their work deals with naming unidentified lesser-known musicians on recordings, they have uncovered some fraudulent personnel listings as well. “For some reason, the ones that seem to be the most contentious are Bix Beiderbecke recordings,” Smith says. “He sent so many substitutes to gigs because of his alcohol problems. If he got sick and he had a session, he would just send somebody who sounded like him over there, and that happened constantly with him. The producer would have to sell it as a Beiderbecke session, because nobody would buy the music of the sub. There was a guy named Andy Seacrest who was often sent out to the Beiderbecke sessions, and he would get pretty close. But he wasn’t Beiderbecke, and our analysis tells us that. We’ve also looked at a couple of Coltrane imitators who came pretty close, but not close enough.

When they were first recorded, no one thought these jazz recordings would be listened to in a hundred years,” Smith says. “And now we’re working through this cloud that was perhaps created intentionally, just to sell a few records. With jazz, there’s so much folklore, and so many musicians were taken at their word, we need to double check to make sure we have the facts right.”

The professors have licensed their methods and presented their research at the 2001 IAJE conference in New York. They also plan to release a book within the next two years documenting their findings.

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