The History of Play-A-Long (and More)

50 years after Jamey Aebersold launched his revolutionary series of books and LPs, technology has blown the options for interactive music education wide open

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Jamey Aebersold, creator of the Play-A-Long series, which now runs to 133 volumes (photo: courtesy of Jamey Aebersold Jazz)

Thinking back to his early days as a curious young musician, Eddie Palmieri remembers hours of close listening to records. The Cuban bands of the ’50s held a particular fascination for the percussionist-turned-pianist; he’d dissect every detail of the music to learn how the various parts worked together and, ideally, how to play with them. There were, of course, limits to what could be gleaned from listening to a large ensemble on a 78. This was well before Jamey Aebersold launched his seminal Play-A-Long series, after all, and the genres central to Palmieri’s sound had nary a foothold in music education programs, DIY or otherwise.

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Some six decades later, Palmieri has landed at the forefront of technology designed to give today’s music students access to the kind of instructive listening experience he wishes he’d had back then. Created in collaboration with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s Stretch Music app, the Palmieri Salsa Jams app serves as a platform for interacting with and learning from the pianist’s 2018 album, Full Circle. It allows listeners to mute, solo, pan, or fade any instrument on the recording, control tempos and loop certain parts, all while following the sheet music on their screen.

“Imagine if this was done when I started out,” Palmieri marvels. “It is just so exciting for the student that has no idea how to comprehend our musical genre. This is a chance for him to really dig in with his own instrument, to have the music and to play along with the orchestra.”

In the 50-plus years since Aebersold released his first Play-A-Long LP, the music and education industries have evolved alongside an ever-expanding tech world. The types of products designed to address students’ practice needs have diversified exponentially to accommodate a widening range of priorities. While Palmieri and Adjuah’s apps offer a customizable approach to learning the inner workings of specific albums in any environment where a screen and audio are available, interactive classroom-based programs now allow teachers to connect with their students both on campus and off. Other, more well-traveled platforms like PG Music’s Band-in-a-Box have become increasingly flexible to support musicians’ development as improvisers, composers, and arrangers. Meanwhile, changing genre trends and an unpredictable market for recorded music continue to influence what students, teachers, and professionals want music education technology to be capable of.

Through all of these shifts, however, one demand has remained constant: the demand for high-quality play-along music, recorded by the most skilled and experienced musicians possible.

Uprising Music’s Eddie Palmieri Salsa Jams app

“I REMEMBER TRYING to play along with Miles, but Miles kept getting in the way,” Adjuah says with a laugh. On the other hand, he adds, playing along with remade versions of the music he’d fallen in love with instead of the actual recordings felt limiting at best. “There’s so much going on with a great album,” he says, “but you can’t really understand any of it until you get inside it.”

He dreamt of giving other musicians a way to “get inside” actual, original great albums. In 2012, the guitarist, educator, and software developer Darren Hoffman told Adjuah about a new tool he’d created called the Tutti Music Player. Devoted to “[enabling] all communities to engage with the world’s best artists,” according to its mission statement, the program offers a guided, video-focused practice platform featuring performances by the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Astral Project’s Steve Masakowski, and bassist Roland Guerin. Adjuah quickly teamed up with Hoffman’s company, now called Spectrum Interactive, to create an app that would allow his Stretch Music album to be completely customized depending on the listener’s needs.

The resulting Stretch Music app wasn’t just educational. Pointing to the ongoing sales slump for recorded music brought on in part by the advent of cheap and free streaming services, Adjuah says his app also incentivized listeners to actually purchase a download of the music rather than just stream a version on Spotify. He has since started his own Stretch Music label in partnership with Ropeadope—which is also the parent company of Palmieri’s new Uprising Music label—where his artists all have the opportunity to record interactive app versions of their albums. As of August, he expected Stretch Music to release up to eight such albums in the coming year.

When Adjuah told his friends saxophonist Louis Fouche, bassist Luques Curtis, and pianist Zaccai Curtis about the app, the three musicians—two of whom play in Palmieri’s band—thought it would be an interesting way to present Palmieri’s music. “I’ve been in the band for eight years now and even growing up I was always very intrigued by Eddie and his music, especially the rhythmic aspect of it,” Fouche says. “And I’ve met a lot of folks, especially drummers, who are super-intrigued by how to play in that style and how the rhythms interlock to create that sound.” They brought the idea to Uprising Music’s Frank Abenante as well as Palmieri, who jumped at the chance to try it. In July 2018, the Palmieri Salsa Jams app released Palmieri’s Full Circle.

Thinking back to his own experience using play-alongs, Fouche, who co-produced Full Circle, recalls using Aebersold’s Play-A-Long tapes as a kid.

“Aebersold was definitely a point of reference for [the app],” he says. “And Jamey Aebersold was great. I just think there’s something exciting about being able to take an album that you love and deconstruct it, as opposed to something that’s just made for students to be able to learn and play along with.”

The first album of the Aebersold series, published in 1967

THE PREDOMINANT THINKING at Aebersold’s Jazzbooks headquarters in Indiana is a bit different. Simplicity, clarity, and a straightforward, familiar approach to learning jazz, specifically improvisation, have been hallmarks of Aebersold’s method since he began teaching music as a young saxophonist in the ’60s. As he explained in a phone conversation in August, he launched his Play-A-Long series in 1967 with the same goals he brought to the classroom.

“I basically wanted to give people songs that I thought were good jazz vehicles to play at home,” recalled Aebersold, 79, who has announced that 2018 would be his final year helming the Summer Jazz Workshops that have brought him as much renown as his Play-A-Longs. “I think the fact that I was an educator in addition to being what you may call ‘a businessman’ really helped, because I was still trying to learn to play better myself back then and trying to develop my students. If something worked, I might incorporate it into the next Play-A-Long record.

“It was basically something to practice with, and something for band directors to give their students to take home and learn the art of jazz. And then as we kept putting more and more out, I searched for more songs that the main jazzers were playing. So we did the main pedagogical ones … and the various theoretical applications that are in the Great American Songbook.”

Today, Jazzbooks continues to sell all 133 volumes of the Play-A-Long series, having graduated from LPs to cassettes to CDs through the years. Digital tracks from the albums are available, too, but the company’s been cautious about going entirely digital or changing a formula that’s remained popular for half a century and helped garner an NEA Jazz Master honor for Aebersold. About 10 years ago, for example, Jazzbooks planned to release its entire collection digitally via BAMTracks. That collaboration has since been put on hold. “Technology-wise, it works great,” Jazzbooks president Matt Eve says. “You can isolate every instrument and get exactly what you want mix-wise, but [the developer] has had some licensing difficulties.”

Eve hopes to unveil a new digital platform for the Jazzbooks collection by the end of the year, but he admits that it’s been a balancing act to maintain the integrity of the Play-A-Long series while taking advantage of the changing technology available in the music-education sector. “You invest money into researching a platform and then have it be obsolete or have one of the major operating systems decide it’s not going to support it anymore,” he says.

Jazzbooks has also been cautious about keeping the Play-A-Longs relatively straightforward out of concern that what Eve describes as “overdone products” offer too many options for a user who should be focused on one aspect of his or her practice.

“The needs are very simple: They want a good rhythm section to play along with. If they can change the tempo and still have it sound good, that’s a plus. If they can change the key and work on separate keys, that’s definitely a plus. … When you get into too many settings and all the different options, I can see if you were a designer you would have a lot of fun with it, but for the user it just becomes overwhelming.”

In the end, Eve worries that, as he puts it, “innovation is great but sometimes innovators are the ones who are stuck holding the bag.”

Jim Snidero
Jim Snidero founded the Jazz Conception series in 1996 (photo: Earl and Sedor Studios)

AT THE SAME TIME, looking back at early incarnations of the original, MIDI-based play-along and practice platforms makes it easy to see the appeal of adding complexity.

Today, the company MakeMusic offers software with a classroom environment in mind, giving teachers the ability to manage their students’ progress interactively through the program itself. Called SmartMusic, the software uses a digital sound processing tool to give students feedback in real time too—but it took decades for developers to get to that point. Like the first versions of Band-in-a-Box, released in the early ’90s for PC and Atari ST machines, the essence of what eventually evolved into SmartMusic was a somewhat clunky, MIDI-only accompaniment tool.

Greg Dell’Era, MakeMusic’s VP of education technology, notes that the company, then called Coda Music, introduced Vivace Studio in 1994. Vivace was an external box that came with cartridges featuring an assortment of songs and sounds. “It was very basic and you had to switch cartridges every time you wanted to switch pieces,” Dell’Era explains. “But that was the first time there was a play-along solution on the [digital] market.” The MIDI-generated accompaniment of Vivace stopped and restarted in tandem with the musician playing along, thanks to a semi-intelligent accompaniment feature that was able to follow that person in real time.

Around that same time, the market for jazz education play-alongs began to blossom beyond Aebersold and in a different direction than the Vivace platform. In 1996, Jim Snidero debuted his massively popular Jazz Conception collection of books and play-alongs, which have since graduated from their analog beginnings to apps available on multiple devices for a wide variety of instruments (as well as vocals). Like Adjuah and Fouche, Snidero was always concerned with giving students the chance to interact with some of the most skilled musicians in jazz.

“My main focus was the quality of musicianship,” Snidero explained in an email, “so we were able to have historic figures such as Frank Wess, Slide Hampton, and many others on the play-alongs.”

Soon MakeMusic, which was more focused on formal classroom environments for classical players than jazz and blues instruction, began to catch up. First, floppy disks replaced the cartridges. Then in 2001, onscreen sheet music was added, a move Dell’Era says was “a big shift for the market.” Competitors were starting to make major advancements, too. By 2007, Band-in-a-Box offered RealDrums and RealTracks, which, as the names imply, featured actual instrument recordings that replaced the MIDI sounds initially employed by the program, while remaining controllable by the user. Updates in the years that followed focused on improving elements like sound quality.

Over at MakeMusic, similar changes were underway. In 2007, the company added its first SmartMusic MP3 audio recordings to replace the MIDI sounds of years past. That same year, the company began working with publishers to get their music, make digital versions of it, and incorporate it into the software.

In 2015, MakeMusic acquired the company Dell’Era had started in his native France.

“We were making pretty much the same thing as SmartMusic … digital sheet music with play-along tracks, but we were making that online,” he explains. “And the reason they acquired our company was that in the U.S., starting in 2014 and 2015, you started to see a big growth in Chromebooks for the education market.”

Chromebooks only run web-based applications. To keep up with the changing education market, MakeMusic brought Dell’Era to the U.S. There, he proceeded to redesign their entire tool so it would be compatible with web browsers while maintaining a strong catalog (today SmartMusic offers just over 600 jazz tracks), giving users the ability to play along in synch with the application and get feedback on their playing in real time. The company also worked on developing compatibility for other tools to operate in conjunction with SmartMusic, such as the music notation software Finale.

In the near future, Dell’Era says MakeMusic hopes to incorporate interactive video functionality and to start recording instrumentalists separately to allow students and teachers to control the mix they’re hearing—not unlike what Adjuah’s app and Hoffman’s Tutti Player already offer. Those programs, along with Band-in-a-Box and iRealPro, however, are designed with the individual student in mind versus SmartMusic, which bases the direction of its development updates on the U.S. music education market—and that market remains predominantly classical in focus.

The Vivace Studio
High tech, mid-’90s style: the Vivace Studio (photo: courtesy of MakeMusic)

LOOKING AHEAD AT the larger future landscape for play-along technology, Dell’Era, Adjuah, Fouche, and others predict the addition of more video components and a greater degree of interactivity. Ultimately, though, trends suggest we’re heading toward technology that feels less like software and more, well, human. It may not be that distant a future, either.

In 2013, trombonist Jeff Albert developed a program called the “Interactive Musical Partner” for his Louisiana State University dissertation. It’s designed to improvise with a human musician by making choices based largely on a “Musical Personality Settings” feature, which uses algorithms that allow the user to program what Albert describes as “personal experience and taste.” He admits that the machine can’t improvise; it can only follow instructions that a human gives it. But programming musical experience and taste makes it come pretty close.

Adjuah, meanwhile, is currently working on a 2.0 version of the Stretch Music app. The current version, he says, has changed his thinking about everything from the way he composes to how else he might push tech boundaries to make users feel like they’re actually interacting with the band.

When asked what advancements he’d like to see in his own app, Palmieri responded: “As long as we have the spirit of investigation and we’re interested in everything that can help the student, the technology will lead us to unknown territory.”