Every once in a while, you come across a product that surprises you with its quality, usefulness and enjoyability. Such a product arrived at my door about two weeks ago. A brand new project from Graphix Zone and Herbie Hancock, the Living JAZZ Interactive CD-ROM is hands down the hippest jazz-related multimedia item I have yet seen.
Basically a live tour through the history of jazz, Living JAZZ combines rare photos and film footage, interviews, historical data, classic performances, original music and bleeding-edge graphic design. It would take you almost 15 hours to comb through everything on this fascinating CD-ROM. If you become confused by the user interface (as I did at first), you can even call up Herbie himself for help.
You begin your journey in pre-WW1 Storyville, the fabled red-light district of New Orleans. Here you can check out the dance halls and brothels that gave birth to jazz. Jelly Roll Morton, Branford Marsalis, Charles Neville and others tell you how the music developed. There is a fascinating movie clip of a Negro chain gang singing as they work on a railroad. Storyville provides a rare look at the very beginnings of this music.
Beyond Storyville, you can visit the Dreamland Cafe in Prohibition-era Chicago, the Cotton Club in Harlem, 52nd Street jazz clubs, the European jazz scene, the West Coast in the 50s, and special "tribute walls" for Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Finally there is a "Frontiers of Jazz" area where you can discover the musicians of the contemporary period. Everywhere you visit you can find text information, sound clips of music and interviews, and rare video clips of great performances.
For the techies out there (like me) you can go backstage to see all the sexy hardware and software that went into making this project. There is also an "online" button that takes you to the Living JAZZ website where you can find further content.
There are two caveats I would like to mention. One, the user interface was a little confusing at first. To avoid that, be sure to read the written documentation before you venture in (something I never do). Two, there was some subjectivity in the choice of material. You'll see a greater amount of info on the artists that Herbie played with, and there may be some musicians that you will feel are under-represented (like Wes Montgomery, in my opinion). However, these are minor complaints compared to the wealth of info and the innovative way it is represented.
All told, the Living JAZZ CD-ROM is a killer product and a wise use of your hard-earned bread. Recommended!