Videogames and Jazz

I enjoyed this Adam Neely video on why videogame music might be a big part of jazz’s future:

It made me think about the jazz tradition of interpreting popular music.

Quoting my internet pal Ethan:

Jazz was easier to understand back in its heyday because it was based on well-known pop songs. If you went to hear Miles’ band perform in the 1950s, you would have recognized almost every tune they played. You would have been able to enjoy the difference between the conventional arrangement of a given tune and the intellectual abstractions that Miles applied. Now, unless you’re a showtune buff, you’re not likely to be familiar with most of the raw material that the jazz musicians are working with. No wonder people find jazz difficult or tedious.

The recent rise of videogame jazz makes this latter statement less true than when it was written a decade ago, at least for a specific audience. Performing big-band versions of ‘Bob-omb Battlefield’ or ‘Floral Fury‘ is the modern day equivalent of Miles Davis doing ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ or John Coltrane transforming ‘My Favourite Things’. The audience knows the source material inside out: not only can they identify songs from the first few notes, but they can appreciate the performers’ approach to theme and variations without having internalised the mechanics or rules of jazz.

This also makes sense using a nostalgia lens. I’m very fond of 20-year film, music and game anniversaries. More fond than ever, because I’m seeing my teens and early twenties replay themselves in front of my eyes. Twenty years is a terrific time period for nostalgia: it’s long enough for the media in question to feel like it belongs to a different world but short enough for it not to have completely disappeared from memory. It’s the sweet spot of remembrance. Carl Wilson once called it the “20-year cycle of resuscitation” that revives popular culture in successive generations. And lo: many of these jazz musicians are adults who cut their videogame teeth in the 90s and 2000s.

Videogames differ in many ways from other media. They do not simply represent their story-worlds—they ask players to shape them in action. So it’s no wonder that we’re seeing reimaginations of music from childhood games, an immersive medium that engages more senses than others.

Flipping the relationship, jazz in games isn’t new either. Go back any number of years and you’ll hear it, whether it’s Persona, Cuphead, Mario, Grim Fandango or countless others. This is not a surprise; games are rooted in both repetition and improvisation, key tenets of jazz.

Another Mario Kart example, this time a live band playing to what’s happening on screen:

(Also worthy of mentioning here right at the end: Kind of Bloop, Andy Baio’s 8-bit tribute to Miles’s Kind of Blue. You might know it because of the legal issues that arose, but the project is well worth listening to.)



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