The legal position of the jazz artist’s work is nothing short of astounding. Put briefly, jazz does not exist. The only thing that exists in music copyright is ‘compositions’.
Other art forms exist in Western culture, and are understood. The series of paintings of the west face of Rouen cathedral that Monet made from his draughty open window above a lingerie shop between 1892 and 1894, for instance. Each of these is understood by everyone to be a unique work, and of course, a work by Monet.
In jazz terms, though, the unique work would be said to be the cathedral, and the royalties for each painting would go to the architect. If they were reproduced in a book, the printer would get a royalty too. In all cases, Monet would get nothing.
This is because legally the song is a composition, a set text, and if a jazz musician performs the song, then in law, a composition is being played. If there is any recognition of the uniqueness of what the jazz player does, it is in the performance being called an ‘arrangement’ of the composition. If someone transcribes the solo though, it is the transcriber who gets the copyright, not the musician. That is what I mean when I say that the jazz musician’s art does not exist in law.
This is unjust and absurd. It prevents books of solos from giving credit where it is due, and makes them give it where it isn’t.
For instance, in Brian Priestley’s excellent Front Line Jazz Piano Solos 2, there is a transcription of Keith Jarret’s solo on the track Autumn Leaves from Charles Lloyd’s album Dream Weaver. And in his Jazz Piano 3, there is a transcription of Bill Evans’s solo on Autumn Leaves from Portrait in Jazz.
Neither transcription includes any reading of the theme (although I would argue that even that is still not the playing of a composition). And, most significantly, neither mentions the jazz player’s name. Both transcriptions have the following at the top of the page:
(Les Feuilles Mortes)
English Lyrics by JOHNNY MERCER
French Lyrics by JACQUES PREVERT
Additional Verse Lyric by GEOFFREY PARSONS
Music by JOSEPH KOSMA
Music © Copyright 1947 and 1984 by Enoch et Cie (France)
Lyrics © by Ardmore Music Corp (USA)
Sub/Published by Peter Maurice Co. Ltd
In other contexts, this might be actionable. As presented, it could be argued that it is ‘passing off’ the transcriptions as the composition, and somebody should sue the publishers, saying they expected it to be the composition, and it wasn’t. But you see what I mean about jazz not existing.
Further examples abound. Lionel Grigson’s ‘Study Books’, published by Novello, are limited to ‘performances’ of ‘compositions’ to which Novello owns the rights. Slone and Aebersold’s magnificent Charlie Parker Omnibook is © 1978 ATLANTIC MUSIC CORP, not even Slone or Aebersold, let alone Bird, and is ridiculously dotted with advertisements for things like textbooks on arranging.
Companies like Advance Music, in their admirable book of Chet Baker Solos, for example, try to get a little justice by tackling it another way. They avoid mention of the song as composition, heading each transcription ‘Chet Baker’s solo on the chord changes to...’. And Gary Campbell’s Hank Mobley Transcribed Solos has this on the title page: ‘the transcribed solos in this book utilize only the chord progressions of the title listed’.
This is fine as far as it goes, but it prevents them including any of Baker’s or Mobley’s opening choruses - the ones misleadingly called ‘theme statements', when they are, as much as Monet’s paintings, personal statements. But if they did put them in, they might get sued.
Andrew White, whose monumental achievement has been to transcribe all of Bird and all of Coltrane at first didn’t include Coltrane’s opening statements, but then started to put them in. When I asked him why the change in policy, he said he had realised he was too small to be worth suing!
In a recent email, Conrad told me that this piece is now a little out of date.
The bit about Advance Music using the formulation 'on the changes to [a song]' no longer holds. The copyright holders of the song sue now for that as well.