Wednesday, January 22, 2014

No, the problem with jazz education is NOT jazz itself...

I just noticed the following 2012 article, which suggests that jazz education is incapable of increasing the degree to which students actually love jazz:

The author essentially suggests that jazz educators accept with gratitude that under even the best of circumstances, one in several hundred jazz students will take any real long-term interest in jazz, the remainder will hopefully have a remote and distant appreciation for the fact that musicians work really hard, and almost all jazz students will never actually enjoy listening to jazz.

Well, we are all entitled to our opinions, aren't we?

Here's my problem with the argument made in the article:  The author assumes as a starting premise that the music education programs in existance from the 1960s to the present provide an experience that would give a student, who comes to the table with a potential interest in jazz, a reasonable context for enjoying jazz if possible.

The premise is faulty.  It is faulty because for over fifty years, American jazz education has (except for the most thorough of jazz programs) had staggeringly little to do with listening to jazz.  Most band directors still, even in an age in which students can download a jazz recording of virtually any tune instantly, on their phone, for about a buck apiece, do not actually insist that their students listen to jazz.  Similarly, most band directors still do not focus significant class time on teaching improvisation on tunes and chord forms; instead, they dole out pre-scripted solos to lead players in each section and only enable improvisation when a student comes back from a band camp already interested in it.  Instead, students have each measure of each chart spoon-fed to them until, after endless weeks and months of a director bludgeoning the life out of an arrangement, it has less life remaining in its notes than a pile of room temperature pudding.

If band directors actually care about getting students to enjoy jazz (and, while I am not convinced that they all do, I am certainly convinced that many of them do), then they need to teach jazz in its full context--as a form of literacy not fundamentally different from learning a language (a skill always learned aurally before being learned in a written form).  Jazz is not a bunch of stale notes on a page.  It is not a bottle-fed, baton-conducted art form.  Jazz is a popular music that arose out of human experience and human emotion.  It cannot fully be understood without being listened to through recordings of its greatest exponents.  Jazz is experiential, and students must experience it as often as possible in order to build appreciation for it.

Sure, jazz is an acquired taste for many.  It was for me.  It was for many others I know.  But there is always a point of entry for each student that can start him down the road to jazz literacy.  If that is the vocalese of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross then so be it.  If that is late-era Ellingtonia, then good.  If that is Buddy Rich or Louie Bellson, or Bob Mintzer or Gordon Goodwin, then fine.  But students should be urged to explore with curiosity and intrigue the vast range of jazz styles.  Because eventually, Mintzer can lead to Ellington, who can lead to Ben Webster, who can lead to Coleman Hawkins, who can lead to Lester Young, who can lead to Count Basie, who can lead to Benny Carter, who can lead on and on and on to more vistas in the history of recorded jazz than most students could possibly imagine.

The only way that they will ever even begin down that path, however, is if they put in some time with a pair of headphones.  And until that happens, we will not really know whether the low numbers of students emerging from jazz programs with an actual love for listening to jazz is an accurate reflection of the capacity for a high-quality jazz program to inculcate such a passion.  I still believe it is.

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