I think it’s fair to say that in the jazz media, jazz education (or at least formalised jazz education in institutions) gets a bad press.
Which is ironic, since many from outside jazz find the idea of it both intriguing and admirable. I once had the good fortune to spend some time with the great American classical composer John Adams, and when he found out I was a jazz musician he went into a eulogy about jazz musicians and their abilities, comparing them to classical musicians and expressing the opinion that fully trained jazz musicians were generally superior to classical musicians these days due to the incredible range of their abilities. His son is a jazz bassist and Adams told me about watching him playing in an ensemble in his school, playing Wayne Shorter tunes. Adams expressed amazement at the harmonic sophistication of those young musicians and their ability to undertake something as challenging as that.
Yet playing through the repertoire of Wayne Shorter’s music is precisely the kind of activity that draws the ire of jazz education’s critics - ‘everyone learns the same stuff’ is the mantra – or one of the mantras – used to reinforce the argument that jazz education has a negative impact on jazz and its practitioners.
Before going further, I should explain that I myself am not a product of the jazz education system. I learned how to play this music in a way that would have been familiar to earlier practitioners – mostly from playing gigs. The jazz scene in Ireland in the late 70s was a throwback to an earlier era in that it was essentially a bebop environment – Broadway and jazz standards, little or no originals, and everyone was supposed to know every tune from memory – no Real Books (I think I saw my first one in 1981 – it was like seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls!). I read music books, picked up whatever info I could from other musicians and figured stuff out for myself – there were no jazz schools here then.
Now, thirty years later I am the head of a jazz programme here in Dublin – a typical jazz performance degree programme with eighty students, with content typical of this kind of education.
So I see both sides of the argument – I see the benefits I gained by being self-educated: self-reliance, development of instincts, ability to think on one’s feet and take decisions without always being told what to do. And I also see the disadvantages to that mode of learning – lack of access to useful (and sometimes vital) information, and making the kind of mistakes for years that could have been set right by a good teacher in 10 minutes. For example: although I knew most of the major and minor modes (found them in a Rick Laird bass book!), and could play them, I was playing them for years before I found out that they were related!
Having been involved in starting a school from scratch here in Dublin, and having seen the positive effect of that in the local jazz community, and having been able to give young musicians access to the kind of information and resources I didn’t have at their age, I’ve always been somewhat exasperated by what I see as the knee-jerk attacks on jazz education. Usually these take three forms:
1) Jazz education turns all who partake of it into clones.
2) The proof of jazz education’s failure is the fact that though there are more practitioners than ever before the percentage of great players hasn’t got any higher.
3) What is the point of turning out jazz graduates when there are no gigs?
To take each one of these in turn -
1. Jazz education turns all who partake of it into clones.
The first thing to remember when dealing with this argument is that academic music education, of any sort, is not ideal anyway. In music schools we tell students that you must learn X amount of information in X amount of weeks, but of course students are always of differing abilities and may have different life circumstances, and while one student may absorb the information fully, another may struggle. In non-academic ways of learning music (such as the one I undertook) you spend as long a time with a piece of information as you need or want and then move on. And in traditional cultures (and in rock music for example) this is primarily the way to learn music. But in western society we have developed a system of education which is geared to educate the many rather than the individual. While this is ideal for certain subjects (science and maths for example) it is less than ideal for music. But for better or for worse, this is the structure we have and the one we have to deal with.
If you want to train young musicians in the techniques of music, and give many of them access to that, rather than a few hand-picked individuals, then you don’t really have a choice other than the academic model – for economic reasons if for no other. It would be clearly impossible to take students in and keep them in school until such time as they felt ready to move on, treating each one individually, so that student X spends three years on harmony while Y spends 6 months on the same subject. It’s just unworkable – an open ended school is just not a practical possibility – for the school or the students. If you discard the academic model you must also discard many of the students - there is no other way to educate larger groups of people efficiently.
Having accepted the jazz school as the most practical model in which to operate, you then have to make a decision as to what to teach. The argument that the schools all teach the same stuff, therefore making all students into homogenised clones, is an argument based on the idea that the older practitioners were helped by the fact that they didn’t go to school and their originality was predicated on their differing knowledge. But their originality was the result of their originality – it had nothing to do with their empirical knowledge or lack of it. What a lot of critics forget about is that most high level jazz school courses are staffed and run by professional jazz musicians. These are musicians who deal with the realities of playing the music, and who are aware of the skills necessary to survive in the professional milieu. And it is largely these same musicians who decide the curricula for the schools – not some faceless bureaucrat. So the information that is provided is largely that body of information which professional musicians agree are basic prerequisites for a life as a professional jazz musician. This basic information – harmonic, technical and rhythmic as well as repertoire – is generally agreed by most professionals to be part of the essential toolkit of the contemporary jazz musician.
Yet the writer James Lincoln Collier says:
‘With students all over the United States being taught more or less the same harmonic principles, it is hardly surprising that their solos tend to sound much the same. It is important for us to understand that many of the most influential players developed their own personal harmonic schemes, very frequently because they had little training in theory and were forced to find it their own way.’
So – there we have it, the noble savage syndrome – for the sake of your creativity and originality it’s better to have no training. It’s hard to know where to start with the refutation of an argument this stupid. It’s like suggesting that if you want to become a writer it would be better to to be illiterate and figure out the rules of English yourself, rather than go to school and be taught how to read, how spelling, grammar and syntax work, and being directed towards great writing of the past. Yet this is the bizarre subtext of much of the criticism of jazz education – in order to be creative and original it’s better to be uneducated. But though these writers idealise the self-taught musicians of the past, how many of these same jazz greats would have taken advantage of educational institutions had they been available to them? Most I’d say. And if they had, would it have stifled their creativity? Would Coltrane have sounded like a thousand other saxophonists of he’d gone to a jazz school? To suggest that he would have is to deny his innate genius and originality.
Some champions of the European jazz scene also use the 'jazz education = lack of originality' argument to attack the US jazz scene, claiming that it is the jazz education system that has largely contributed to American jazz stagnating while European jazz forges ahead. This argument conveniently ignores the fact that most European jazz schools teach (with variations) the same basic core curriculum as their American counterparts. European jazz schools take the American system as their basic model, so all of these young European musicians who are lauded so highly come from a very similar educational background to their US counterparts.
And as to the charge that jazz education produces only clones, consider the following musicians:
Brad Mehldau, Jim Black, Branford Marsalis, John Scofield, Tom Rainey, John Abercrombie, Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jeff Watts, Pat Metheny, Scott Colley, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade. All of these have spent time in jazz educational institutions – are they all clones?
2. The proof of jazz education’s failure is the fact that though there are more practitioners than ever before the percentage of great players hasn’t got any higher.
Schools do not teach creativity nor originality nor do they stifle it – creativity and originality have always been in short supply. We are educating the many, but in the end, only a few will ‘get it’ so to speak. The number of musicians of real creativity, the ones who are head and shoulders above everyone else, have always been in the minority. And contrary to the mythology, the pre-jazz education scene was not always peopled by complete originals – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Lester Young, and Bud Powell (to take just a few examples) all had droves of disciples who tried to emulate their heroes. Jazz has always been peopled by a few innovators and many imitators. The imitators either find a personal wrinkle for themselves within the canon created by the innovators, or they just vapidly regurgitate the surface gestures of the great ones. It was the same in 1930 as it is now.
What a good school will do is provide the environment that will give anyone who studies there access to information which will help them towards their goals. A student’s originality will not be created by a school, nor will it be destroyed by it – original people will always be original people. No matter how many people go through the jazz education system the percentage of true originals will not rise. However everyone coming through the doors of a good jazz school will be given access to tools which will help them create a musical career for themselves should they wish to pursue it. Jazz schools cannot manufacture creativity, but they can facilitate in speeding the journey of the truly creative while giving a good music education to those who may not be among the elite in terms of originality, but who nevertheless are talented and wish to partake in the great musical tradition of jazz.
3. What is the point of turning out jazz graduates when there are no gigs?
This is a genuine concern among jazz educators and musicians, and recently Ethan Iverson wrote the following in his blog:
“There’s positive aspects to jazz education, but I do worry about how corporate and money-driven it can seem, especially now that the bubble has burst. As we all know, not only do young players fresh out of jazz college have trouble finding gigs, but for musicians of all ages the current market is completely over-saturated, making it extraordinarily difficult for anything to have any economic value whatsoever”
While it may be true that gigs are getting harder and harder to come by, the question has to be asked, is this the only value that jazz education has – economic value? The bassist and educator Todd Coolman puts it very well:
“We have to quit thinking of college as a vocational school. College, to me, is a place where you go to learn something, to develop intellectual and social skills so that you can become a contributing member of society. No one needs to go to college to learn to play jazz, anyway. In the same respect, college doesn’t create a brilliant economist.”
This point is well made – the idea that teaching the techniques of an art form becomes devalued if there is not immediate or automatic economic benefit to the student is simply wrong. Surely the main point of getting an education is to become educated? The benefits to young people of being involved in jazz are manifold. For example, one of the things that I find most attractive about jazz is the democratic and social nature of the music. The music is brought about by the efforts of a group of people working together, and communicating with each other. Yet within the tradition of this sociable music, the idea of individualism is not only encouraged, but highly prized. So here we have a music which is completely dependent on co-operation between the participants, yet which at the same time encourages each to make as personal and individual a statement as possible. What a wonderful ethos for young people to be involved with!
Another benefit of being in a jazz school and one that’s never even noticed by the critics of jazz education is that schools provide a space in which communities of jazz musicians can exist. In previous times these communities were centred around gigs and clubs and jam sessions, but this environment has almost entirely disappeared. The jazz community has become dispersed, and one of the few places where it still exists is in jazz schools. With the possible exception of New York and a few other larger cities where some gig-centred socialising by musicians still exists, the only place where large groups of jazz practitioners foregather is in jazz schools. Schools not only create a teaching environment, they also provide a place where information can be exchanged, gossip caught up on, new recordings discussed, gig information exchanged, tips for work opportunities given and camaraderie shared.
Like anything, jazz schools are not perfect – in the wrong hands they can churn out graduates without any consideration for the individual. But in my experience that’s the exception rather than the rule - most schools have dedicated teachers with a real love of the music and its traditions and a genuine concern that their students have access to it. In the schools students learn the basic techniques of the music and hopefully are also exposed to the creative ethos of jazz. They provide community environments for musicians whose love of a minority music sets them apart from the mainstream.
I’ve just returned from the International Association of Schools of Jazz annual meeting in Lucerne, where 50 high level jazz students from schools all over the world – from Japan to the US, from Finland to Israel, from Russia to Brazil - got together for a week and played music together and got to know each other through the medium of jazz. I watched them perform six concerts of very high level creative music put together after only three days rehearsal, and watched their mutual delight in sharing this experience with each other. Try telling THEM that the jazz education system was a negative influence on their lives and creativity!