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Saturday, July 7, 2012

More Thoughts on Jazz Education, Art, Craft, and Entitlement

(Dave Liebman speaking to students and teachers at the IASJ Meeting in Graz)

Some recent thoughts on jazz education, prompted by attending the 2012 IASJ Meeting

I’ve spent the past week at the International Association of Schools of Jazz annual meeting in Graz in Austria. I’ve written before about what goes on at the IASJ meetings and what a buzz it is, and this year was no exception. Last year it was in Brazil, and this year in Austria so naturally the vibe of the location was quite different, but the camaraderie of the musicians – teachers and students alike – was as strong as ever. At a time when institutionalised jazz education as an idea is again under scrutiny, it was interesting and thought provoking to be part of this meeting and once again my feelings on the positive benefits of jazz education were both confirmed and reinforced.

I attended the meeting that saw the foundation of the IASJ  - an organization which was the idea of the Artistic Director Dave Liebman – in 1989, and have attended 20 of the 22 meetings so far. Being part of the IASJ was invaluable to our school in Dublin, which at the time of the foundation of the IASJ, was just beginning to take its first steps towards putting in place some fulltime jazz programmes, which culminated in us offering a BA in Jazz Performance, and a 2-year fulltime programme with transferring credits in Berklee College of Music in Boston. Being part of the IASJ and attending the meetings gave me an insight into what was involved in the setting up and running of a real jazz programme, the kind of subjects which should be covered, how the materials were most effectively taught, and the pedagogical philosophy underpinning the teaching of jazz. The meetings themselves, in which teachers and students from all over the world come together to play, hang, and discuss music, are fantastic giving everyone involved a great fillip and a chance to meet their colleagues from all over the world.

During the meeting there are regular meetings between teachers and school administrators that discuss pedagogical issues  and current issues related to the teaching of jazz in institutions. Usually these meetings catch the zeitgeist of current concerns among the jazz community as it relates to education, and this year was no exception.

 (Outdoor student concert in Graz)

Art, Craft and 'The Gig'

This year there was much discussion of the employability, or otherwise, of graduating students from jazz programmes. In the US in particular, the financial practicality of undertaking a jazz education in an institution is definitely an issue – how can someone who spends more than $100,000 on their education have any hope of making that back? The situation is somewhat different in Europe in that education is much cheaper so the ratio of education cost to possibilities of recouping that cost is more realistic. But it’s tough for jazz musicians in Europe as well and questions of how and what jazz schools should be teaching are both timely and apposite.

But despite agreeing with the principal of helping students to equip themselves with the tools to operate as professional musicians (music business courses, technology courses, entrepreneurship courses etc.) I feel we are in danger of losing sight of what it is that we (high level jazz schools) do best – teach the art and craft of playing improvised music. The economic situation being what is, jazz schools are under more threat than ever before from both market forces, and pressure, (from the school authorities themselves) to respond to market forces. The response to this has in my opinion, begun to become skewed in that I notice a trend to almost apologise for teaching jazz, and a trend towards viewing the business aspects of the programme as being the most valuable thing you can teach.  

But the reality is that many non-jazz schools offer music business and technology courses, and the vast majority of private music schools focus on the more commercial and business related aspects of music education.  For example, here in Dublin my school is the only one that offers full time jazz education and high level training in non-classical music performance. If we were to change our focus to offer separate courses in music business, music technology or writing for Gaming, then we’d immediately be in competition with at least 10 other schools in the Dublin area alone.

It’s the high level performance training that set jazz schools apart from all the other music schools. Only classical conservatoires offer similar high level performance training, and they are far more specialised than jazz schools, training musicians who are unsuited to almost any other form of musical employment other than classical.

 (Final student concert at the IASJ Meeting Graz)

I’m a firm believer in the teaching of craft despite the constant decrying of the amount of musicians being turned out by jazz schools. As far as the (incredibly inaccurate) received wisdom goes, jazz schools are anti-creativity and have a negative effect on the jazz scene. Bullshit. Jazz schools are, in my opinion, like Architecture schools – they teach a high level craft in a milieu which is also artistic. In architecture, most architects spend their professional lives designing functional buildings, some of which will be artistic, some less so. Occasionally brilliant architects will appear and their creations definitely occupy the artistic realm. But the architecture schools are not responsible for which of their students are more creative and artistic. All they can do  – is teach the craft of architecture, teach and show the history and work of great  architecture, and hopefully teach and inspire a new generation of great architects. But even if an architect only ends up designing a post office, they still need the craft level to make sure that the ceiling doesn’t come down on the head of a customer!

Similarly jazz schools should teach the craft of jazz (and related musics  as desired), introduce the students to the rich creative history of the music, encourage students towards creative goals and provide them with an environment in which they can fully benefit from both the knowledge and experience of the teachers and the creative energy of their fellow students.  A school that teaches high level craft, encourages creativity and supports a strong musical community is something to be proud of, not something to be slightly ashamed of just because some jazz critics, who don’t know their arse from their elbow, make brainless pronunciations on the negative impact of jazz schools.

 (Countryside outside Graz)

Anyone who attended the last IASJ meeting (or any jazz camp, workshop, summer school or similar) would attest to the happiness and excitement of the young musicians who attended, and could attest to the high level playing skills displayed by all of them. How could this joy in playing together and high achievement in performance be a bad thing? Some critics say that only the most talented and creative should be educated – but who is going to choose who has the benefit of an education and who doesn’t? The critics? Jesus, the day that happens we might as well all pack up and go home…………


Another thing that was discussed at this meeting, (mostly informally among the teachers), was the sense of entitlement among many students these days…… There definitely seems to be a trend towards the idea that a student deserves a high grade regardless of the effort put in. There’s no doubt that in this time of instant gratification the connection between effort and reward is less understood than ever before. In a field like jazz, where there are no shortcuts to high level achievement, there is no substitute for hard work, single-mindedness, and dedication. But more and more, we in the schools are starting to see a greater unwillingness among some students to put in the flying hours necessary to become an international standard jazz musician. Yet we are facing demands from these same students for high grades which they clearly haven’t earned. A sign of the times I think….. I hasten to add that not all students are like this, but there’s definitely a growing trend in this direction.

And the delusions of some of these students about how the music world works is not helped by the attitudes of some teachers and administrators whose indulgence of students, regardless of achievement, are bound to feed into the idea that you can be half-hearted about your commitment to the music and yet achieve a high standard of achievement. I heard one administrator recently, (at a different meeting to the IASJ), say that our job was to ‘get out of the way of the students’. Really? If a student really wants teachers out of his or her way, then surely the best way would be not to come to the school in the first place? If a student comes to a school, they should be there for the following reasons:

1 To be in a community of musicians

2 To take part fully in the musical life of that community

3 To take all they can from the experience and knowledge of the school’s teachers

The school’s job is:

1 To provide a place where this community of musicians can flourish

2 To provide an environment where creativity, craft and high achievement is valued among both students and teachers

3 To give the students the benefit of the experience and knowledge of the teachers

I didn’t come through the jazz school system myself, yet I am completely a believer in the value of these schools. Of course they’re not perfect – in the same way that democracy has its flaws but is the best system we’ve got. The community of musicians around which musicians learnt their craft in previous times, doesn’t really exist any more. Until or unless something better comes along, the best way to get the information you need as an aspiring young jazz musician is to go to a good school and partake of the life there -  for a while at least.

Here's an example of what great things young musicians can do when given the kind of opportunities attending a jazz school can bring. This is a student concert from last year's IASJ meeting in Sao Paulo


  1. Hi Ronan

    Thanks for your wise thoughts - and the care you invest in putting these down for the record.

    I re-iterate what you say about jazz schools: the most viable way to obtain the correct information about the music is to go to a good school & absorb what there is. Yes, there are shortcomings, but until a better option comes along, it's the best thing society has available at this time to transmit the information.

    It's so true that the (informal) environment, within which jazz was transmitted to and among earlier generations of jazz musicians, has transformed and even no longer exists to a sufficient extent to allow the music to flourish. That's related to social evolution and change, and is unstoppable. The challenge for jazz schools is to adapt to this change without comprising the basics of jazz and music as a discipline.

    I think people's perceptions and understanding of what music (including jazz) is, is not being helped by largely illiterate pronunciations on music by popular media, even schools of popular music who, as a result of monetary pressure, tend to have lower standards of music education and the expectations they have for performance. As a whole, music is projected by the pop media as amusement only, within the context only of materialism/consumerism. Of course music should be entertaining and appeal to the emotions, but where music is only that and musicians see themselves only as entertainers without comprehending the broader role of music in society, the art as a creative form starts dying. Music is and should remain primarily a creative exercise, an outlet for human expression, which entails all manner of emotion, purpose, etc. The needs of contemporary consumerist entertainment place hugely stifling limitations on creative music. This has increased progressively over the decades as the need to satisfy the lowest-common-denominator music consumerist has increased.

    A few generations of people have grown up with a far poorer social environment for music and musical knowledge to flourish. Popular media was once a source for spreading musical knowledge of a greater variety, quality and depth, spreading knowledge, understanding and inspiring social change for the better.

    It has become imperative that music pedagogues infiltrate the popular media and become the prime spokespeople for this discipline once again. A by-product of rapid consumerism is the need to dumb down anything and everything - creative music has suffered the same fate. Never more so than now, do we need music education in schools for all the best reasons to not only help adjust misconceptions about the art form, but as an essential tool to continue advancing humanity.

    Compared to your architecture analogy, recently I've been glancing in the direction of a reality tv series called Masterchef which has syndicated in many countries. You may know about it. I appreciate good food. Less some of the glitz, what I see in this programme is, to me, the real deal where contestants (who are generally ordinary members of society with often no culinary training) compete for the title of best chef. The expectations placed on contestants by expert judges are nothing less than what is expected of professionals serving in the industry. They are tested to high culinary standards by industry insiders. The contestants gain immediate respect, even if they fall out of the competition. Now compare this to Idols and the rest of the muzak industry BS that get churned out. The difference is that in culinary terms, the general population are still able to set (and know!) the highest standards (okay - I know that zillions go flocking for the Colonel's best fries, but you know what I mean); for music, well ... Where has it all gone wrong?

    Paul Sedres
    Cape Town-Paris

  2. Thanks Paul - I agree with every point you make, and the comparison between Idol and Masterchef is great - I never thought about that before.......

    Thanks for taking the time to write

  3. Hi Ronan
    I think we met years ago. I just wanted to say that I really like your post above on jazz education and your response to the current anti-jazz education people out there. Like you I didn't come up through the college system, although I did go to a couple aebersold camps in my teens that were great. I was lucky to get to go the apprenticeship route with some of the masters. But now I do some adjunct teaching and alot of workshops in the summer, so it was good to hear your views.
    keep swingin!
    Dave Stryker