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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Branford Marsalis on students

OK - discuss!


  1. Wow! That's pretty hardcore. I love Branford but I can't imagine there was ever a time where any student wanted to hear how untalented they are. It seems like it's a case of "the good old days" mentality. From my experience with music students, there are those that don't work and those that work hard - just as I imagine there always has been. If there is more of an expectation of high grades and accolades that's reflective on the society's requirement for children to all be A and B students to succeed. I've seen the amount of homework kids have to do nowadays - starting in kindergarten!- and it seems that there are unfairly high expectations at the outset.

  2. Thanks for the comment Emma - I think this is typical Branford bluster, he does tend to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut so to speak. I agree with what you say about there being different kinds of students - those who work hard and those who don't, but I do think there is something worth discussing regarding students' expectations and whose responsibility it is to fulfill those expectations.

    I feel a blog post coming on!

  3. Marsalis isn't an elegant speaker and isn't a giving teacher judging from his you tube comments on students. A benefit of teaching is that the teacher learns more than the student only if the teacher is a giving person. Marsalis should stay out of the classroom: However my experience as chairman of Jazz Studies at New England Conservatory (1982) was that students were locked into one style of jazz and not open to an eclectic approach. I had 5 private students during this period who I must say tried and only one is a working professional now. The others were not talented enough to "make it" but I didn't tell them that nor lower my standards so they could get an A. I made them look up to what's possible and forced them gently but firmly, to work and practice twice as hard and encouraged them to do their very best. I knew that when they graduated and faced the REAL world of performance they would quickly fade away. I love teaching and imparting the best of the past and my goal was to be thorough with my students.

    Marsalis seems to be ego-centered therefore not a good teacher. If he was honest with himself he would NOT accept students nor teach in a school of music. Do clinics? Anyone can do that! That's the BS and is not real teaching/giving.

    These five students I had at NEC I must confess were not grateful one iota for my thoroughness in the curriculum I gave them and turned against me by asking for my resignation to the Dean of Students. They were acting like little children afraid to discuss things with me, a father figure. They knew they were wrong and too weak to put in the work to improve. They insisted on getting their old teacher back who was probably more a friend than a teacher; plus he was becoming a famous jazzer in his own right. So they felt "connected" to the professional world without paying the "dues" necessary to "make it", and be a success.

    Many are called but few are chosen.

    Jack Reilly

  4. Can't remember who it was but somebody once said: 90 % of everything is bullshit. But I think that the real problem is not that some students suck and some teachers suck, but that the whole jazz education system sucks: too much conformity, too much emphasis on technique etc. What we need are more grassroot-rebels like the AACM and more egghead-rebels like some teachers from New England Conservatory (Ran Blake ...), more people like Ralph Alessi who do their own stuff in their own way. Who needs 7777 new virtuosos who play the same old bullshit? If you have a school where you show the students how to get smoothly through the moves that's what they are gonna do (except very few independent minds ...) Maybe this whole jazz teaching system is the next bubble to burst ...

  5. Thanks for your comment - but I have to say I think your view is very myopic and doesn't take into account all the facets of what a jazz education in a school means.

    I did another post on this very topic called 'in defence of jazz education' that was inspired by the kind of sweeping statement that you just made here.

    But of course everyone's entitled to heir opinion..............

  6. yeah - I just read your "in defence of jazz education" piece this morning (saw it only after I posted my comment) ... I think you're not totally wrong in defending this system and you make some good points ... But I'm really more and more of the opinion that this system has to be changed in some dramatic ways and I also think it has to shrink: we don't need more and more and more and more smart jazz players who know their Monk & Shorter et. al. back- and forwards, but some real visionaries and originals who contribute in a unique and deep way to the art form that some people still call jazz - sometimes LESS IS REALLY MUCH MORE ... I think it would make sense to spend less money for jazz education and much more money for jazz clubs and other places to present this great music in a decent way to a bigger audience, that of course also means less musicians, but more people who listen to jazz. With the "jazz school syndrome" there's the danger that jazz becomes a music for musicians only and some "enlighted" aficionados ... One more paradox that bothers me: Schools are about rules, but jazz is about breaking rules and getting away with it! Long live Ornette Coleman!!!

  7. I think you make some very good points Tom, and I absolutely agree with the idea of spending more money on places to play. There is a chronic shortage of good venues and places to hear the music.

    However having good jazz schools and places to play are not necessarily mutually exclusive -- classical music is a case in point where they have an even bigger education system than is extant in jazz, but have also a huge range of auditoria and places to hear the music that are either privately or state funded. And if you reduce the number of jazz schools you will not automatically get more money available to fund venues -- most jazz schools, in Europe at least, are funded from state education budgets - reduce the number of jazz schools and that money will just go probably to classical music. There is no mechanism for taking that money from the education budget and putting it into it some kind of performance budget.

    And if you follow the idea of reducing the number of jazz schools, somebody's got to make a decision as to who gets in and who doesn't. It's already difficult for people to get into the schools -- in our school we audition more than 100 people for 20 places every year. So if you reduce the number still further y you're in danger of creating a truly elitist system, and denying a lot of people access to a very rounded musical education. Don't forget that most people who go through jazz schools end up being professional musicians of some kind, not necessarily jazz. The Jazz education system is a true liberal arts education and music, the vast majority of people who go through the system do NOT spend the rest of their lives playing Monk and Shorter. They play in a wide variety of styles of music, they arrange music, they compose music, and they teach music. Would you like to be the person who would deny these people access to this education? I know I wouldn't, even if I knew that doing it would guarantee a smaller pool of really creative players -- which I don't believe would be the case.

    The problem for jazz is not created by the schools, the problem is a much deeper and wider than that, and as I said in my blog on the subject, the jazz education system benefits many people in many ways -- the students most of all.


  8. My response would be this review of Branford himself, which I wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1984, reprinted in my book "Jazz In Search of Itself (Yale University Press):

    Any way you look at it, twenty-four-year-old saxophonist Branford Marsalis is a significant figure in contemporary jazz. One year older than his brother, trumpet whiz Wynton Marsalis, Branford exemplifies today’s neo-conservative style, which tries to tame, codify, and toy with the music of the radical jazz innovators of the 1960s: John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and Ornette Coleman.

    As one listened to Marsalis at Rick’s Cafe Americain, it was clear that he not only has memorized almost every lick that Coltrane et al. ever produced but also possesses a technical expertise that allows him to reshuffle these licks in some very shrewd ways. As one fan remarked, “This guy can do anything.” The problem, though, is that Marsalis often seems lost in the midst of all these potential moves, unsure whether he wants to play clever, even satirically mocking games with the recent jazz past or respectfully emulate it.

    Satire of some sort might be the more fruitful approach, for it fits the seemingly innate foxiness that Marsalis shares with his brother. But Rollins and Shorter already have taken that route--the former favoring Falstaffian humor, the latter indulging in near-surrealistic distortions--and that leaves Marsalis with the unenviable choice of exaggerating the already exaggerated or, on the other hand, merely toning it down.

    Toned-down Coltrane, which is what Marsalis offers the rest of the time, is another matter, because the implicitly romantic, and at times even desparate, aura of quest that permeates Coltrane’s music would seem to call for a similiar approach on the part of his disciples. What Coltrane left behind was not a “hip” style but a drive toward ecstatic transcendence; and when Marsalis fiddles with Coltrane’s techniques while he holds the implicit emotion of the music at arm’s length, the results can be distressing.

    Within Marsalis’s music, though, there is a third option, which may be the best way out for him. Given his agile mind and fingers and his basically cool temperament, Marsalis sometimes sounds like an updated Stan Getz--a musical gem cutter who would like to inhabit a world where subtlety of technique is an end in itself. From that point of view, the most satisfying piece Marsalis played Monday night was “Shadows,” a moody ballad written by his pianist, Larry Willis, which allowed the leader to build a solo that relied on an exquisitely shaded purity of tone and some sly harmonic shifts.

    When the temperature rose, as it did most notably on “Solstice,” Marsalis alternated between his neo-Coltrane manner and a close-to-the-vest version of Shorter’s and Rollins’s comedy. The latter style worked better for Marsalis, but even here there was little sense of emotional commitment, as though he were unsure whether he wanted to laugh with or laugh at his stylistic models.

    The problems Branford Marsalis is wrestling with may be those of youth, and perhaps the passage of time will solve them. But in the midst of his often dazzling virtuosity, Marsalis seems to be playing at playing jazz instead of just playing it--as though his involvement with the music were based on a paradoxical need to fend off its emotional demands.

    Larry Kart

  9. As a public school music teacher, I can safely say that he has a point. A lot of our students have such great potential, but do not practice. Instead, they like to think of themselves at a higher level than they really are. It's almost like they rub the instrument on their head and hope to get better. Students do not like criticism; who does? But, it's what we do in music. We take the critique and improve from it. We should start taking feedback as neutral, neither good nor bad. It's up to us to shape the students into that mindset, so they stop resisting criticism and know that they need to work for success.

  10. I'm a student and I agree on some level with what Branford is saying,of course he's exagerating,but students in my opinion love compliments.I'm not making any excuses,but I think it may be because when you are studying something as subjective as improvisation,some outside encouragement can be very welcome.This for me is because studying improvisation is based around personal goals and rewards,but all of us I'm sure want some recognition from the world outside of our practice rooms too!The personal rewards of course can be fantastic,but the goal for most of us is to play for others also!
    Obviously if you are practicing for compliments or not even practicing at all then theres a problem,but I don't see any harm in some deserved encouragment.(IF IT IS DESERVED!)
    As for the issue on jazz education,I believe it is a credit to those who facilitate teaching young people how to play,its great! There'd be no amazing originals emerging on the scene if they couldn't even play! Also in my opinion places like Newpark and Berklee are helping keep jazz music alive by exposing more and more young people to these kinds of music.And as for the school systems killing individuality in jazz musicians today,I strongly disagree.Maybe this is just me but I think that there are many incredbile young musicians on the contemporary scene each with there own voice,and if you check them out,most of them are past pupils of some college or another.
    Anyway,thats my two cents!

  11. I did smirk a little at Branford's comments and wondered if either him or the interviewer really considered the implications of it all. Those cherry paid summer schools might be a bit thin on the ground next year Branford. I do however feel that it is unwise for any music student to have too high an expectation of an undergraduate course which is going to be a broad study anyway. There is obviously a huge difference in outcome and direction between a performance based degree and an academic degree. Ultimately my only concern is for young people who are given unrealistic expectations before entering the professional music world. if you take private lessons with a jazz giant who is a good teacher, you won't get a cert. on the wall and cert's on the wall don't nec. mean you are a great player. It's a balance, maybe not something that people leaving school at eighteen may be so skilled at dealing with. Around the hubs like New York and Berklee you are going to have a better chance but how do the passionate jazz students of say, a small regional university fair in the dealing of the cards...