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Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Human Jukebox and the Unfamiliar

I went to a concert that was a first for me last night - a mainstream stadium pop concert. Paul Simon played at the O2 arena in Dublin and my good friend and great percussionist Jamey Haddad was playing in the band and comped me.

I should say at the outset here that I have absolutely no feeling for pop or rock music whatsoever – of almost any type. Somehow (probably because of my childhood, surrounded by jazz and classical), pop music passed me by. In my late teens I had a fleeting interest in Cream, and then progressive rock for a while (King Crimson mostly), but otherwise no interest, and certainly nothing that lasted. Between cassettes, LPs, CDs and Mp3s, I have over 3000 recordings in my home and not one of them is a pop or rock music recording. It does nothing for me and even the guys that a lot of jazz guys like – Sting, Bowie etc etc – leave me cold.

I do like the Beatles and admire their craft and the originality. And, (much to the surprise of many people who know me when they find out), I also like Burt Bacharach, whom I consider to be a real craftsman with a very original and identifiable style. But otherwise pop music does nothing for me. It’s not a value judgement (though sometimes it is – Justin Bieber! Lady GaGa!), it’s just personal. Pop music has no meaning in my life, doesn’t remind me of my youth, doesn’t connect me to people or places or things etc. etc. in the way that it does most people.

So, given my background and lack of empathy with all things pop and rock, it was hardly surpassing that this was my first time at a concert on this scale  - 14,000 people packed into the venue, seat prices starting at €56 rising to over €150 for the seat I was in, close to the front of the stage. And I must say I found the whole thing to be very interesting - I felt dispassionate, (if admiring of the professionalism and skill of the musicians), about the music, but interested in the vibe and general demeanor of everyone.

First of all it has to be said that Simon surrounds himself with very good musicians, most of whom play more than one instrument very well. Secondly it has to be said he does put on a very good show - the pieces go seamlessly between each other and clearly a lot of thought is given to pacing and making sure the show keeps rolling along. And it's a long show too - over two and a half hours without a break, and Simon has great energy and stamina which belies his 70 years. He's also a total pro - never slips up once, sings both in tune and pretty strongly for the whole concert. His only mis-step is when he occasionally breaks out some ill-judged dance moves, reminding one of an embarrassing elderly relative doing some 'hip' dancing at a wedding........

The music itself is a parade of his hits spanning almost 50 years, and of course the audience lapped it up. I was fairly familiar with about half of the pieces, less familiar with others, and totally unfamiliar with  the rest. In the first section of the concert, (before the African contingent arrives for the 'Gracelands' section), I'm struck by the amount of Americana in the music - overtones of country music, Cajun, blues etc. Simon seems to use all of these influences as backdrops to his songs, just as he does with the African music in the latter part of the concert.

Again, though I'm impressed by the professionalism, I'm unmoved by the music, but quite honestly, I was never expecting to get into it, and as someone with no familiarity or empathy for this kind of music, I'm not in any position to say whether this was a good performance by Simon's standards or not. I suspect, that as someone who has spent so much time at the top of his end of the business, he delivers a similar professionally well paced show every night.

But in my lack of response to the music, I was clearly in a minority of one in the auditorium - the audience adored it, cheering the opening bars of every familiar tune, singing along at certain points, and rushing the stage at the end when the opening chords of 'You Can Call Me Al' break out. But it's all quite sedate stage rushing, as the audience age profile is not one that would encourage any kind of physical activity that might create a need for a hip replacement after the gig......

And as I watched the adoration of Simon and the songs, I realized again, (and this is really the point of this blog), that what 99% of people want is something they know, and preferably something they can sing along to. What they don't want is the unfamiliar. The audience may all have loved Paul Simon, but if he had gone out there last night and played a whole evening of new music they probably would have rushed the stage. What most audiences want from a  concert, ultimately, is a human jukebox - someone who will regurgitate the hits, and give everyone a good night out and a sing-along. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But where does that leave those of us whose milieu is improvised music? In a tiny minority, that's where. One thing I realized a while ago, is that most people, as far as music is concerned at least, don't really like improvisation. They like what they know, not what they don't know. In most music performances audiences want a confirmation of what they like, a parade of familiarity - it's comforting and often celebratory, particularly so when (like the Simon concert I was at), it's experienced with a large crowd of others, all of whom are equally enamored of the music on display. But in improvised music, the audience is invited to participate in the unfamiliar, to experience the process of music creation rather than be presented with a comfortingly familiar result.

It should be noted that this love of the familiar is not confined to lovers of pop music, it's part and parcel of classical music too (where not even one note can be changed by the performer), and is not unknown among jazz fans. Jazz fans, and musicians, can also make demands of performers that they conform to some agreed norm that reinforces the audience members understanding of what jazz is. The comfort of the familiar is a requirement of some jazz listeners too -  improvised music doesn't always have the automatic support in the jazz community that one would imagine

Improvised music will never have the support and popularity that non-improvised music attracts, but it has qualities too that non-improvised music will never have. Last night at Paul Simon's gig everything was as carefully choreographed as any classical performance, there was no room for the spontaneous creative input of the musicians - everything was at the service of Paul Simon's songs and the requirement of the audience to hear the familiar. And I missed the creative input of the musicians, the sense that anything could happen at anytime, which is a quality I find tremendously attractive in music. At a pop or classical concert, you will never experience that moment where you know something has happened that never happened before and will never happen again in that precise way. This is the unique quality of improvised music, for both musician and listener, and has tremendous value, even if most of the 14,000 people in the O2 arena last night wouldn't have thanked anyone for it had it happened.

The human jukebox may be a comforting place to be for both performer and listener, but it's a place where you will never experience anything like this........

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