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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

21st Century Bebop?

A jazz schools question - should we be teaching traditional jazz skills and repertoire in the 21st-century? This is an endless subject of discussion wherever jazz educators foregather. In February last I was asked to give a short talk on this subject at the Association of European Conservatoire's Pop and Jazz Platform conference in London. This post is an extension of some of the ideas that I talked about on the day.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills - playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn't been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past? The question is particularly asked in Europe, and other schools outside of the USA. The vast bulk of traditional jazz repertoire comes from the music and the experience of the African-American community in the United States. As Europeans, (or Asians or Australians etc.), why should we learn this music, that grew out of a set of social circumstances a long time ago, in a far away country, and from a society of which we are not part? What is the contemporary artistic relevance of learning music created by people from a different culture, from a different period in time? What is the professional relevance of teaching students rhythms and repertoire from music that has little currency on the contemporary professional music scene?

I used the word 'bebop' in the title here, and this word was also used in the title of my talk at the AEC, but in using that word I don't mean to limit the music under discussion to the period of the 1940s, but rather to look at the broader field of the jazz tradition - the one that contains both Broadway songs and jazz standards, the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter etc. etc.

For myself, I really do believe in the relevance of teaching this music, and the importance to any programme, that uses the word 'jazz' in its title, of giving the students access to the skills and ethos required to play music from the jazz tradition. I don't think there is any one reason to continue to teach this repertoire in jazz schools, but many reasons. I would list the value of working with this repertoire for aspirant professional performers under three headings - as a portfolio of skills, as a connection to a musical tradition, and as exposure to some of the highest levels of musical thinking and musical philosophy of the past hundred years.

As a Portfolio of Skills

The traditional skill set required to play jazz contains many varied yet interconnected skills that are of immense benefit to any aspirant young musician who wants to learn the craft of music performance. This skill set is eminently transferable  - skills acquired in the study of jazz are, in one way or other, of use in almost any music you care to name. In order to improvise over changes, in an ensemble, in the jazz idiom, you need a command of a wide variety of skills. You need a very good technique on your instrument, you need a thorough knowledge of harmony, you need to be able to read music, (notation and chord symbols), you need really good ears and an ability to identify and process aural information in real time. You need very good time, a thoroughly developed sense of rhythm and rhythmic nuance, and an ability to create rhythmic phrases that make instant sense both to you and to your bandmates. 

In order to improvise convincingly over the progression you need to develop a sense of form, to know where you are in the tune at all times. Allied to this is the ability to develop musical memory, to be able to keep large amounts of musical information in your mind and spontaneously use it to create music of the moment. You need to be able to listen deeply and respond instantly to musical cues and information created by your ensemble colleagues. Allied to the learning of these skills are the tangential skills often taught as part of a jazz programme - arranging, theory, transcription, composition etc.

So - technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

If a jazz school were to remove the requirements to learn this repertoire, then, from a professional skill-set point of view, what would they replace it with? I cannot think of any other form of musical training, including classical training, that provides such a range of transferable skills.

Sometimes the question is asked, 'why are we training students to be bebop players when the music has changed so much?'. Well the answer to that is - we're not! Four years in a jazz school will not turn you into a bebop musician - like any deep tradition, the skills necessary to become a master of this idiom require many years of training, experience and immersion. Four years of jazz school will only allow you to scratch the surface of what it takes to be a convincing bebop player. Anyone who thinks that teaching bebop skills to students will turn them into bona fide bebop players within the time span of an undergraduate programme has a complete misunderstanding, and probably lack of respect for the jazz tradition. What we can give them, via bebop,  are the tools for the professional performance world, we can't turn them into convincing bebop players - the decision to undertake the years of extra work needed to achieve that is completely the students' decision, and will happen after school, if at all.

It Connects Students To A Tradition

The argument is often made that if you're playing improvised music influenced by jazz, but are not American, or not African American, or weren't born in the USA between 1930 and 1970, you can claim to not be part of the jazz tradition. I've heard this, or variants on it, so many times - 'I wasn't born in Chicago in 1950/I'm from Berlin/I don't play standards' - all used to explain why the jazz tradition, as commonly understood, has no longer any relevance for the musician making the statement. However, to imagine that because you were born outside the USA, or at a different time to the common practice period of jazz, means that you stand outside the tradition is an argument that doesn't stand up as far as I'm concerned. If you're playing in a group that has bass and drums in it, and the group improvises, you are fundamentally connected to the jazz tradition, since the concept of the rhythm section (i.e. at least in its most pared down form - bass and drums), evolved in jazz groups. That alone connects you, as does improvising over moving harmony in a rhythmic format influenced by the African-American rhythmic tradition - i.e grooves of any sort. The social nature of group improvisation is also predicated on jazz traditions and practices - when the band are collectively improvising, you are connected to the traditions and practices of jazz.

(John Adams)

I think there's a corollary to this argument about whether a non-American can be connected to the jazz tradition, and that's in classical music. Although classical music is an art form that developed and evolved in Europe, American composers have created a huge body of work that is immediately identifiable as having a vernacular all of its own. Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Conlon Nancarrow and John Adams have all produced music that is quintessentially American, and that would never have been written by European composers. Yet their music is unimaginable without the great tradition of European classical music that preceded it. Their music is resolutely American, yet part of the larger classical music tradition. In a similar way a European musician (or a musician from any other non-American country), can produce jazz music that is representative of their background and culture yet remain connected to the jazz forms that preceded it.

And what is the benefit to the student of being part of that tradition - of feeling part of it? Well first of all, let's face it, the desire to play improvised music in contemporary society makes you almost an automatic outsider. Contemporary society is a very hostile environment in which to try and be a creative improvising musician. Isn't it reassuring for a young person coming into this music to feel part of something bigger, that stretches back into the past, encompasses some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century and provides a context in which they can feel that they are contributing to a continuum? I grew up in Dublin in the 1960s yet feel completely connected to the jazz tradition and its something I'm proud to be part of. I find it reassuring that the work I do has a connectedness to the work of other musicians spanning a hundred year period and across many countries, races and nationalities. To put it simply I feel very fortunate to work in an idiom that contains giants like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, as well as Europeans such as Django Reinhard and Jan Garbarek, Canadians such as Oscar Peterson and Paul Bley, Abdullah Ibrahim from South Africa and Danilo Perez from Panama.

It Exposes Students To Deep Musical and Philosophical Thought

I often think that jazz schools spend too much time explaining jazz history as a linear construct, ('and then in 1945.... etc.), and not enough time exploring, with students, the aesthetic and philosophical thought that underpinned some of the greatest music created in the 20th Century. The men and women who created the jazz tradition were largely an underclass, second class citizens in their own country, and yet they created one of the great musical art forms and shared it with the world. Sometimes, unfortunately, there is an unspoken belief that these musicians were producing this music without any analysis or musical/philosophical underpinning for what they did. However, even cursory research, reading of interviews etc. reveals people for whom the aesthetic and the seriousness of what they were doing was all-important. The giants of the music were deep thinkers and full of wisdom about music and its importance in their lives, and by extension, in the wider world of thought, art and ideas. Over the years there has been so much great thinking expressed by these musicians that is both inspiring for young musicians to read, and extremely helpful to them in charting their own course in  the bumpy ride that is creative music. The way the ideas are put are sometimes mysterious and sometimes opaque, but this adds to value of these utterances since the reader is called upon to make their own judgement of what is being expressed. In order to interpret some of the utterances delivered by the jazz greats, critical thinking is called upon - another valuable process for the young musician to be involved with.

Here is a sample of some of the musical wisdom imparted by some of the great musicians of the jazz tradition over the years -  very valuable thoughts which all young creative musicians should be exposed to as part of any jazz programme

'Invest yourself in everything you do. There's fun in being serious' -  John Coltrane

'A note can be as small as a pin or as big as a universe - it depends on your imagination' -  Thelonious Monk

'It's not what you play, it's how you play it' - Mary Lou Williams

'There's wrong notes that sound good, and then there's wrong notes....' Thelonious Monk

'Don't play the saxophone, let it play you'  - Charlie Parker

'Don't play what's there, play what's not there'  - Miles Davis

'I'm not in the nostalgia business'  - Wayne Shorter

But I'll leave the last quote to someone who was not a jazz musician, but this great quote sums up the reasons why any jazz programme should help young musicians towards an awareness of the richness of the jazz tradition......

'Tradition is not worshipping ashes, it's preserving fire'  - Gustav Mahler


  1. I enjoyed reading this Ronan. There are a few instances where age peers of mine chose to focus on a specific style of the music and cut off what happened after that period that I like, Scott Hamilton being an example. I believe the reason it works for me with Scott is his sincerity of purpose but I always tell the kids in our program that if they drive ONLY looking in the rear view mirror they are bound to crash! Youtube sees to have helped them find music that moves them without the feeling that record companies with an agenda have prescribed what they should believe is good. I believe we will see and are seeing the fruits of this in much the same way as the food revolution you mentioned, when you were in town recently and the role the internet and videos played in that.

  2. Thanks Dave. Yes, I think the current, and future generations will find their way. I think what's particularly valuable, from a pedagogical point of view, about teaching the jazz tradition is the way it equips young musicians with the tools they need to branch out into any stylistic area that attracts them. I think you're right about YouTube too - it's a phenomenon that has greatly affected the learning of music among young musicians in a way that is not yet clearly understood. Definitely an area for research for someone's PhD there!

  3. thank you Ron, can't agree more.

  4. Another erudite and sobering article, Ronan, thank you. Couldn't agree more. As you state, there are those may argue that jazz comes from an America that's a far away country,from a people who are from a different culture and a long ago time - yes, America is physically distant from other continents and countries but that's where the disconnect just about ends. It's stating the obvious that the cultural, geopolitical, economic and all encompassing reach/influence of the USA on much of the rest of the planet is immense and self evident. So is the jazz continuum that ties the earliest jazz and pre-jazz to the music's contemporary identities. But I get it that such reasoning, devoid of historical context, could be used to justify the view that learning the tradition has become irrelevant. From a South African perspective, it's my view that all of the extraordinarily creative, vibrant South African Jazz being produced by the current leading generation is founded on the tradition (of both SA & international jazz). In fact this relationship between tradition and new thought, for reasons deeply tied to issues of national identity, is proudly celebrated by this generation of players. Maybe that is also connected to the reverance assigned to elders in our society... The achievements of jazz elders here are viewed in more than just musical terms. So what I'm saying is that, while you won't necessarily find the younger generation playing and composing nostalgic music, they generally have respect and an instinctive awareness, or in the least a curiosity for what came before them.

    1. I really enjoyed your article, right analysis, I'm totally agree with you. I can only add that the great majority of people would be polite to listening to good Music.

  5. Very well put! The whole article is totally into the point! I couldn't agree more with the use of the words ethos, aesthetics, deep thinking and philosophy. These elements - humanitarian values - are a very important legacy for the young musicians.

  6. Very valid points made Ronan and great blogs, thanks.

  7. Fine writing, Ronan. We have a music school here in St. Paul, called McNally Smith. It's a relatively new college--20 something years--but incorporates the standard jazz repertoire along with all the "technology," of pro-tools, recording skills, programming many will need to become musicians who actually make a living (though I doubt even that, given the buttloads of degreed musicians the schools are unleashing. I'm 64, and have no idea about rock and pop since the advent of the Bee Gees. But I have seen some very impressive hip-hoppers who incorporate the canon of American music in their shows. And I believe there will soon be a wave of VERY sophisticated musicians and performers coming ashore. No, it's not jazz, and not my preference. But the skill and craft will be resurrected. Believe it. I agree with you on the jazz skills, however. Tony Williams said in his workshops that the skills in playing jazz make the mastery of the other genres much easier. "You need technique; and you'll get it to a high degree when you learn what the instrument can do."

  8. Be-bop preceded the West Coast sound as the last and most modern extension of
    jazz in its history!
    Bird, Diz Monk & Mingus sculpted a harmonic structure of permanence!
    WHY does the QUESTION even exist as to whether or not 'be-bop' and its trend-setting and unique harmony should be focused on and studied permanently? I believe that the writer got it right when he said: "
    For myself, I really do believe in the relevance of teaching this music, and the importance to any programme, that uses the word 'jazz' in its title, of giving the students access to the skills and ethos required to play music from the jazz tradition. I don't think there is any one reason to continue to teach this repertoire in jazz schools, but MANY reasons. I would list the value of working with this repertoire for aspirant professional performers under three headings - as a portfolio of skills, as a connection to a musical tradition, and as exposure to some of the highest levels of musical thinking and musical philosophy of the past hundred years."

  9. Hi Ronan,

    thanks for your article! When thinking about your words, I wondered whether there is any serious musician who would agree to deny the exploration of music that has been created before. All this is an interesting subject these days and I just would like to add a personal note.
    My initial experience, when music became important to me, happened at the age of 16. Growing up in the 100% jazz-free zone, my background in music from the early childhood had been singing in various choirs. Then I grabbed a record by Oscar Peterson and Roy Eldridge from my brother’s collection. `Little Jazz´ took me emotionally to a different place right away. Looking back, this experience has shown me a strong point in music. It works beyond cultural, national, geographic, and ethical borderlines. Music seems to be a universal language for human beings.
    How else could it be, that one person – coming basically from the church choir - can fall into all kinds of different music, like Jazz, Indian music, being touched by African music or Hungarian folksongs, Bela Bartok, Sting...?
    Isn’t the thought, that there is no need to work with music from the past, based on a mistake? A mistake, created by mixing up two entirely different things: 1) better understanding the music from the past and 2) the desire to be an artist right away.
    Enjoying, exploring and being surprised of how music has been developed already so many years ago can be quite a challenge. The only real important thing to me as a teacher could be taking the delicate decisions which music to study, at the best time for it. In my opinion, for pedagogical reasons, it would help to make clear distinction between two aspects. Musical skills on the one hand and the esthetic of music on the other hand.
    Isn´t the common ground of that subject the sensory perception, the physical and emotional experience and the impact of what music has done to someone? If not, how to explain the importance of facing the roots by using arguments?