Thoughts on Jazz Education

This week, social media brought to my attention the following blog post by well-known pianist Ethan Iverson: I found it thought-provoking and, like any good piece about jazz, at least a little bit controversial. I won’t delve too far into Iverson’s rather matter-of-fact racial labeling of the titans of jazz music here, or his claim that some kind of propaganda campaign by the likes of Stan Kenton and Gary Burton is responsible for white musicians contributing unapologetically to an art form that has been receptive to individuals of all racial and ethnic backgrounds for a century. It is my own opinion that the gravest sins with regard to lack of appreciation of music of the African Diaspora and musicians of color are perpetrated by administrators in American higher education, who seem perfectly content to reduce that which does not reflect a Eurocentric worldview to second- or third-class status. To launch a subtle attack on those who have sought to raise the profile of jazz in academia, however imperfectly, strikes me as counterproductive. At any rate, these are conversations that would be better served outside of the blogosphere. I will point out that, in spite of Iverson’s contention that, “There was no such thing as institutional jazz education until the late 1950s, a time when modern jazz was comparatively popular in American society,” both Schillinger House (now Berklee College of Music) and North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) offered jazz studies opportunities beginning in the mid-to-late 1940s. This, along with vague claims such as those in the following passage, gives me the sense that Iverson is himself being as reductive as he accuses other jazz educators of being when they promote an approach to improvisation based on chord-scale relationships. In effect, he is criticizing the use of “short cuts” by taking short cuts. Iverson writes: “It’s folk music first, any technical information about scales exists only as an afterthought. Their notes are blues licks and bebop melodies. Bebop melodies are rarely purely scalar.” I will ignore the fact that here, as in the rest of his article, Iverson neglects the subject of rhythm entirely (except when attributing something he calls “emotional rhythm” to Freddie Hubbard), including in his transcription of Jeff Goldblum. Say what you want about his melodic construction - Goldblum does at least play with rhythmic variation, a trait that is presumably also lacking in the playing of the college students whose pitch source material so distresses Iverson. Also ignored are compositional techniques and logical development in improvisation. To be fair, more specificity might require writing an entire doctoral dissertation addressing the rhythmic and melodic content of great jazz soloists with an ear toward the development of ideas and construction of coherent, convincing improvisations. Fortunately, I did just that with the playing of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dexter Gordon in my paper Dexter Gordon’s Improvisation on ‘Second Balcony Jump’: An Examination of Musical Vocabulary and Stylistic Identity. As you can see below, I reached, in broad strokes, a very similar conclusion to the one espoused by Iverson.

Final Thoughts

The world today has no shortage of collegiate music programs[14] with jazz course offerings or degree programs.  The marketplace is saturated with books, software, and smartphone applications intended to make advancing as a jazz musician easier.  As with anything, in the hands of the right student, I am sure that many of these available programs and tools are very effective, but what happens to the other students?  Ken Prouty has tackled this question head-on:

At the highest levels, post-secondary jazz students perform at a level comparable to many professional jazz musicians, and students from such programs often find employment with professional musicians. More often, however, students emerging from such programs must make their own way in an increasingly competitive and economically challenging jazz scene. The numbers of students who graduate with degrees in jazz has become a point of concern for some critics and musicians, who see the jazz world as being glutted with young musicians with no real professional experience, and who perform in very codified, standardized ways.[15]

Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dexter Gordon were mere mortals who suffered from substance abuse problems and lived and died before the age of the Internet.  They did not have access to Jamey Aebersold’s play-along sets as aspiring musicians, let alone “iReal Pro.”  University jazz programs did not exist until they were all well into their careers.  How can this be?  All of the important information needed to answer this question is plainly evident in their playing, including the examples discussed in this paper.  They all developed levels of technique ranging from more than sufficient to breathtakingly virtuosic on their instruments.  They all were aware of, and emulated the playing of those who had come before.  They all cultivated the skill of developing musical ideas in real time at such a level that transcriptions of their playing reveal a deep level of compositional integrity.  They all played expressively, with convincingly authentic vibrato and inflection.  They all played with other great musicians, and they participated in jazz on a multigenerational level.  Of course, one of the reasons they were able to do all of these things so well is that, before recording technology effectively led to the near extinction of the public demand for live music, there was so much employment for musicians that the young ones learned their craft by working almost nightly in bands that were populated mostly by more seasoned veterans.

If one is to attempt to develop comparable mastery, then let us model ourselves after the masters, to paraphrase trumpeter Byron Stripling.  Let us listen discerningly, with an open mind, but critical ears, and be selective about what we take as inspiration.  Let us seek opportunities to play with and listen to those older and younger than ourselves.  Let us eschew any prescriptive approach to learning jazz improvisation that ignores structural coherence and expression.  Let us hear the evolution of the great soloists of jazz history as being on a continuum, rather than as conveniently partitioned into distinct eras.  This is to make the most positive use of the technology that, to a great degree, has helped shape our present situation.  In fact, the Internet can be an invaluable tool, but only if we know what we are looking for and can tell when we have found it.  Finally, let us recognize that repetition, humor, shared language, and interaction with the past, present, and future are all meaningful aspects of jazz musicianship at the highest level.  By passing on this priceless musical heritage to all young musicians who respond to its magic and beauty, we can assure that it will remain vital, productive and unique as America’s contribution to world culture.

[14] For more on the place of jazz in the university, see David Ake, Jazz Cultures (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Ken Prouty, Knowing Jazz: Community, Pedagogy, and Canon in the Information Age (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012).

[15] Prouty, Knowing Jazz, 46.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions below. Thanks for reading!

Nikola TomicComment