The Benefits And Perils of Institutionalizing An Art Form, The Importance Of Commercial Music

Jazz EducationHello, good morning, and welcome to the Saturday morning news post!

My apologies for yet another late post this week. I’ve been trying to write these things earlier but inevitably the first draft kinda sucks and I have to scrap it. My SMNP readers deserve better damnit!…all 9 of you.

As some of you know, I’m a hypocrite when it comes to the subject of jazz education, I’ve often questioned its legitimacy and yet here I am, working away at another degree in music. Well folks, I’ve had a change of heart and it all began in a most unlikely place,…my jazz pedagogy class.

First, allow me to backtrack and explain my position. In general, I’ve followed the party line of most professional jazz musicians that “You can’t teach jazz in a classroom.” (Ironically most of these musicians have studied in University).

Then, take that opinion and add the cynicism that comes with 10 years or more of struggling to make ends meet as a degree-holding, professional jazz musician, and you really start to question the validity of such a degree.

So quite honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to this pedagogy class on How to teach jazz? when, in my mind, a more important question seemed to be “Why teach jazz at all?”

Well, being a grad student at McGill University, and working with the great faculty and young punks students here has taught me something: It’s a precarious thing to preserve an art form through educational institutions but it’s a valid effort and jazz music is an art worth preserving.

Call it indoctrination if you like but here’s why jazz music can be taught at school, and why, these days at least, the school environment may be the best place for it to be taught!

To the argument “You can’t teach someone how to play jazz, they have to do the work themselves” I’d say… I couldn’t agree more, but, um… is it really that different for any other subject? Literature majors don’t just show up to class and then call it a day, they go home and read and read and read until they get it. Or look at it from another angle, do you have to enroll in University to learn about astrophysics? No. You could just get a library card, start reading, and you could get pretty far. In other words, no matter what the subject, it’s the student who has to do most of the work by themselves.

What makes jazz particularly suitable to be taught in school is that it’s an art which requires group interaction with other musicians, it requires a sort of community. And where else are you going to find that in 2009? Not in your local dance club I can assure you.

As for the “Why teach jazz at all?” question I asked earlier? Because it really is an amazing art form (even if I don’t like 90% of the jazz music I hear today, there’s still 10% that’s incredible), and because it’s a uniquely expressive, transient, and beautiful music. But the best reason to teach this music is: there are students who really want to learn and so far, I’ve heard some very talented young students here who are open-minded and excited to discover this music.

And now,… the perils:

Can jazz education go horribly wrong sometimes? Oh yes it can! And this is the precarious side of preserving an art form in schools: that by codifying it and teaching it on mass, you can sterilize the life out of it.

Another danger of institutionalizing any art form is the insulated pursuit of “high art” exclusively. This is especially true for jazz music, which from its earliest inception was a functional form of music, it was meant to express individuality, to entertain, to communicate, and often to get people dancing. It wasn’t until Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie started playing Bebop in the early 1940s that jazz began to distance itself from this functionality, but remember: All of our “jazz legends” who went on to establish jazz as “high-art” came from this background of functional music. From Charlie Parker to Miles Davis to John Coltrane, they all began their careers playing “commercial” music with dance bands.

Look at jazz’ spiritual guru, John Coltrane, he had to “walk the bar” playing R&B in strip clubs to make a buck. Did I ever have to do that? Absolutely not! I had the privilege to consider myself a “serious” jazz artiste, a privilege won for me by people like Coltrane and Miles. Do you really think those commercial experiences didn’t inform the way the greats communicated with an audience? That’s why we know their names and why we study them, yes, they were incredible musicians but they hold a place in history because of the number of people they reached with their artistry. The essence of commercial success was ingrained in the fabric of their art.

So picture this: a student typically begins their jazz studies with Bebop (remember, that’s the 1st form of non-commercial jazz), trains for 4 years in an academic environment, then, they could go straight to graduate school to further their studies of modern jazz (and Jazz Pedagogy of course) and then straight to a college job teaching jazz to more students.

Ta-Da!! The circle is complete! 100% insulated and no “commercial” involvement in jazz,… Hooray!

Anyways, I’m happy to say this isn’t the case with the faculty at McGill University. The teachers I’ve had the opportunity to learn from so far all have a lot of professional experience, and they all “get it”, and by “get it” I mean they’re all very aware of these benefits and perils mentioned.

If there’s one thing my jazz pedagogy course has taught me, it’s that it’s really hard to teach this music! To do your job as an educator without infringing on a students individuality and personal expression, to codify a musical language without sterilizing it.

And so, in conclusion…

Can you bestow “soul” on a student? Can you communicate the meaning of the blues in words? Can the grit and beauty of all the “wrong notes” in jazz be communicated in school at all?

Of course not. These things can’t really be communicated anywhere or by any other means than simply living it. Living it, and then expressing that life experience.

So what then, does a degree in jazz performance provide? The tools and knowledge for these students to take with them into their creative lives/careers so that they may express there own stories somewhere down the road, hopefully communicating some real element of humanity to their listeners.

I for one, am realizing that that’s a very worthwhile education for a student to receive.

Thanks for reading and see you next Saturday!

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