Can Jazz Educate More Than Classical?

Can Jazz Educate More Than Classical?

I was reading an article in The New York Times about the International Association of Jazz Educators’ Conference that began taking place in New York last week. Thousands attended and dozens performed, from young beginning jazz students to top pros in the field to music aficionados not related to anyone on stage. So how is it that jazz has become the vehicle for the resurgence of robust music programs in the schools while classical music, and its offspring (arguably US) still find it a challenge to be seen as relevant to arts education in the United States?

Perhaps it is because jazz is an honest child of the arts in American culture and is taking back its true inheritance. Even though it is much younger than classical music, its roots are more deep and real in our society. Classical music may have a longer and more traceable lineage, but it is still an import, one that arguably still has yet to move beyond its association with a Eurocentric affluent culture. Jazz on the other hand, is seen as an amalgam that crosses both economic and racial boundaries. It is a music that, whether true or not, is considered uniquely American in the way it incorporates of a number of musical languages, including that of Western art music, into an original sound.

Or is it more pragmatic than that? As jazz has matured, its musical lexicon has begun to be codified, with its harmonies, rhythms and forms organized into its own pantheon of techniques and styles. This has enabled its traditional training to be shifted from that of mentor/apprentice to the band room and conservatory. Thus, its aficionados have gained both in numbers and academic prestige, which can account greatly for its ability to make inroads into the voids of music education in the United States.

However, as jazz becomes more mainstream, critics feel that in order for it to be palatable it has become pasteurized, often watering down what makes this vast musical language so amazing. Some jazz musicians feel that this has shut out composers that are at the fringe and vanguard of this style. To become accessible to music programs it is argued that it has marginalized itself into a narrow box that is not reflective of the full spectrum of the artistic voices active in the scene.

Ironically, the opposite can be said for that of music written by composers coming from the training of Western art music. While initially organized into a coherent set of accepted rules and procedures classical music has moved from being a lingua franca to being more of a Tower of Babel. It has become anything BUT classical. Indeed, there are now heated debates occurring in many collegiate music programs as what IS the needed training for composers of Western art music today. From performance art to computer music to chamber works, the styles and genres are now incalculable. Musicians have learned to integrate their various music backgrounds into the musical lexicon of the Western Canon. From jazz to Indian ragas to rock to electronica to ambient, new music has exploded into streams that defy any categorization heretofore seen in Classical New Music. Even though it is a European transplant, it now has evolved in this country into a unique voice that can arguably be called American as well.

However, in our growth outward, have we composers of new music spread our sights and ears so wide that we no longer hear each other, and thus, minimize our ability to be proponents for our work when it comes to music education? Why have we not found a way to solidify our myriad of voices in such a way that celebrates individuality, yet projects a unity needed to really make a difference in helping educators and students explore all streams of contemporary music in their curricula? How can we create real connections with real teachers and real students? Even with all the misgivings, jazz has made inroads, giving it the opportunity to spread from the classroom into the ears of listeners beyond schools. Yes, one may bemoan that jazz music is pasteurized. But, at least it is digestible, and available to eat. That at least gives students an appetite to taste it more. The heritage of classical music has not seriously offered even a menu.

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12 thoughts on “Can Jazz Educate More Than Classical?

  1. the people

    Belinda makes some interesting points, but jazz , in reality, has little to no impact on modern American culture.
    Jazz has become institutionalized music, celebrated in academia, while gifted jazz musicians can’t get a gig because there are no jobs. Jazz record
    sales constitute about 1 per cent of the marketplace. Other than a handful of big cities where there are still jazz clubs, the jazz scene has essentially disappeared in America. Jazz radio has been dead and gone for quite sometime. Only singers in the vein of Diana Krall, are getting pushed by the major labels. If you are the next John Coltrane, your recording career will never happen unless you put out your own cd. I once had a conversation with Alan Broadbent, the Grammy nominated jazz pianist who also arranges music for Diana Krall and acts as her music director. He told me it’s really impossible to earn a solid living as a jazz musician. What is the point of all these music schools?
    Though going to music school as a jazz major is a fabulous way to get technique, it has taken jazz away from the individual voice. That’s what makes jazz unique, the ability to improvise, to take someone else’s music and make it your own. It’s pretty depressing to think that jazz pianists are now GRADED!!!
    on things like playing the blues, FRIGHTENING.

    I don’t think that jazz education really is a role model for the classical music world. Without jobs for musicians to go to, jazz education, no matter how outstanding, is a failure.

  2. swellsort

    That says it, and heres more
    “the people” are absolutely right, although i do disagree about jazz being dead. But jazz has certainly become an institutionalized, prepackaged meal of sorts, where these schools churn out the same kinds of players on a regular basis. I work for a music festival in Southern Oregon, and this festival puts on a Jazz Summer Camp every year, which is aimed at high school aged jazzers. Last year, there was a group of about 5 or 6 students who were all excellent players, but I felt that not a single one of their ideas played in improvisation was their own. They played patterns and sequences and Charlie Parker licks, but never did they try to come up with something on their own. That is what made jazz so interesting; the players’ ability to create, on the spot, not reguritate what Jamey Abersold thinks is jazz.

    There are still “jazz” players around the world that still embody what jazz originally did though. People like Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahathappa, David Douglas and even the likes of Bela Fleck are very much doing creative and inventive things within the jazz idiom. So jazz isn’t dead persay, but it does appear that way when viewed from a career/monetary standpoint.

    As for jazz education, the one thing i see that is seriously lacking is true originality. It has become very much like the classical music education system in that it is very endoctrined. I strongly believe that the next wave of art music will come from the “new” music end, not from the already established schools of thought in jazz and classical music. Our ears and eyes are spread far, but only to try to see what is next on the horizon.

  3. the people

    Good commentary, swellsort. I don’t believe that jazz is dead, either, it’s just that it has disappeared from America’s musical mindset. Unless it’s Herbie Hancock doing an album with pop stars, or Wynton Marsalis talking to the press about Duke Ellington, when was the last
    time jazz was covered in the media?
    Jazz has disappeared from the street making it not dead, but MIA – missing in action. There will always be creative people who follow their hearts, like the excellent musicians you mentioned in your post. The tragedy, though, is that without some kind of a financial safety net, most people, who would love to play jazz professionally, ( and I’ve met lots of dedicated jazzers) take a different musical path simply because they have to be able to pay the rent.

  4. Scott W

    It’s funny, when I read this article the first thing that I thought of was posting something like what “the people” and “swellsort” posted. But now, after reading their posts, I find myself at a somewhat different standpoint.

    I don’t think that jazz is MIA in any sense really. Jazz stopped being America’s Pop music after the swing era – from be bop on it’s been pretty underground (granted, it’s probably dug itself deeper over time). So I do not feel like jazz is MIA at all: It has had “little to no impact on modern American culture” for around 60 or more years now.

    On the other hand, if by jazz you mean Swing Era and Be Bop and Hard Bop … then yes I would say that it is dead, or dying at least. How many people know the lyrics to Cole Porter’s “I Love You” or to “I Fall In Love Too Easily”? The playing of standards (while important to the institutionalized “jazz repertoire”) doesn’t MEAN anything to the vast majority of people under 55. Thank goodness players like Brad Mehldau and Geoffry Keezer are taking pop songs (radiohead, bjork, beatles) and making them into jazz songs.

    It’s also interesting to me that in Belinda’s article she seems to suggest that the jazz departments are doing better than the Classical ones in schools/conservatories. I’m both a jazz and classical major (performance in both) and I don’t feel like either one is doing a better job than the other. There are players and teachers that I like and don’t like, agree with and disagree with in both fields (for all intents and purposes), equally.

    And as a final thought (in response to ” don’t think that jazz education really is a role model for the classical music world. Without jobs for musicians to go to, jazz education, no matter how outstanding, is a failure.”), if the measure of success for a school department is how many jobs there are for students to get when they graduate, we better quit teaching music. I think that’s an unfair judgement to both ends (jazz and classical). There aren’t many orchestral jobs getting opened and there aren’t many full-time touring jazz bands, but plenty of musicians are making a living from playing both styles of music.

    As a student taking classes in both idioms, I think that both the jazz and classical departments can learn how to teach better from each other.

  5. the people

    Scott W. hit the nail on the head when he stated that jazz lost its popularity with the decline of the swing era. Dizzy Gillespie stated that jazz ceased to be a dominant force in American music when it was no longer something you could dance to and I don’t disagree with him.
    Like Scott W. I have studied both jazz and classical music in college and obviously it certainly helps to advance as a player if one has a great teacher. But, like in all departments, whether it’s chemistry or clarinet 101, there are great teachers and then there are the others- from almost great to plain awful.
    It’s a real problem when you end up with the wrong teacher – I don’t wish that on anyone!

    ANd Scott W. is right that it’s not only the jazz department, but also the classical music department that gives students degrees that do not translate into jobs.

    There was a very depressing article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the plight of classical musicians in St. Louis who are not members of the St. Louis Symphony. These talented musicians needed to get office jobs in order to survive and trying to make 25 thousand
    dollars a year as a musician was an enormous struggle. And most of these music jobs were in teaching, not performance.

    In Hollywood, there has been an ENORMOUS outcry against the fact that every college and university on the planet now has a film school and THERE ARE NO JOBS IN HOLLYWOOD! I know of art directors who have major film credits who have not worked in 10 years because of runaway production to Canada etc . and because fewer films are being made today.

    Professionals in Hollywood feel it is a sin to educate all these students when 95 per cent of them will never have any kind of solid career in the entertainment industry. They think these schools are simply taking all this money and ripping off parents and their kids. Private colleges are now over 40 thousand dollars a year, times 4, that is one hundred and sixty thousand dollars to get a degree. HORRIFYING! It is a very much talked about subject – my husband works for a major movie studio and many people who work in the industry think that parents are INSANE to send their kids to film school!

    I have heard little outcry about music schools – do you think all these schools
    should be handing out all these music degrees when much of the music world is desperately struggling to stay afloat.
    What does everyone think?

  6. swellsort

    Measure of Success
    I think that it depends on how you are measuring success. If you are speaking monetarily, then yes, going to study virtually any art is akin to say, working at 7-11 for the rest of your life. But there are other ways to succeed in life, like reaching people, and doing something that you truly love and care about. Personally, I’d rather be happy and poor than unhappy and rich. But I am getting a little off subject

    Musicians making a living as performers alone is a fairly recent phenomenon. Before the advent of radio, recording media and television, musicians had to perform, teach, write, arrange and critique in order to make a living. So I don’t see it as such a bad thing that these musicians in St. Louis had to teach to make a living. And I currently have an office job to keep myself afloat. But I am not done with my schooling either, and I intend to teach when I am done with schooling, on top of performing and composing and whatever else I can think of that involves my skills as a musician. In a specialist society, it is good to diversify.

    Are “the people” from St. Louis? As I have mentioned, I work for a music festival in Southern Oregon, and each year, we put on summer music camps. One of the camps is for strings, and the faculty at that camp are from U of M in St. Louis. They are the Arianna Quartet; do you know them? Just curious. They are good examples of musicians that have “diversified their portfolio,” so to speak. They teach at UMSL, they teach privately, they perform regularly (and are one of the best string quartets I have seen!), and they teach at summer camps such as this one. So just because you aren’t a member of a major orchestra or a touring jazz group, it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed as a musician.

  7. philmusic

    Jazz or classical –its the teacher who makes the difference in the classroom. Perhaps higher quality jazz musicians are entering music education programs. Perhaps they don’t feel the same kind of stigma that classical musicians do when they become education majors. Perhaps like “avis” the jazzers just try harder. Perhaps its simply that if we all take classical music for granted so does everyone else.

    Phil’s page

  8. dirigenter

    I totally agree with swellsort. As a classical music student who is also trying to build a career, I have come to realize that diversifying is the key to success and have endeavored (sp?) to become the best musican I can while adding related skills to that package. For all I know one of my “other jobs” may end up being the one that makes the most money for me or makes me the happiest. I think the problem with most music schools as they currently are (classical or jazz) is that they don’t prepare students for that reality. As for the problem of there aren’t any jobs, well, many, many people don’t end up in the job they went to college for. College is as much about learning what you are good at as much as grooming yourself for your “dream job.”

    As for the article, I don’t agree that jazz has any deeper roots in our society than classical music. But kids do generally get more excited about jazz music than classical, and jazz is old enough now that it can be talked about in a serious way. Therefore, it should be no surprise that it is attaining a significant place in music education programs.

  9. JKG

    Serious jazz…
    Considering the ease with which most jazz is written to communicate with an audience, it stands to reason it is far more of a meaningful expression than a lot of modern, mannerist music. Even some pop and world music today is far more progressive and interesting than much tripe offered up in the name of originality. As long as musicians work to reach an audience in terms the audience understands, there will always be a need for music. Everything else will just shrivel up and die.

  10. vujohns

    As a 30 year veteran “urban” junior high (gr.7 and 8) public school music teacher I have determined that traditional 8th grade concert band music does not promote a natural tendency to practice….jazz, latin, and big band swing, does. More than half of my students are of color, unlike the suburbs that are mostly white. For this community, jazz is a grass roots curriculum in which a new generation of jazz musicians can be developed…and its audience base. That is if the community agressively uses this information to its best interest.
    Using the areas (union) jazz musicians, write grants for public school masterclasses. From research, I do know that the only form of arts partnership that report succes, is a master class strategy in which the parent community views a transfer of a useful skill to a young musician. The community bonds.
    Use jazz partnerships in public schools to re-establish a new audience for jazz. And, how about someone writting some new tunes that hit the top 10 ten? To do this, the audience must be able to “hum” the melody on the way out of the venue.
    Common folks, rather than considering all the walls, lets jump over them. The weather is right for jazz education.

  11. ollielollie

    A view from across the pond
    I find it intriguing to read a very American-oriented bias to jazz. In Britain, as in Europe, there is a new energy evolving. Jazz has got beyond being worried about if it’s dead, smells funny or whatever. Colleges over here are stronger than ever. while the teachers are mindful of “pasteurization” by getting in visitors for workshops with bold ideas and enthusiasm. Innovators such as Evan Parker, Django Bates and Uri Caine are welcomed by professors and students alike for masterclasses and are mobbed at clubs when they show their willingness to communicate. Jazz here has a great inclusiveness in its approach: musicians are happy to try and integrate African, folk or whatever idioms into their playing. I have seen the most moving workshops where young children aged 6 and 7 are clapping out African high life or Brazilian samba rhythms in minutes due to the enthusiasm of jazz-oriented teachers.

    Jazzers are also trying to get round the problems of a music world which perhaps still lives in the past in thinking that there is no way that the music can survive. As iconoclastic guitarist Billy Jenkins has explained to me, “Jazz is in a permanent recession.” Jazz musicians are determined and just get on with it.

    There’s a great sense of self-help in that they are just going out and setting up little clubs themselves. I am involved in a small club in London called the Vortex, and that is surviving and thriving. Those involved go in with their eyes open to the pitfalls and just keep being creative. If an album becomes a great commercial success it’s a bonus or accident. Jazz is also a music of integrity, a value not to be underestimated in the world that we are in today.

  12. Joe Morris

    It’s not exactly right to assume that there is only one way that jazz is being taught in colleges and conservatories, regardless of what the IAJE suggests. Or that the generic version of jazz reflects the true nature of the art form at any time in it’s existence, including now.

    Obviously, the codified version only allows for the education of what has been done, what has been codified, what is considered valid by the academy and what is understood by the academics. That version helps to teach students what jazz has been, how to perform those things, and how to interpret that material. It does not define the current state of the art or suggest that the art is codified.

    Like the new jazz of today, all jazz music of the past that is worthy of study was considered “outside” of what was acceptable. That constant quest for expansion and innovation generated the work that is now taught as the “correct” way to play jazz. That quest for innovation continues in the music and in the teaching of the music anyway.

    As a performer, and an educator, I am in contact with many musicians and students who are investigatiing cutting edge methods in their work and seeking to perpetuate the constant redefinition of Jazz. I am also able to teach methods that are traditionally considered not valid by most institutions, and with great results. I know other teachers who are expanding the ways to teach jazz beyond the most obvous ways. I think the codified method for teaching jazz works to some degree because jazz academics need to follow methods that are similar to those used to teach the performance of classical music ,in order to graduate students with a certifiable set of professional skills. That is not a bad thing, but it is not at all about expanding the art past what is obvious.

    Jazz has always developed out of view of most cultural institutions. Regardless of it’s current status with regard to education, or the ascension of some artists who might appear to reflect a new position of the art as a codified and therefore institutionally acceptable art, Jazz continues to grow and change exactly where is has always done so, underground and out of the approved view of most institutions.

    In short, I would say that jazz artists have always operated and continue to operate in the way you describe the Classical composers of today, open, searching, and free of institutional constraints but also without the benefit of institutional support.


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