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.