Modernity in Jazz Education

John Robert Brown

In the trade of dressmaking or tailoring, the craft, the techniques, are timeless. Sewing a hem, fixing a lining, stitching a buttonhole or aligning a fabric pattern are all traditional skills that can be taught. There's a right way, and a wrong way. How to assess the gauge of a sweater, or the thread count of a dress shirt, can be learned. An experienced tailor can pass on these skills to an apprentice. Such skills endure: they are unlikely to change with time or with fashion. And they provide a living for those who master them.

The garment trade also has elements that come and go. Yes, a white cotton shirt is timeless. Yes, cashmere is seasonless. But leather cargo pants, or white shoes, came - and went. Such trends cannot be taught or anticipated. You had to be around at the time to understand them. The fashionable inevitably reacts to what went before, usually calls on traditional skills, and is best understood in context.

The parallels with jazz education are clear. First come information and skills. Fashion follows. A musician enrols on an undergraduate jazz course to learn his craft, to acquire appropriate skills and techniques. To be able to sight-read a new score, to understand the function of secondary dominants or hemiola, to appreciate the difference between range and tessitura - these are the jazz equivalents of stitching a buttonhole or aligning a fabric pattern. If our young musician is learning his craft properly, he'll also memorise some standard tunes, write a few scores and hear them played, maybe learn who Johnny Mince and Ellis Larkins were, be able to make a critical evaluation of George Russell's theories, acquire an appreciation of Jamey Aebersold's methods, know what a tag, a sunshine middle or a shirt-tail ending are, receive some instruction in business administration, and perhaps master the spelling of 'rhythm' and 'anacrusis'! Studying in a supportive musical environment, with experienced, competent teachers who play, saves time. Top British jazz saxophonist Alan Barnes says that studying on a formal jazz course saved him ten years.

But can such a course bring one up to date, turn out fashionable players, make one hip? Of course not. By the time that tutors have analysed, assimilated and taught what's happening today, tomorrow has arrived. Fashion waits for no man. To keep up to date takes time that could be better used developing basic skills. The contemporary scene is important, but it can't be properly understood unless one knows what drove things to be the way they are.

What is possible at undergraduate level is to develop fundamental skills and give a broad, general, view of the past. To invoke another analogy, when one enrols on an information technology course to learn how to operate a PC, one doesn't need to know what's happening in the Google research labs, neither does one need to be up to speed with plasma display technology. A broad overview is sufficient. The same applies to jazz education.

In the USA, jazz education began in earnest after the Second World War. Britain didn't offer jazz courses until the mid-sixties. I know, because I helped pioneer what was called the Jazz and Light Music Course at Leeds, an FE course, which opened in 1966, not long after the first jazz course in Europe opened at the University of Graz in Austria.

Watching the evolution of jazz teaching methods was instructive. Many of the full-time lecturers were untrained and unqualified, nearly all being excellent players who were thoughtful and articulate about what they did and how they did it. Their results speak for themselves.

The surprising experience was to witnesses workshops given by great players of the time. Derek Bailey, Bud Freeman, Thad Jones, Barney Kessel, Bob Moses, Evan Parker, George Russell, Dick Wellstood, Bobby Wellins, Kai Winding, and many others, came to give classes. Yes, all were enthusiastic. Yes, most were great at demonstrating what they did. But many struggled to explain how they did it. Demonstration isn't teaching. The less helpful teachers taught the style in which they excelled, the music that came easily to them, the music that they liked. That was good as far as it went, but frequently it wasn't very far, and usually not outside the historical period between 1945 and 1967 - which, regrettably, is where most jazz education seems to hover. Frequently I was reminded of maths wizards, who can't understand how lesser mortals struggle with calculus or trigonometrical functions, and therefore make lousy teachers.

Of course, some visiting lecturers were brilliant. Loren Schoenberg, Daryl Sherman and Jerry Coker come to mind as being outstanding. Each was pleasant, patient, skilful, encouraging, a professional working musician, but - significantly - each had good historical knowledge, and none was over-consumed by fashion, by modernity.

From a decade ago I remember a young drum student who was utterly consumed by jazz fashion, always putting style before skill, always sneering at tradition, always preaching modernity. One day, his wise old tutor warned him: "If you carry on like this, you'll never become a pro. You'll wind up as the hippest bricklayer in Wakefield!"

Although I keep up with the career progress of former students, I never see his name mentioned. Could his tutor have been right? And, if he has become a bricklayer, does he value traditional skills?

This article first appeared in Music Teacher, June 2006. Used by kind permission.
Updated and maintained by: routeToWeb