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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 1

Jazz Education -- Panacea or necessary evil?

by Marc Ch´┐Żnard / September 1, 2000

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Jazz music has always thrived on controversies. In fact, it was over half a century ago that bebop was attracting the scorn of the jazz establishment, and Louis Armstrong was expressing his contempt by calling it 'Chinese music.' In the early sixties, critics and fans were lashing out at John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy; one writer went so far as to brand their music 'anti-jazz.' Even now, traditionalists and innovators are still facing off with each other, aided and abetted by media pundits and music business promoters alike. In the shadows of this current 'neo-conservative' squabble, one more debate is kept simmering on the back burner, namely, the impact of jazz education on the development of jazz itself.

Most music schools, both here and in other Western countries, now have jazz as an integral part of their program. In fact, the last quarter century has seen a proliferation of these programs, so much so that there is an American-based international jazz educators' association with outreaches all over the Western Hemisphere, and beyond. With annual conventions on both sides of the Atlantic, there's no doubting the impact this has had on the dissemination of jazz music worldwide.

Despite such apparent vitality, the jazz market has shrunk to less than one percent of total record sales. Given that these institutions are now turning out more well-trained musicians than ever before, one wonders where all these aspiring professionals will find their audiences. Within music schools themselves, the expectations on students also differ greatly according to areas of studies. Jazz majors are called to study western classical music, while their classical counterparts are seldom required to study jazz.

From a pedagogical standpoint, universities actas research laboratories in all fields, music included. Because of this, musical faculties harbour countless contemporary music composers who can enjoy the relative security of composing with lofty artistic ideals, which they could never do if they had to earn their living by their creations alone.

In jazz programs, however, such rarefied experimentation is expunged from curricula, even frowned upon in certain institutions, and replaced with the tried and true recipes of past styles, and old masters who were mostly denied access to formal education in either jazz or classical music.

Consider jazz history for a moment: its most heralded figures found their own way not because of technical abilities but, rather, in spite of them. Indeed, the most creative players in jazz have been those who found ways around their limitations. That's why there was only one Lester Young, one Thelonious Monk, one Ed Blackwell.

There is no doubt that jazz education trains well-equipped technical performers, but it belatedly neglects the 'business of music' issue. And this is no less important in an area like jazz, where self-employment is the norm. How does one go about finding the ropes in a business of dubious characters? More specifically, how much does one ask for writing out an arrangement, what's a fair wage for a gig, or a recording date? What are the various financial support systems available, such as grants for composition, or touring grants?

In the past, jazz musicians lived hard lives from the very moment they stood up to play before others. Now, by training in the hallowed halls of academe, many are led to believe that a solid education will result in gainful employment. Welcome to the real world, kids. An education is fundamental to every human being, but it is not a de facto guarantee to making one's way in life. And, in music, this isn't even remotely guaranteed.


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