America's Been Tough On Jazz
Only in America, it seems, would we have a hit TV show entitled "American Idol". Maybe it's asking too much for a series called American Talent which could showcase the vocally and instrumentally gifted performing original (jazz or other stylistic) compositions rather than feature a plethora of karaoke king and queen wannabes. In Jon Bonne's article from MSNBC.com entitled "The Downside of 'Idol,' he claims,"'Idol,' is desperate to maintain its stage smile and jazz hands. It vainly sticks its chin up and never let's us see it sweat. It is the culmination of decades of bland, cynical corporate entertainment." The show, for the most part, largely features music and artists that lack risk-taking, adventure or a differencethe essentials in making great jazz or any kind of music for that matter. If idol equals image and image equals icon (in the most pejorative sense of the word) as it does so prevalently throughout the US, the fate of the jazzman in this country is in serious trouble. We know that Miles made various funky fashion statements throughout his career, Dizzy had the coolest looking chops around, and Coltrane was Cosmic, but, in the end it was what came from their horns, heads and hearts that will be remembered miles beyond.
It's been said that America's been great at inventing and reinventing itself and from a technological standpoint who can argue? We are the models of mass-materialism and the masters of massiveness. Jazz is an American invention that has stood the test of time and like other popular American inventions namely baseball, football and basketball, it should be held in high esteem and perpetually and popularly celebrated. Author Burton W. Peretti in his book entitled, Jazz In American Culture expresses concern about America's respect for jazz music as he states that "Jazz itself has been proclaimed as one of our "national treasures," but if one considers record sales and the amount of true prestige it secures in our nation's music departments, American's collective commitment to this proclaimed status remains suspect." Maybe not so ironically jazz is and has been lauded consistently in a very big way in Europe (especially in Italy, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and France) where the people have always cultivated culture. Saxophonist Dave Leibman in his article entitled "Europe - Its Role In Jazz" says that George Wein (founder of the Newport and JVC Jazz Festivals) once told him: "If it weren't for Europe, there would be no jazz!" America's a tough crowd indeed.
Jazz education in America, however, has been growing consistently strong especially after World War II where many enlisted service musicians on the G.I. Bill could receive higher education. From the 1940s up to the present time, institutions such as the Berklee School of Music, University of Miami, and North Texas State, were and still are, perhaps the most prominent and dominant forces in providing a greater opportunity for the theoretical (compositional and arranging) and instrumental (improvisational and jazz big band/combo) study of jazz music. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz's "Jazz Resource Library" section at their online website informs us that the NAJE's (National Association of Jazz Education) initial membership of less than 100 in 1968, has evolved to over 8,000 members in over 31 countries in its current status as the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Education). The website also proudly asserts that there are currently more than 120 bona fide jazz programs in American colleges and universities where students can major in jazz studies. Most middle and high schools throughout the country have established successful jazz ensemble programs.
The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz has piloted its "Jazz in America: The National Jazz Curriculum" which is an internet-based curriculum that is free of charge throughout America and is available to public school students from 5th through 11th grades. The curriculum also includes free lesson plans that can be integrated with any American History or social studies courses emphasizing its place in the great culture and democratic freedoms of this country. It is important to note here that these lesson plans can be easily implemented by the regular classroom Social Studies/American History teacher having a limited or no musical background. This has provided and hopefully will continue to provide a rich resource for both the general music and performance-based (instrumental and choral) music teachers by which they can introduce their students to and explore the monumental contributions of America's great jazz composers and performers.
Jazz is no longer solely America's music. Mike Zwerin, noted jazz critic and author states that, "the future of the music (jazz) is growing out more than up... it is getting everywhere. There appear to be no more Coltranes on the horizon... on the other hand you can now go to just about any city in the developed world and hear a world-class rhythm section." It is seemingly just as important for jazz music in order to keep evolving rather than devolving to continue experimenting and challenging the established forms - not be content to "snooze to 'smooth' (jazz)". Jazz guitar great, Jim Hall, optimistically notes about the future of jazz when asked by author Nat Hentoff, "How can it be (moribund)? The spirit of this music ain't going to die unless the world blows up." Howard Mandel, author of the book Future Jazz echoes Hall's sentiments in an interview from Jazz Weekly, "People want to devote themselves to it because they believe in the culture itself. They believe in its standards and they like the music. I don't see it going away."
While jazz education seems to be thriving and well established throughout America's public and private institutions, it too, like the art form itselfmust be on the movenever allowing itself to become complacent. Charlie Beale, professor of Jazz Piano at the Royal College of Music and Lead Jazz Consultant for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in his article entitled "Jazz Education: Past and Future" for the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) concurs with the above statement, "learners of jazz need to study in an environment where the several musical languages are given their due, but equally where a future jazz can grow and flourish, whatever its direction." It will take, as it has since its inception, individuals, both in the performing and educational industries, who are willing to be bold, different and original. Duke Ellington said years ago that "everybody who's had anything to say in this (jazz) musicall the way backhas been an individualist." That statement is as valid and meaningful today as it ever was and always will be in the world of jazz.