The State of Jazz Education
Since those early days when I had fallen in love with jazz, my brother and I had dreamed of one day moving to New York City, the utopia where we had been told jazz was still alive and thriving. We believed in the world described by Wynton Marsalis and the lifestyle he portrayed in Sweet Swing Blues on the Road: A Year with Wynton Marsalis and His Septet. I owned at least 500 jazz CDs, was an A student, excelled on my instrument, and did everything right by the expectations our society places on students. The jazz press told my generation the apprentice system had been replaced by colleges.
My brother and I had a complicated childhood (which I will not divulge for the sake of certain family members) but, as a result, a few of my close family members ended up using the money for our education on other debts and told us, the July before showing up to New School that fall, that we would need to find another way to finance the balance of our college bills on our own. Though I still lacked the remaining portion of my college bills, the New School made it easy for me to get the loans I needed to make up the difference. It was never explained to me by The New School how student loans worked when I blindly signed; it was as simple as "get a cosigner and you sign here." I had arrived in New York and started down my path and career in jazz.
I look back on my first years in New York City fondly, but they were not without their troubles. Not having the financial support of parents, my brother and I chose to starve instead of getting day jobs; we lived off of two bowls of rice a day so that we could practice 12 hours a day and chase this "Jazz Dream." We made that decision willingly and I don't regret it. I grew musically and intellectually, and developed personal and musical relationships that have survived to this day. Within the walls of New School I felt camaraderie with my classmates; getting "vibed" for not knowing some obscure standard at 3AM at a jam session, however, was an eye-opener. I never understood the almost militant group of jazz fundamentalists that believed playing standards would somehow draw new young listeners to jazz.
I had chosen The New School because it gave me the most freedom to choose my own path, to avoid the trap of the tradition as the sole direction in jazz. I studied with Reggie Workman, who stressed "turning the page" and gave me my first real gig as a member of his group Ashanti's Message, towards the end of my sophomore year. This experience will always be one of the biggest honors of my career. Unfortunately, one thing I realized during my time at the New School was that jazz was not quite as alive as I imagined it would be. As students, we worked mostly for free or for "the experience." When I finally played at The Blue Note (one of the most well known clubs in the city) for the first time, the musicians walked away with less than $200 dollars per musician for a single night. By the time I had left New School, I had paid around $60,000 for my four-year degreea steal by today's standards.
Enter NYU: As a disclaimer, I'd like to say I am not here to drag anyone's name or reputation through the mud, so for the purposes of this article I will call the head of NYU Jazz at the time I attended "Fred." Fred had known my brother and I from The New School, where he was a teacher before getting the job of running NYU Jazz. My brother and I, having each invested $60,000 into jazz education already, and knew a Bachelor's Degree was worthless due to over-saturation of college graduates in the field. Fred wanted us to attend NYU in its Master's Degree program. We never even had to audition.