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 The jazz press told my generation the apprentice system had been replaced by colleges.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.
Around that time, the NYU Jazz program had begun hiring amazing faculty such as Chris Potter, Joe Lovano, Jean-Michel Pilc, Dafnis Prieto, Richard Bona, John Scofield, Andy Milne, and a litany of other great musicians. Fred believed the student talent level was low at NYU and the presence of my brother and I could help raise the bar. The catch was that there were no scholarships available. The price tag for NYU at that time was around $40,000/year. After explaining to Fred that we didn't want any more debt, he replied with the idea we could join the faculty. We agreed to attend NYU under the idea that joining the faculty would immediately help us start to pay back past student loans and, with the teaching experience on our résumés, we would have a brighter future and a greater chance of success.
However, that's not what happened. Neither of us got a single student until our second semester out of four total semesters for the program, and when we did finally start teaching, we had so few classes and students that we barely made enough to pay our rent let alone pay back our previous student loans. NYU was not an entirely bad experience. Musically, things were pretty good and I would go on to tour and perform with many of the musicians I studied with. I was one of the lucky ones, and this was not the case for the majority. Though I can be heard as part of the NYU big band on recordings, I was never paid to record because it was a "wonderful opportunity."
This idea of continuing to work for free was starting to get old. As far as I'm concerned, "wonderful opportunity" is a euphemism for "free labor." The day I graduated, my student ID stopped working electronically at NYU. The opportunity to teach was rescinded and that was the last time I would have health care. I was no longer a student; I had an educational debt valued at close to $150,000. Without the scholarships I had received, the price tag would have been closer to $250,000. No jazz degree is worth that much money. After having toured with all these wonderful musicians, playing in the best clubs in New York City and various parts of the world, I was bussing tables for two years, working 36 hours/week for around $300. I only finally stopped that job last summer.
I am sharing these stories as a warning. I want my children and future generations of Americans to have the opportunity to learn and chase their dreams, but as a community of adult Americans, we need to change the way students are being used for profit. Education is a business, and it seems to be the only one thriving in the current economy. All the knowledge in the world is useless if the educated are completely impoverished. I believe that education should be priced in relationship to expected income.
The education problem isn't limited to simply jazz education; the student loan crisis crosses all professional fields. Most people I know around my age have no credit and are racked with debt from college. However, in the midst of a recession The New School, like most colleges, will raise its tuition next fall. The tuition to go to New School alone, which is priced similarly to other music conservatories, is now approaching $40,000/year. At this rate, if a student goes to study jazz at a top school, they are looking to pay $160,000 in tuition for a Bachelor's degree that will do nothing to guarantee even a low standard of living. Even the few musicians that become very successful will not be able to make the extra $24,000 a year it would take to pay off that debt. Education costs continue to rise even in this economically difficult time. We cannot pass this problem off on future generations. Something needs to change now.
Stretch as a genre, music style, and movement will take time and patience to develop. As part of the Stretch Movement, the musicians that I associate with will dedicate ourselves to starting a Stretch University, which will offer an alternative to the educational system currently in place. I am dedicated to teaching through online universities, and we are currently formulating the blueprint for a Stretch University. As part of the Stretch Movement, I want to establish an online degree program where music students can learn from us in a financially healthy way. I can't in good conscious have a student pay so much to learn from me.
I want to give a teenager an option to avoid going into as much debt as I find myself in as a result of my jazz education. MIT is already pioneering a free online certificate that is merit-based. If an MIT professor gives a lecture online, that information is no less valuable than being in person. Here is a link to a New York Times piece, detailing MIT's humane approach to education. Jazz education needs to start establishing online schools before they start having to lay off faculty. Giving lessons online, students can download and re-watch lectures, then submit questions via email; the teacher can then respond via Skype or email. Technology will continue to change the ways in which we function in all areas of life. I believe technology will offer equal and affordable education as compared to the current system that is now exploiting each generation's desire to better their lives through education.
I understand student-to-student interaction is important. My ultimate dream is, through online teaching and submissions, that teachers would be able to invite standout students to New York City to partake in two years of free live education. With the first few years of college being online and affordable, it also allows students to not feel trapped by a decision they make as teenagers. Many music students might choose a different career path at some point down the line, but after two years, $80,000, and credits that won't transfer, the decision to change their life's direction is difficult for many students within the current system.
The Stretch Movement is about looking to the future and trying to change the way people experience instrumental music. Art and success are not enemies, and we are looking for a way to bridge that gap.
We are Stretch, All are Welcome.
[Special thanks to Jon Crowley, for his assistance in the creation of this article. The views represented in this article are the views of John Beaty alone.]