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Ghosts In The Machine, Part 5: Jazz Musicians And Popular Music

Ghosts In The Machine, Part 5: Jazz Musicians And Popular Music
Kurt Ellenberger By

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If you want to have a career as a professional musician, you should learn rudimentary jazz skills even if you’re not planning on becoming a jazz musician.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Part 5: Jazz in Academia

Jazz musicians have always been acutely aware of the "byproduct" of becoming proficient in jazz. Jazz training, even if rudimentary, provides the ability to master or at least become fluent in other styles in a short period of time. As detailed in the previous installments of this series, this skillset has allowed jazz musicians to function as musical chameleons successfully taking on a variety of roles in the lucrative pop music industry. As such, they have played a significant and indeed indispensable role in the development of popular music, making it more sophisticated and, in some cases, allowing it to overcome the temporal confines of the era in which it was created. In addition to this work—which takes place largely "behind the curtain"—jazz musicians have also been the nameless frontline foot soldiers providing live music for countless public and private events.

This is the way most jazz musicians make a living in music: not by playing jazz, but by using their jazz skills to work on all manner of "pickup" or "casual" work that provides a somewhat predictable income (if one lives in a major city) to help pay their bills and subsidize their jazz projects. Some jazz musicians, however, simply do not have the temperament or the personality required to perform as a "utility" player. Many jazz musicians, on the other hand, actually enjoy the never-ending challenges and variety that one finds in this type of work that, along with the monetary rewards, can also bring great satisfaction.

To state it bluntly, if you want to have a career as a professional musician, you should learn rudimentary jazz skills even if you're not planning on becoming a jazz musician. The evidence to support this is overwhelming and incontrovertible. To be fair, there are perhaps some jobs in music that don't require this kind of training, but they are becoming more and more scarce. As pop music and its devices continue to infiltrate other styles, these rudimentary jazz skills will become more and more of an expectation and eventually a requirement.

How has music education responded to this reality? Since the '70s, jazz programs have proliferated at both the high school and college levels, with most schools offering at least some opportunity for jazz studies and many offering undergraduate and graduate degrees. On the surface, it seems that the educational system has responded appropriately. That may have been the case in 1981, but there has been very little substantive change since the CD player was introduced and ushered in the digital age of music in 1982. Students who study music at the undergraduate level are still largely cordoned off in terms of curriculum in their various silos: classical performance, music education, and jazz performance. But they all study the same core courses: music theory, music history, private lessons, ensembles, and a handful of electives. For the most part, it is as if the clock stopped in 1950. As a result, the undergraduate curriculum in this country is sclerotic, archaic, and thus ineffective.

This is not just one perspective; it is also the opinion of a task force composed of prominent music educators from around the country who were charged by the College Music Society to study the undergraduate music curriculum and make recommendations for change. Here is an excerpt from the executive summary of their report entitled Transforming Music Study from its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors. [Full disclosure: The lead author of this report is my friend and colleague Ed Sarath, who teaches at the University of Michigan.]

In 2013, Patricia Shehan Campbell, President of the College Music Society, appointed a national task force to consider what it means to be an educated musician in the twenty-first century and, in turn, what recommendations may follow for progressive change in the undergraduate music major curriculum... Moreover, given the many challenges and opportunities facing professional musicians today, particularly in the classical music realm, the task force considered the role of musicians in public life and the ways in which the curriculum might better reflect relevant needs, qualities, knowledge, and skills. The creative and expressive dimensions of music have been progressing rapidly over the past several decades...Despite repeated calls for change to assure the relevance of curricular content and skill development to music outside the academy, the academy has remained isolated, resistant to change, and too frequently regressive rather than progressive in its approach to undergraduate education. While surface change has occurred to some extent through additive means (i.e., simply providing more courses, more requirements, and more elective opportunities), fundamental changes in priorities, values, perspectives, and implementation have not occurred.


Why has there been so little change in how musicians are educated? First, we should remember that until the '60s, anyone studying music in college was studying approximately 1,400 years of classical music along with the history of that music and its theoretical underpinnings. Then, these pushy street musicians who call their music "jazz" show up and want a seat at the academic table. They want their music, their history, and their theories to be accepted as equally deep and important as classical music. Needless to say, jazz was not welcomed into higher education with open arms. It was a hard-fought battle with political, aesthetic, and racial resistance—which jazz musicians in academia are still struggling with to this day. [In my own education, I saw this firsthand in college in 1980. On multiple occasions, while practicing jazz in a practice room, a professor loudly slammed the door to the hallway, angrily yelling at me, "We don't play that shit here!"]

There is an inherent resistance to change in the arts in academia that seems counterintuitive: artists are supposed to embrace change and innovation, right? It seems that after being ensconced in a tenure-track job, many become neoconservatives who see their role in higher education as a conservancy, preserving the classical repertoire by training subsequent generations of musicians to perform it and to revere it for its formidable accomplishments. This is not just a classical music issue. It appears to be an issue in all styles of music, including jazz, as those in positions of power attempt to stop the clock and bring the younger generations to heel by asserting a stylistic authority that had never been granted. It is, however, more than just an aesthetic issue. It is also about funding. Hiring a jazz saxophonist means that those resources are unavailable for other areas. Given all of this, it is easy to see why there is a bias against both jazz and pop music (the latest upstart to storm the academy) in higher education.

While jazz as an area of instrumental and scholarly studies is firmly seated in academia, the study of pop music is mostly limited to cultural studies. There are a few places in the United States that offer an undergraduate music degree in pop music. These degrees focus largely on songwriting, production and technology, and the music business. In Europe, the pop idiom appears to be more accepted in academia, where it is seen linked with jazz, as at the renowned Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, Germany.

Through curricular reforms, the faculty at these schools have acknowledged the reality of what is required to train a student for a career in music today. That reality has changed drastically in the last 50 years, and the curriculum at these schools reflects those changes. Unfortunately, at most schools in the United States, the curriculum has not been substantively revised to respond to the tectonic changes in the music industry. Some of the top-tier schools are beginning to make significant curricular changes. Harvard, for example, has taken the bold step of revising its curriculum to better reflect the needs of both students and faculty. Suzannah Clark, Chair of the Harvard Music Department, says that it is "a response to two things: one is the intellectual and academic climate of the study of music generally, but also the directions that our department has taken. This is a reflection of our faculty and a reflection of our current students. It's an organic move for the times, from both where the field is going generally but also where we are as faculty. It was really about brainstorming ways to reflect ourselves in the curriculum." The rest are stuck in a time warp, preparing students for imaginary careers in symphony orchestras that elude even the graduates of those elite institutions. What happens to the vast majority of music students graduating from the hundreds and hundreds of other university programs across the country?

As suggested by the College Music Society, the music curriculum in this country needs extensive revision. Traditional courses of study in the classical repertoire are indeed valuable for those students who want to pursue a career in classical music. But for many others, their interests lie elsewhere. Forcing students to study classical literature is pointless. Without the passion—not to mention the innate talent and self-discipline required— these students struggle through a degree that has little or no relevance to them. Traditional core courses in music theory and history are intellectual and scholarly areas of study that also require interest and passion from the students. Without both, they quickly devolve into the dubious exercise of putting dots on a page and writing soulless papers and analyses for a nonexistent audience.

We can do better. In the twenty-first century, a career in music requires a different kind of musicianship than it did in 1960. It is no longer a career focused on virtuosic musicianship, although a certain amount of skill is required for professional competency. Instead, it now requires each musician to create their own unique career, and that is exactly what the successful graduates are doing. The number of career possibilities is as varied as the individuals pursuing them, and they are all fueled by the limitless marketing and distribution available to anyone with access to a computer. There will always be a place for those seeking traditional careers as classical and jazz musicians, but these careers are very small in number. There are, however, many other careers in music available that do not require the ability to play a Beethoven concerto or "Giant Steps." They require the following:

Technical Proficiency

  • Advanced instrumental skills
  • Strong sight-reading ability
  • Rudimentary improvisatory skills

Aural Skills

  • Ability to identify melodies and chords by simply hearing them

Stylistic Flexibility

  • Ability to play many different styles fluently and convincingly, including rock, pop, country, Latin, Afro-Cuban, klezmer, waltz, and polka
  • Ability to hear an unfamiliar style, immediately imitate it, and quickly assimilate the style at a professional level

Rhythmic Repertoire

  • Ability to instantly recognize and perform a variety of sophisticated rhythmic and metric nuances including all jazz genres, all rock and pop genres, blues, gospel, soul, funk, R&B, Motown, traditional and contemporary Broadway, minimalism, and others

Collaborative and Contributory Musicianship and Improvisation

  • Ability to function in real time in an improvisatory manner to create music in response to audience or conductor/director requests and needs
  • Ability to regularly contribute musical ideas such as chord changes, new melodies, countermelodies, and changes in form
  • Ability to extemporaneously solve problems

Role Flexibility

  • Ability to play some rudimentary piano, keyboard, bass, or utility percussion if needed
  • Ability to function as leader without preparation
  • Ability to compose and arrange for standard instruments with rudimentary knowledge of instrument ranges and capabilities
  • Understanding of rudimentary recording processes and the ability to assist as co-producer, advisor, or co-composer
  • Ability to quickly recognize musical problems in an ensemble and provide solutions and instruction to other players

Broad Musical Knowledge Base

  • Understanding of common forms including blues, 32-bar song, and standard jazz and pop harmonic progressions
  • Working knowledge of common chord progressions in jazz, pop, rock, and other styles
  • Understanding of common musical devices like intros, outros, vamps, etc.
  • Understanding of common ensembles and the roles of each instrument in the different settings
I am sure this list is not complete, but it is a reasonable description of the skillset that jazz musicians acquire while learning to play jazz, particularly bebop. This skillset makes it possible for jazz musicians to flourish in the wide variety of musical settings and roles described in previous articles. The evidence is irrefutable: if you want to have a career in music, this is the skill set needed. Jazz training, at least at a rudimentary level, should be at the core of every university's music curriculum. Students will respond enthusiastically to this kind of training. It is music that they can relate to on some level, and it is engaging and interactive. It can easily be individualized and proceed in a myriad of stylistic directions depending on the student's interests and proclivities. It is collaborative, which also makes it an intimate social experience, while at the same time it is comprehensive and organic, teaching harmony, melody, rhythm, form, and even a bit of history in a seamless manner. As such, it is simultaneously both theoretical and applied. This stands in stark contrast to the current curricula in higher education, which is fragmented, disconnected, and impossibly archaic. We know it's broken, and we know how to fix it. It is time for a change. We owe it to the students, to the parents who shoulder the tuition, to ourselves, and to the integrity of our institutions of higher learning.

Special thanks to Wouter Turkenburg, whose essay on jazz as comprehensive musicianship (IASJ Newsletter, Winter 2016) prompted this series.

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