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Jazz Education In The Century Of Change: Beyond The Music

Jazz Education In The Century Of Change: Beyond  The Music
David Liebman By

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Question: What values does a jazz education offer beyond the music itself?

Artists have always had a supply and demand problem. Since time immemorial there have been more people with creative ideas than an audience to communicate them to, especially if the art demands more than a cursory attention span. In the current world of jazz education, the situation vis a vis graduating more and more of the most equipped musicians in history (every year more so) in stark contrast to the scarcity of paid performance and recording opportunities has assumed epic disproportion. To deny this would be like ignoring global warming. Serious educators are and should be concerned. Discussions on the subject are sometimes uncomfortable, but are nonetheless taking place worldwide. Notwithstanding that this situation might differ in degree from country to country or even regionally (all trends have their own natural ebb and flow), it is incumbent that responsible educators address this issue.

The standard response has traditionally been that it is not our responsibility to be concerned with the vocational aspects of an arts education. Our job is the transmission of knowledge, peripherally, if at all, addressing matters concerning the ramifications of making a living pursing one's art in the "real" world. This viewpoint does not hold up under scrutiny and is at the minimum a matter of principle and ethics, let alone economics if one considers the rising cost of a college education worldwide and the financial debt that a young person will be straddled with from the onset of their "real" life. Obviously, the situation in America vis a vis the cost of a college education is the most glaring and outrageous example of this part of the problem. Responsible educators should have something to offer these young men and women beyond cliches that is relevant and specific, at the least enumerating proven attributes of a jazz education that go beyond the music itself and will enrich their lives. Yes, Coltrane (and other artists) offer a high aesthetic and spiritual plane, but what about the here and now?

I think it is safe to assume that most students (and their teachers) would in a perfect world, choose to play and communicate their art while maintaining a steady financial basis. When I address my master's degree students at the Manhattan School of Music the first day of class I ask them point blank if they could have it their way, how many would rather contemplate questions of harmony, rhythm, etc., instead of having to deal with making a living, the most obvious route being teaching. The obvious response is unanimously 100% towards playing. This is after all what most of us dreamed of when we became enamored of jazz way before thoughts of a formal education surfaced. It's possible that on a case by case basis a certain measure of success may somehow occur to a gifted, deserving and fortunate individual. But for the majority of young aspiring students looking towards the future this scenario may not happen for reasons that are well documented (end of record business, venues closing, arts funding down, etc.)

What values and/or skills have our students learned through the study of music, of jazz specifically, that will be of use in the world and life they will most likely encounter? I have enumerated what I consider these core values to be using my personal concepts, all of which can easily be described in multiple ways.

BEYOND THE MUSIC

Jazz skill (learned): Spontaneous improvisation.

Life skill (transferred): The level of personal honesty that an individual brings to a playing situation is a given since there is nowhere to hide when improvising in the jazz tradition. Who you are and what you represent go beyond the here and now touching upon deep philosophical and spiritual aspects of being alive.

Key concept: Honesty.

Jazz skill: Soloing.

Life skill: Having the ability and attitude necessary to assume leadership, meaning to take charge when and if required; also to hand over leadership unconditionally when the situation calls for it.

Key concept: Leadership and follower abilities.

Jazz skill: Soloing as a "multitasking" activity.

Life skill: Dealing with a lot of information quickly; ability to integrate and synthesize information in a creative fashion.

Key concept: Clarity of thought.

Jazz skill: Learning from mentors.

Life skill: Being able to learn from older mentors by graciously accepting their wisdom as a vital part of the learning process. This implies suspension of judgment as to the immediate personal value of the material offered.

Key concept: Experiential learning.

Jazz skill: Participating in a group effort through ensemble collaboration.

Life skill: Maintaining an open and respectful attitude towards other group members by working with them as peers, regardless of age, gender, proficiency level, nationality, religion, race, etc. This infers that being better at a task does not mean personal superiority or the opposite.

Key concept: Mutual respect.

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