A Protracted Beginning
Ken Prouty, an assistant professor of Musicology and Jazz Studies at Michigan State University and author of Knowing Jazz: Community, Pedagogy, and Canon in the Information Age
(University Press of Mississippi, 2013) has written at length about the early history of jazz education in the US. In his writings, he has pointed to the period from the advent of U.S. jazz and into the 1940s, as one where written records regarding formal jazz training was negligible.
Prouty accentuates that "Even into the 1960s, as jazz was becoming more accepted in society at large, many in the academy would employ this same kind of rhetoric in justifying the exclusion of jazz from the curriculum. As [music educator] Harry Allen Feldman writes... 'who can deny the close relationship between jazz and delinquency... how can one justify the serious discussion on the college level, of a subject which...makes an art out of vulgarity?'" Feldman, like others in the larger music world at that time, was a classical elitist with a somewhat hysterical view of jazz.
More than most academic disciplines, the concept of being self-taught was seen as beneficial and/or essential among the jazz musician population, while being either scorned or ignored in the academic world. Whatever the case, for most jazz musicians, economic, geographic or other accessibility issues, made an academic path a less likely option in the first decades of jazz in the U.S. Near the end of the 1940s jazz curriculums had been instituted in what was later to become the University of North Texas and Boston's Schillinger House, later renamed as Berklee. These were exceptions and it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s, that the U.S. saw sizable development in college and university jazz programs.
There were, of course, alternatives to a purely jazz-oriented education. In the early days of modern jazz, school band programs, correspondence courses and technical high schools filled a void in jazz education. In 1911 Louis Armstrong
was a resident of what was then called the New Orleans Colored Waifs Home for Boysessentially an orphanagewhere he first learned to play cornet. His contemporary, Bix Beiderbecke
, taught himself to play by ear. In later years Chet Baker
, Miles Davis
and Thelonius Monk
all began their musical experiences in local churches but refined their skills through very different channels. Baker went on to play in an Army band at the age of sixteen; Davis studied at the Juilliard School of Music while Monk honed his talent as the house pianist at Minton's in Harlem. Henry Threadgill
first performed as a percussionist in his high-school marching band. Benny Carter
was self-taught and, similarly, Muhal Richard Abrams
quickly left music classes at Roosevelt University to teach himself to play.
In remote rural areas and/or socio-economically challenged parts of the country, the choices for formal music education were even more limited. Beginning in the 1920s, territory bands were mid-sized ensembles that staked out particular geographic areas, bringing a mix of dance and big band jazz to venues like VFW halls and Elks lodges. Typically consisting of up to a dozen musicians, these groups would book anywhere from one night to a week in a town and move on to be replaced by another territory band. But in the most inaccessible areas of the country, this was not an ideal option. Lack of access and appropriate venues were countered by a proliferation of radios playing big band jazz, and communities that sorely wanted that form of recreation as a respite from six-day work weeks filled with natural dangers. In the book Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942
author Christopher Wilkinson relates the story of coal mining towns throughout that State's panhandle. Though poor by pre-Great Depression standards, these towns were relatively well-off in comparison to even bigger cities during the worst of the economic collapse. They had the means and the willingness to patronize the musicians if not the logistics to host them.