Jazz Education: The Next Generation, Part 1

Jazz Education: The Next Generation, Part 1
Karl Ackermann By

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How can one justify the serious discussion on the college level, of a subject which…makes an art out of vulgarity? —Harry Allen Feldman
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 Boys—essentially an orphanage—where 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.

The solution came in the form of West Virginia's college bands. With names like The Campus Nighthawks, the Dixie Blue Devils and Chappie Willet's Campus Revelers, these school organizations took an erudite and thoughtful approach to their training of musicians and to producing the highest quality in performances. Often recruiting formally educated conductors and arrangers, even from local high schools, these bands began to emerge, playing in schools, churches and outdoors. For all involved parties, the dedication to learning the music and mastering instrumentation was tenacious and it became the centerpiece of social life in these communities. With few outlets for publicity they relied on word-of-mouth and handouts and drew large groups. The school bands were so popular in the mining communities that they transcended the segregation that was entrenched in local housing, bringing the black and European immigrant communities together.

Formal music education in Europe and parts of Asia had been widely implemented long before the United States added such programs and those U.S. programs did not typically reflect popular music trends or hands-on instrumental instruction. There were exceptions. Notably, the predominantly black Tuskegee University, founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington. Among the many famous alumni of the school was Teddy Wilson, an uncompromising swing pianist who recorded with Armstrong as early as 1933. He later teamed with Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa and was an instrumental figure in the racial integration of popular music. A resilient performer, his long career saw partnerships that ran from Ella Fitzgerald in the 1930s to recording Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz with Guest Teddy Wilson (Concord Records, 1978). The latter is of particular interest in that the intermittent conversations with McPartland—a regular feature of her Piano Jazz series, includes Wilson talking about his learning process. Wilson also taught at Julliard in the 1940s and 1950s.

By the 1960s there were more than two-dozen colleges that featured jazz bands and the number grew exponentially through the decade. A benchmark in the growth of college jazz programs came with the introduction of the Stan Kenton Band Clinic at Indiana University in 1959. The summer program was the first of what would become a jazz camp movement in the U.S. fueled by the branching out of teachers launching their own programs in geographically dispersed institutions.


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