How Teachers can Swing in the Classroom

Douglas Groothuis BY

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I am a jazz aficionado as well as a philosophy professor. Being in front of a classroom teaching is my favorite place on earth, second to a good jazz club with hip friends. In the midst of a philosophy class, I may wax enthusiastic about the transcendent qualities of a John Coltrane saxophone solo or the preternatural swing of Buddy Rich's timekeeping or the song-writing and band-leading genius of Duke Ellington. These comments are not merely idiosyncratic. They reflect something of a philosophical theory of pedagogy that is steeped in jazz sensibilities. After over thirty years of teaching philosophy in a variety of settings, I have come to realize that my manner of pedagogy has developed in ways that reflect the sensibilities and philosophy of jazz. This has much to do with my long-time love of jazz: the music, the history, the culture, and the players. The classroom should swing; students and their professor should spend time in the woodshed; the class will jam on philosophical themes deeply rooted in tradition, but be open to new chops. Some of my students learn these terms, incorporate them into their vocabulary, and start using them in relation to whatever subject we are addressing—and not just about jazz.

What is Jazz?

It is difficult to fit jazz into a tight analytical definition in which necessary and sufficient conditions are stipulated (as much as the analytic philosopher in me craves this). The feeling of jazz is not easily corralled into a definition. As Louis Armstrong said, "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know." Jazz has rightly been called "America's classical music," but that is more of a title than a description. Eschewing precision let me say that jazz is known for at least three salient and laudatory features, all of which translate fruitfully into a philosophy of pedagogy for philosophers (and others).

Mastering a Tradition

First, jazz works from and creatively appropriates a revered and rich tradition, the origins of which are not entirely clear and are matter of scholarly dispute. The call-and-response patterns of African slave songs and spirituals are evident in the ensemble creativity of jazz, for example. It is a musical dialogue. But jazz critic Stanley Crouch claims that indigenous African music does not swing. Swing possesses a certain glide or lightness to its rhythmic propulsion that is lacking in other rhythmic patterns. However, Duke Ellington composed a piece called "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that swing," which has become a jazz standard and an encapsulation of what jazz is. But "swing" can transcend musical form to mean anything that embodies the deepest elements of jazz, such as improvisation and syncopation. Whatever jazz's genesis, a jazz musician must master the jazz tradition in order to perform this demanding but delightful music. If you listen to the conversations between jazz pianist Marian McPartland and her musician guests on NPR's "Piano Jazz," you will understand this. Crouch also writes that you hear the entire history of the jazz saxophone in the playing of Charles Lloyd. To some extent this is true, mutatis mutandis, for any great jazz instrumentalist or vocalist. Every jazz musician must sit at the feet of the great bands and the virtuoso performers. To learn from such a varied and luxuriant tradition requires extensive study and practice. Jazz musicians speak of this as "time in the woodshed." The angular, odd, and complex structures of many of pianist Thelonious Monk's compositions sent Monk and his band mates into the woodshed for extended periods of time. When John Coltrane joined Monk's band for a few months, he developed a deeper musical sensibility, given the rigor of the music. He said that "Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order." Coltrane, throughout his career, was so fiercely dedicated to practicing that he would often fall asleep with his saxophone; he would practice fingering when he was not in a situation where he could blow; and even sometimes practiced backstage while his band was playing without him.

Philosophy is rooted in a far longer line of tradition, reaching back to the Greek Presocratics and to the Wisdom literature of the Bible (such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). As such, it demands of its disciples a lifetime "in the woodshed" where they aspire to master its arguments, its historical development, and its applications to all manner of life. The exemplary professor of philosophy (or of any other discipline) immerses himself in that history and finds inspiration from its virtuosi. When one studies what the best philosophical minds have thought about the perennial philosophical themes of the good, the true, and the beautiful, these philosophers become living and talkative residents in the soul. These ideas and arguments are, thus, not static pieces of information. These cats just keep blowing! Teaching classic ideas year after year is never boring if one engages them as philosophical "standards," to use the jazz idiom for the received repertoire that jazzmen must master. These are treasures to which one repeatedly returns afresh. A philosophy professor who knows and savors the tradition can become a philosophical virus, infecting students with a like passion. Just as in a spirited jazz performance, each musician finds inspiration from the others, the classroom may become the stage for an intellectually sparkling and surprising dialogue.

Although I have taught Kant's epistemology for many years, I must return to the woodshed every time I teach it in order to reacquaint myself with this demanding work and to envision novel ways in which to make it clear to students encountering these jaw-dropping ideas for the first time. I also attempt to expose Kant's philosophical clams (a jazz term for musical missteps), such as his rejection of the ontological argument. Time in this woodshed often yields surprises. Just as a jazz musician may deepen his playing unexpectedly after years of performing—as John Coltrane dramatically did from around 1962 to 1965—a philosopher may return to a classic argument and discover something entirely new. After being skeptical of the ontological argument for God's existence for many years, about a decade ago I came under its metaphysical spell—and while teaching introduction to philosophy, no less. I now enthusiastically present the various versions of the argument to my sometimes bewildered students, who are assigned a chapter I wrote on the topic.

The Will to Create

Second, jazz is, at its best, highly creative in composition and in performance. Although jazz virtuosi are steeped in tradition, they must find their own voice in order to perpetuate that tradition in new forms—that is, to refract jazz through the prisms of their own unique personalities. Finding that voice requires moving from imitation to creation. Basic techniques must become second nature—the fingering of a saxophone, the strokes on the drums, embouchure for reeds and brass—but the artistic voice moves beyond technique and imitation. Jazz musicians must invent their own chops—a term invented by Louis Armstrong that refers to the musician's distinctive performing abilities. Drummer Art Blakey mastered a chop so distinctive it became eponymous. According to the Impulse Records web page, "Blakey developed a press roll so exquisitely forceful and so unmistakably his that drum manuals give it a formal name, "the Blakey Press Roll." And few, if any, can match it.

Philosophy professors likewise need creativity rooted in studious routines if they are going to stimulate their students to pursue the truth through reason over a lifetime. Just as jazz musicians need to learn their scales in order to use them as building blocks for their own style, so philosophers and their students require a common vocabulary with which to speak. This tradition is not a museum to visit, but rather a deep well from which to draw ideas for the ongoing dialectic. This kind of interactive discourse is the analogue to the call-and-response element of jazz. By engaging this tradition actively, both professor and students begin to find their intellectual voices. As in jazz, some philosophical chops become so distinctive they become eponymous, such as "Plato's Cave," "Frankfurt counter-examples" or "Pascal's wager" or Searle's "Chinese room." Neither I nor my students may ever have philosophical chops named after us; nonetheless, a serious engagement in philosophy immerses on in this stream of ideas.


Third, jazz is, according to the master jazz writer Whitney Balliett, "the sound of surprise." A well-played piece of jazz music—even the most well-known standard—summons new ideas from jazz performers. The well-known need not be the well-worn, since the musical form—tied to the discipline of the musicians—can always yield something fresh and inspiring—or disastrous. There are no guaranteed results. This "sound of surprise" flows from the inherently improvisational nature of jazz, which requires the creativity of both the individual soloist and the ensemble as a unit. The difference between the two types of improvisation is vanishingly small if not artificial in a tight jazz group, since each musician is so highly attuned to the playing of the other musicians. A jazz musician who listens to and responds appropriately to fellow musicians is said to have big ears. Drummer Elvin Jones claimed that he and the other members of the classic John Coltrane Quartet (Coltrane accompanied by Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums, 1961-65) performed nearly telepathically, given their ability to anticipate, complement, and inspire each other musically. Sheet music was not necessary, since so much had been imprinted on their collective soul. The individual and group improvisation of jazz makes jazz an aesthetic high wire act—and one without a net. True jazz is never canned or routinized, as is "smooth jazz" (as with the abysmal Kenny G). Jazz performers compose in public. Jazz critic, Ted Gioia, calls jazz improvisation "the imperfect art" in a book of the same name. Things can go wrong at these high altitudes and there are no parachutes. One may be in for a rough ride on the unpredictable currents of creativity. Yet the possibilities are enticing and elevating. A book by Eric Nisenson, which is dedicated to the improvisational artistry of saxophonist Sonny Rollins, is appropriately entitled Open Sky. Even jazz musicians less known for their improvisational prowess may stun audiences and even themselves in moments of spontaneity, as did tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves when he soloed for twenty-seven choruses during "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. After this epiphany, Gonsalvas claimed the role of a key soloist in the Ellington unit.

Philosophy in the classroom should allow for and encourage the kind of serendipity celebrated by jazz. The professor (rooted in the tradition) along with the students (who are more recently initiated into the tradition) work to comprehend the great ideas in a structured but also free collaboration. With enough woodshed time, the toughest concepts and arguments can be performed winningly through lecture, discussion, and testing. The class readings become the musical score, the professor is the band leader, and the students learn to play the score and improvise on it. The professor needs big ears to read the students' responses and to inspire them to jam hard on the chord changes (that is, concepts). The whole (students and professor) is greater than the sum of the parts, just as in jazz. And if "don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

When the chemistry is right, I generate new ideas and experiment before the students. Thinking aloud in public is an intellectual performance. Students do it as well. They sometimes surprise me with their chops. I then try—in the spirit of jazz—to let them take ideas in new directions. A few years ago, a student in my introduction to philosophy class raised an earnest question about the relationship between faith and reason that triggered an unplanned and very fruitful discussion. This kind of improvisation can be exhilarating; it can also fall flat. Yet even then, rescue is possible, as in jazz. Pianist Herbie Hancock said he once played the wrong note while in a highly improving band lead by trumpet master, Miles Davis. However, Hancock reported that Davis responded by playing a note that made Hancock's mistake "right." Many times while leading a free-flowing but focused discussion on a philosophical theme, a student will offer something out of tune. But when at my best, I can find something worthwhile in the comment or take it into a more fruitful direction. In the realm of studied risk lies the promise of new flights into "the open sky" of rational argument. The idea of jazz pedagogy came to me while jamming in a lecture, and I have been in the woodshed with it ever since.

Swinging in the Classroom

There are many more chops to develop and traditions to fathom and appropriate in order to draw out the connections between the artistry of jazz and the artistry of the philosopher's professorial pedagogy. But if we attend to the jazz sensibilities of mastering and extending a tradition through a strong work ethic; if we labor to find our own philosophical and pedagogical voices; and if we savor "the sound of surprise," we will be well on our way to swinging in the classroom—and beyond.

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