School For Cool

David A. Orthmann By

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School For Cool: The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity
Eitan Y. Wilf
268 pages
ISBN: #978-0-226-12519-0
The University of Chicago Press

Anthropologist/trumpeter Eitan Y. Wilf's School for Cool is an ethnographic study of institutionalized creativity in two highly regarded academic jazz programs: the Berklee College of Music and the New School. Influenced by the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and political science, as well as by interviews with students, faculty, and administrators, Wilf doesn't offer a simple, easily recognizable point of view, and studiously avoids making facile judgments about the practices and the quality of jazz education in the academy. From convocation ceremonies at Berklee, to rigorous classroom training, to extracurricular musical games that students' devise and play outside of the colleges—it's all grist for the author's ideas and theories. Wilf raises a lot of provocative issues to which there are no straightforward resolutions. Nothing is as it seems; everything is subject to change and further scrutiny. These built-in uncertainties are part and parcel of Wilf's rigorous manner of examining the thorny, overlapping conflicts and contradictions of jazz education that will play a role in shaping the music's future.

At this point in time many jazz fans are aware of the traditional ways in which young players learned their craft and began to develop their own voices. Although the pay was often meager, the hours long, and the conditions less-than-ideal, for a fair portion of the twentieth century there was a considerable amount of work for aspiring jazz musicians in youth centers, bars, social clubs, theatres, and a variety of other urban venues. In addition to these all-important learning experiences, from which capable and ambitious players gradually moved into more musically challenging bands, older, experienced musicians were often willing to give advice and council. If a youngster was fortunate, he or she came into direct contact with a jazz master, or someone closely associated with one of the greats. Wilf argues that figures such as the late drummer Art Taylor were invaluable because they "understood jazz tunes not only in terms of abstract melodies and chord changes, but also as musical entities embedded in specific histories he himself had lived. Taylor could transmit this experience to neophyte musicians through stories and anecdotes about legendary performance situations, and notable recordings that are the building blocks of a tune's meaning." (3)

In the early years of academic jazz education, pioneering schools such as Berklee and North Texas State often functioned as another kind of training ground for jazz ensembles, large and small, major and minor. There's any number of stories of bandleaders arriving at these institutions and hiring the cream of the crop, sometimes even before the students graduated. Unfortunately, towards the latter part of the twentieth century, jazz lost nearly all of its popular appeal, and the work began to dry up. This reality continues to cast a huge shadow over the music and its practitioners. In recent decades, jazz has gained a degree of currency as "America's original art form," and reaps the benefits of some institutional funding. However, these life support systems can't begin to replace the mass audience of the music's golden era. The answers to the questions, Where do some jazz musicians find employment?, Where are young musicians trained?, And what serves as a limited replacement for the jazz scenes of yore?, all point in the direction of jazz programs in colleges and universities.

Before beginning to contrast the ways in which the pedagogy of college and university jazz programs differs from traditional methods, it's essential to grasp one of the fundamental tenets of Wilf's book, what he refers to as the "two faces of modernity." (8) One face of modernity is the increased rationalization of formal institutions, such as the modern school, "which promote rule-governed behavior and universal, predictable, decontextualized, and standardized knowledge," (8) as well as "the formalization of rules and action of cognitive schemata that all students ought to follow." (10) This aspect of modernity, as it applies to methods of jazz education in the academy, is a theme Wilf returns to time and time again.

The second face of modernity entails the "normative ideals of creative agency and expressivity," (p. 9) which is a product of Romanticism. In direct contrast to the rationalization and institutionalization of schooling, these ideals encompass "the demand that each and every one of us explore, discover, and follow our singular nature and voice." (10) Furthermore, this voice "cannot be known in advance and hence should not be trapped within and modeled according to external strictures." (10)

Inside of academic art programs, such as jazz studies, lies the irreconcilable conflict between the ideals of rationality and creative agency. In Wilf's view, this conflict, in all of its manifestations, is something that a serious study of institutionalized jazz pedagogy cannot lose sight of. He asks: How can artistic creativity, which is reliant on "one's unique inner nature and voice...be cultivated within the rational, bureaucratic, organizational structure of the university with its institutional paraphernalia of standardization such as curricula, syllabuses, and tests?" (12)

Wilf spends a good deal of the book explaining the pitfalls of jazz education in the academy. However, he doesn't paint a monolithic, defeatist portrait of the pedagogy in these institutions. On the contrary, Wilf posits a constant struggle of forces in which the limitations of certain practices are usually offset by others. He takes great care in outlining various strategies devised by administrators, faculty, and students to keep rational, rule governed methods from vanquishing creative, individualistic ways of learning, thereby enabling many young musicians—despite the lack of extracurricular playing opportunities—to gain a foothold in the jazz performance tradition.

In its most extreme form, jazz education creates a subject who is theoretically astute and technically proficient, yet unlikely to perform anything but rapid-fire clichés gleaned from an emphasis on the visual—namely, print pedagogy such as method books and blackboard exercises—rather than the aural. The breaking down of improvisational skills into many discrete, component topics doesn't necessarily translate into the ability to interact with other musicians in actual performance situations. Learning is structured to the point "where the different aspects of knowledge students acquire become ever more abstract and disconnected from one another." (92) For example, Wilf cites one Berklee instructor who claims that "I know so many students that pass ear training and they [have] so much work to do with their ears because they didn't even conceive of using their ears and their horn together." (94)

In institutions such as Berklee and the New School, students are primarily taught by a class of professional educators "who gained most of their performance experience and training in academic jazz education rather than through prolonged apprenticeship with the past masters." (89) In order to validate their expertise, as well as buttress the institution's authority, some of these faculty will resort to claiming that recorded improvisations of jazz masters are aligned with the curriculum's theoretical constructs—particularly, in the case of Berklee, chord-scale theory—even though the "past jazz masters for the most part, created their masterpieces irrespective of contemporary academic jazz education's expert knowledge." (142)

Wilf contrasts an overemphasis on theory in the academy to the self-determined learning and application of theory of storied jazz musicians. He quotes the ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson: "To become one's own theorist—to have one's own concept that in turn leads to the expression of one's own voice—was among the highest aesthetic ideals of the art form. To become an improviser at this high level was to become aesthetically self-determining in a world in which other forms of self-determination or agency were more easily frustrated." (158)

Perhaps even more important, in Wilf's estimation, is that the academy's theoretical overload often runs contrary to "other key principles of jazz aesthetics." (144) Using the example of Berklee's well-documented emphasis on chord-scale theory, students become obsessed with finding scales that fit into individual chords. By treating chords as disparate entities to be stuffed with combinations of the "right" notes, they lose sight of things like referencing the form or melody of an individual song, spontaneously reacting to the contributions of fellow band members, or utilizing "the playing of past players (through stylistic decisions and 'quoting')." (146) A frequent result of this narrow focus is improvisations that lack an overall sense of development and any distinct, idiosyncratic qualities.

The learned patterns that result from a highly theoretical foundation which emphasizes the visual instead of aural often become standardized and "incorporated in students' playing bodies." (164) "They are not thinking of things to play," claims one Berklee guest clinician. "They are just hoping that their fingers will bring them to a nice place." (167) The lack of "editorial considerations" (168) during an improvisation is another major factor in the dearth of individuality among students trained in these programs, to the point in which players with the beginnings of their own voice are exceptions to the rule.

In Wilf's experience, administrators and teachers are fully cognizant of the limitations of rational, rule-governed pedagogy, the vast artistic distance between students and the major figures of the jazz tradition, and the challenges brought about by a lack of playing opportunities. So at every turn they devise ways to make the educational experience more creative, meaningful, and in tune with the music's storied past. Administrators seek out and hire veteran musicians who have played with major jazz bandleaders. Not unlike the previous example of Art Taylor, these players reign in the diverse mass of theoretical material by utilizing practices based in real experience, as well as schooling their young charges in the ups and downs of a life in jazz. Most importantly, administrators assume that the knowledge possessed by these venerable musicians "has the potential to mitigate the standardization...and modernization of jazz and thus to revitalize contemporary jazz education and infuse the classroom with jazz's past charismatic vitality." (88)

While the professional, career oriented jazz faculty members usually aren't a part of the tradition that is venerated by a jazz studies program, they too devise methods to counteract the rational ways of learning and "'contagious' standardization." (169) One technique entails the use of advanced media technologies, such as a software program called "The Amazing Slow Downer," to transcribe classic jazz solos, as the first step in memorizing and eventually playing these solos in class. Wilf argues that this practice is not mere imitation, but rather a way of inhabiting the masters "creative faculty as it unfolds in the moment, thus ritually replicating the creative act itself." (129) Moreover, he reminds us that "replication, repetition, and quotation have been part of the cultural logic of jazz from its very beginning." (133)

Another strategy initiated by faculty addresses the issue of the standardized, mechanistic patterns that are seemingly ingrained in students' bodies. The idea is to disrupt and reconfigure habits in order to encourage the ear to guide the fingers, discover novel ideas in real time, as well as listen to and interact with other musicians. Wlif observed one professor telling a guitarist to reproduce rhythms on a drum. (181) Discouraged by a pianist's inability to come up with any original melodic ideas, another educator instructed the student to "improvise only with the thumb and the little finger of his right hand. This significantly limited the student's habituated mode of playing and created more space in his playing to think about each individual note played." (183)

Some of Wilf's most emotionally cogent writing describes the games that he and his fellow Berklee students devised to sharpen their listening skills and to place themselves inside some the major works of the Great American Songbook and the jazz canon. He emphasizes that these games are an extension of the creative aspects of their training in the classroom. One game entails the attempt of Wilf and one of his peers to whistle the exact pitch of a car horn, which turns into a disagreement that requires asking the driver to blow the horn once again as a means of identifying the elusive pitch. (189-190) In another instance he describes walking home with fellow students where one comments on the moon, and the others respond by naming and then singing songs which contain the word "moon" in the title. (211) Upon leaving a fellow student's apartment one night, one of Wilf's peers says to him, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," the name of Charles Mingus' classic tribute to Lester Young. (212) Years later, the memory of that moment is something that influences Wilf every time he plays the song. (219)

Although academic jazz programs are populated by many musicians who seek to inhabit the jazz performance tradition, particularly as it applies to music produced from the 1940s through the 1960s, Wilf acknowledges the presence of those who regard a strict adherence to these practices as an obstacle to making contemporary improvised music. The words of one New School student raises the question of the relevance of jazz studies programs for individuals who intend to stake their claim in the present, not the past. "It's not fair to expect me to know all of these standards. For these guys [the past jazz masters], it was part of the culture. It was in the air; it was the popular music of the day. But this is not my culture, man. It's not today's culture anymore. No one knows any standards...I don't want to play museum music. I don't care about Wynton [Marsalis]...I want to play my music through the influence of the tradition. I don't want to play the tradition." (214)

The prospect of any number of restless, open minded musicians entering jazz studies programs, learning basic vocabulary and skill sets, and then leaving prior to earning a degree to pursue their own thing, looms large near the end of Wilf's volume—even though it's not explicitly stated. School For Cool is a significant work of jazz scholarship that examines, analyzes and leaves a thicket of conflicts and contradictions which resist any end point or resolution. It's a fitting tribute to a music that refuses to sit still and politely meet the expectations of those who wish to define it in limited, constricted, (and perhaps nostalgic) terms.


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