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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)


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