Will Budget Cuts Hurt Jazz Education's Swing in the USA?


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Though economic indicators suggest we are slowly emerging from the Great Recession here in the United States, repercussions could echo through the jazz world for a generation. The past five or so years of extreme cuts to public school budgets—especially the arts programs— could mean a dearth of well-trained, young musicians.

"I am seeing students arrive proficient only in the basic instruments," said trombonist Chris Washburne, director of the jazz performance program at Columbia University. "Finding a well-trained trombone player, for example, is darn near impossible."

"Delighted to hear it isn't just us," said drummer Carl Allen, director of the jazz studies program at Juilliard. "We're certainly seeing the same problem."

Washburne, speaking during a recent panel discussion about the future of jazz studies at Columbia, spoke of the shortage he sees of well-prepared musicians applying to college programs. Increasingly, he says, incoming students have solid foundations only in the most popular instruments, typically piano or trumpet.

The situation didn't occur overnight and certainly no one has suggested a lack of talent or interest among young musicians. What the college programs are witnessing, many educators believe, are the consequences of increasingly tight budgets that have left music programs in tatters and young musicians unprepared.

"The sad irony is that the urban schools have all but embraced a return to 1950 factory-like schooling and sold out to standardized testing and killed the arts," says Dr. Jere Hochman, a school superintendent and past president of the Minority Student Achievement Network, a coalition of multiracial school districts committed to closing the academic achievement gap. "Suburban schools get very little state funding and local taxpayers see their taxes going out of the roof. So, public school funding takes a significant hit and the low hanging fruit has already been cut. What's left? The arts!"

Those families who can afford to do so provide private music lessons, said Hochman, a solution that is creating a "musical achievement gap." At the college level, jazz programs have been forced to adapt. For example, Juilliard has held supplemental auditions for trombone players for the last three years. To provide enrolled students with a wide range of experiences, Allen said the school draws upon guest musicians.

"This has served me well," said trombonist Aaron J Johnson, a PhD candidate at Columbia. "I have played in the bands of at least four college-level programs because there were not enough 'bone players."

Trumpeter Sean Jones, Mack Avenue recording artist and professor of jazz studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, says he sees a different facet of the problem. A private Catholic college, Duquesne draws its students largely from the suburban high schools. While Jones is certain there are talented young musicians, he doesn't see them pursuing careers in jazz performance. The tendency among students from the more affluent families, he said, is to pursue the business side of music rather than performance.

"There's a stigma that they won't make any money," said Jones.

The history of jazz is woven with tales of resilience, of course. With this current dilemma, some report glimmers of hope.

"I also see more community-based programs nurturing the young musicians again, older musicians helping the younger musicians along," observed Allen. "This is very important to carry on the aural tradition of this music. This is a 'social music' and we must stress the importance of how it's passed down."

Encouraging, of course, but the return to a tradition brings with it a caveat and an opportunity to improve upon some of the old ways. As Johnson observed, the college programs have helped open doors that had been stubbornly held shut before.

"I have been made aware that the college system, being somewhat institutionalized and formal, has the effect of creating access to jazz for women, that the informal bandstand networks have not historically done very well," said Johnson.

The final outcome remains to be written. Years of coping with a harsh economy could reshape the music or merely become a footnote in the history. Reflecting upon the current challenges, saxophonist Gary Bartz, spoke with the perspective of one whose career has spanned decades. Though Bartz is a Juilliard graduate, he said he isn't concerned.

"[Saxophonist John Coltrane didn't go to college," Bartz said. "Many of the greats didn't. Remember, universities can train musicians but they can't create an artist."

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