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Wouter Turkenburg: Jazz Education in the New Millennium


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All About Jazz and Wouter Turkenburg would like to dedicate this interview to the memory of saxophonist Michael Brecker (1949-2007). In addition to his prodigious accomplishments as an instrumentalist and band leader, Brecker was an exceptional worldwide teacher and mentor, both by example and instruction in countless workshops and classes. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music and left a jazz legacy that will forever provide a role model and inspiration for students and aspiring musicians.

[This is the fifth of an All About Jazz series of interviews and articles on "The Many Faces of Jazz Today: Critical Dialogues" in which we explore the current state of jazz around the world with musicians, scholars, educators, and entrepreneurs who give us their own unique perspectives.]

Jazz education has changed radically since the days of hot jazz, swing, and bebop when musicians mostly learned jazz "on the street" by playing and talking with other musicians. Today, jazz schools and university departments abound, and most young players take extensive coursework and mentoring to jump-start their careers. Their studies are having a profound influence upon the music and the way in which the musicians pursue their careers. At the same time, jazz has become a global enterprise, and the digital age is changing everything. Serious musical education is the main way that musicians can keep up with all the changes that are taking place at breakneck clip.

Wouter Turkenburg is in a unique position to observe these changes. In 1989, he and saxophonist David Liebman co-founded the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ), and for nearly three decades they have been meeting jazz educators and musicians worldwide in dialogues about learning and teaching, A guitarist and musicologist, Turkenburg is long-time head of the jazz department of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands. Currently, he is also engaged in research on the historiography of the history of jazz in Europe. In this interview, he brings his unique combination of scholarly, historical, and hands on perspectives to help explain the role of jazz education today.]

All About Jazz: For a warmup, and to get to know you, tells us about your musical preferences, which is also important for our discussion. What are some of your favorite recordings that would you take to that desert island?

Wouter Turkenburg: I would definitely bring a record of Michael Brecker. I saw him perform with Steps Ahead in 1985, so I would take their record, Modern Times (Elektra/Asylum Records, 1984).That was a game changer for me. I'd take an early Charlie Parker recording. I really like the Charlie Parker recordings where the rhythm section still plays swing, and he's on top of his time, and you can hear him trying out all those new licks. I keep being impressed by Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). I love Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. Being a guitarist myself, I go for guitarists like Bill Frisell, John Scofield, and Pat Metheny. And singers should be on the list: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald. And a record by Keith Jarrett, one of his "Standards" trio-recordings on ECM. And pianist Aaron Parks' album, Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008), which I think is one of the most important recordings of the last decade.

From Classical Guitarist to Head of the Jazz Department at the Conservatory

AAJ: You trained as a classical guitarist, so how and when did you become interested in jazz?

WT: I came to jazz somewhat late in my musical development. I studied classical guitar, but I wanted to know more about music in general, so I went to the University of Amsterdam to study musicology. It was the late 1970s, and jazz wasn't a big part of the curriculum. But in order to pay for my studies, I got hired for a Dutch version of a Broadway musical called Masquerade. It was very funny, there were men in drag, and the orchestra consisted of jazz musicians. I earned good money for the gig, and during the sound check, we would play jazz, all the standards. They taught me how to improvise, and in turn I shared my advanced knowledge of chords and so on. I really enjoyed it, and as I was graduating, I bought a ticket for the North Sea Jazz Festival. Then I lost my ticket, but I called the box office, and somehow I got connected to the founder and director, Paul Acket. He didn't believe that I lost the ticket, but I insisted it was true. Then we both laughed, and he said, "OK Come to the box office and get your ticket. It will be waiting for you." Amazingly, it was a front row seat, and right in front of me were Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Branford Marsalis, and Wynton Marsalis. I still get goosebumps when I think about it. At that moment, I totally knew I had to be involved in jazz.

So I went to the head of the music department of the Music Lyceum in Amsterdam and asked her if I could form a jazz combo, and she said I could put out a notice to the students. I just wanted to start a quintet, but we had so many applicants that I had many good players, so I started a big band. So with very little experience, I started teaching jazz at the music school, and the big band still exists under the leadership of Peter Guidi who received a medal from the King of the Netherlands for training all these young musicians.

AAJ: When did you start that band?

WT: 1981 to 1982.

AAJ: So you've been playing and teaching jazz ever since then?

WT: Yes, and then in 1985, there was a management vacancy in the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague, and several guys from that band were studying there, and they asked me to apply to be head of the jazz department. I was the last person the professors would have considered for the position, but they ended up selecting me. So I've been Head of the Jazz Department at the Conservatory ever since.

As I was being considered for the position, I attended a festival in Nice, France where Michael Brecker was playing. After his performance, I went up to him and asked him about the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) he was playing. I asked him, "How many octaves does it have?" He said, "Are you a musician?" "Well, yes." So he explained to me all about it, and I invited him to come and do some workshops for the jazz department, which he said would be great. So I told the department I could get Michael Brecker to visit us, and I think that helped me get the job! Eventually, he did come, and for three days he worked intensively with the students. He was great!

Historical, Institutional, and Digital Periods in the Evolution of Jazz

AAJ: I think a good way to get into a conversation about jazz education would be to discuss your theory that the history of jazz can be divided into three phases: historical, institutional, and digital. Could you tell us a bit about those phases, and how they are related to both music and the educational process?

WT: That came out of my master's thesis. As James Lincoln Collier, the author of The Making of Jazz (Dell, 1979) has noted, between 1900 and 1977, there were several distinct periods of jazz that developed in layers, like the annual rings of a tree. That is what I call the "historical period." During that time, there were specific styles that changed every few years. I would call them New Orleans Style, Swing, Bebop, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz, Free Jazz, and Rock Jazz.Each one made the previous one seem "old school," although they all continued to have an influence.

After about 1977 on, you find that the musicians start to move more freely among the styles and use all of them. For example, with big bands, Maria Schneider takes a whole new look about composing for big bands. She and Jim McNeely come from what I call the Bob Brookmeyer school, but they are what I call "Neo Swing" or "new style." It incorporates all of the past, but it's something different to be taken on its own merit. It has bebop in it, but it's not the kind of bebop that, say, pianist Barry Harris plays. And Benny Green's "bebop" is not the same as Harris.'

The reason I call that period "institutional" is because you have the jazz schools, the festivals, the record labels, and the commercial and non-profit institutions dominating jazz. All approaches to jazz become acceptable, and jazz becomes "institutionalized" as a business and a musical genre.

AAJ: So during that institutional or "neo" period that started in the late 1970s, jazz music became eclectic and shaped by large commercial enterprises and, increasingly, schools of jazz.

WT: Yes. It also became more possible for a musician to get a jazz bachelors or masters degree, as it is called in Europe. And musicians started becoming professors at jazz schools because they knew so much. So, while in the historical period, you would be kicked out of school if you played jazz, now you can become a professor of jazz! You also have much more jazz research. And you have the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ). You have many teachers, books, research studies. Jazz has become institutionalized.

Someone like Wynton Marsalis was praised and blamed for his downplaying new developments beyond Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and other icons of jazz history. In the institutional period, with the exception of guys like Marsalis, the music of the historical period mostly became the source to be taken further rather than adhered to as the way to play. You could revamp any style of jazz to the way you would like to play it now. So when I helped plan festivals, we looked for a mixture of styles, like New Orleans, some bebop, and we'd make some room for free jazz. During the institutional period, the festivals attracted a lot of people by including many different styles.

The Digital Age and Jazz

AAJ: So the institutional period does not consist of a specific type of jazz, but borrows from and incorporates all of them, and allows for a lot of freedom in how musicians approach the music even within a particular format like bebop. So, moving forward in time, what happens now, in the digital age? We have millions of internet downloads, and even software-generated music. A Hollywood composer can write movie music for a large orchestra, and a computer will make an audio version for the film director to hear. A jazz musician can give an on line lesson to someone half-way around the world. I would assume digitalization and the internet have had a huge impact on all music in the New Millennium. So how do you see the digital phase evolving?

WT: In the institutional period, the future of jazz was in the past. For example, in the 1990s, there were so many re-issues of Thelonious Monk, Miles, Ellington, and so on, with alternate takes, stories about the recording sessions, and so on. People wanted to listen to the standards. You knew what you wanted, you heard it in the past, and you got it all in a neat package. But in the New Millennium, it gets harder and harder to put things in tidy and familiar categories. Just as Bach didn't know that he was playing "baroque" music -that concept came a hundred years after his death -with the internet, it's like a big wave of everything coming at us. We've just been through the first wave of it. It's like a big tsunami! It will change everything. Somewhere in the early 2000s, we see the launch of the I-phone, Facebook, YouTube, I-Tunes. Our whole lives are becoming digitalized. My newer students never use pen and paper anymore. They come to classes with their I-phones, tablets, and laptops! They're all digitalized. No more taking the time to write things down like you're going to have to remember it!

AAJ: What you're saying is that in the digital phase, everything in jazz will change, but it isn't clear yet in what way it will change.

WT: Yes, we have to wait and see what will happen. But there's one thing I see that has really changed in the last ten years. Until recently, the music schools and universities were the ultimate source of information about jazz and its history. The school libraries had the recordings, manuscripts, books, and so on. The professors had the experience, the memories, the skills, the knowledge. Now, the students have all that on their computers, and they bring that to the schools and say, what do we do with all this stuff? So the problem for the student and young musician is not how and where to get the information, but how to not be overwhelmed by everything they have at their fingertips. They have to find a direction, a path they can follow. They want to know what NOT to do, and what is the best possible step for them to take. That's a complete reversal from the past, when they came to school seeking teachers and mentors to acquire skills and knowledge that they already knew they wanted from listening and playing.

AAJ: How do you approach that problem of helping them make best use of what you call the tsunami of information and experience readily at hand?

WT: That is the main educational question in this digital period. It comes down to a dialogue. It used to be that you taught them a method, as they still often do in classical music training. Now, I tell my students that the only certainty is change. So I say to them that learning jazz is playing all of the music. I say, you don't know what you'll be playing five years from now, but if you really learn jazz, you can play any music you get turned on to. For example, my bass teacher Tony Overwater, who is in a band of pianist Rembrandt Frerichs, an alumni of my school, has formed a jazz band that is playing a combination of Arabic and jazz music! They're going on a tour of the five main cities in Iraq! They're filling halls of a couple of thousand people! While he was in school himself, he was completely into the music of Charles Mingus, David Murray, and those guys. He had to learn an entirely new style of playing. Rembrandt Frerichs studied mostly bebop, but now he's doing concerts where he improvises baroque music! So you don't know what you will end up playing in the future, but you have to be prepared for the unexpected. Pianist Wolfert Brederode and a few other alumni from my school are recording contemporary original music for the boundary-pushing ECM label, and touring the world. They couldn't have conceived of playing this new music a few years ago.

Instead of expecting to keep playing the music they're learning, the student musicians have to learn to use what they're studying and playing as tools they can apply to many other kinds of music.

AAJ: In the past, a musician might get interested in a certain approach, move to a city or join a band where that approach was being used, and do gigs with the guys who were doing it the best. Now, they're absorbing the entire scene, and then they have to find they're own path or role in the music that's being made at any time.

Is Creative Spontaneous Interaction Teachable in Jazz?

AAJ: I want to get your opinion about a complaint some top musicians have about jazz schools. They feel that the schools give the new musicians incredible knowledge and skills, but when they graduate, they still aren't steeped in the tradition, and they don't know how to find their own unique voice. They take classes, but they don't play as many gigs where they can experience the spontaneous interaction. They have no sense of how what they play comes out of the tradition and from within themselves. They are at sea about what their playing means historically and as creative expression. Some say you can't get any of that in a classroom. Do you agree with this assessment?

WT: That depends on the particular school. If the school is still steeped in the institutional period, where they are just pumping information into the students, these are not the better schools. In the historical period, the musician was left to his own devices. Miles Davis would advise them to "become a man," or something vague like that. The new guy had to wing it. That's not so good, either.

AAJ: But at that time, they learned from playing a lot.

WT: "In the street," so to speak. Now we at the International Association of Schools of Jazz realize that it has to be the other way around. Formal education is necessary for jazz today. So the question is, how can the schools also be part of the street again? How do we get back some of that interactive and spontaneous quality that you're talking about? That's very hard. The field has become so diversified, and it's become global. Jazz has so spread out, it has been so stretched. I can see that if you're 24 years old and starting out, you're lost! You know so much, but where do you go with it?

Here's how I dealt with that problem in my department. I renamed the department JAM -Jazz, Audience, and Media. The students have to learn: where am I in all this, what do I have to study, what do I have to communicate? For example, I ask them, who is in your audience? Do you communicate with them through your website, Facebook, and so on? Today, you have to create your own niche, you have to find your audience. Venues like nightclubs and festivals will only book you if you bring in people. The musician has to generate his own audience. The artist now has the responsibility to bring in the listeners. This is the reality of the digital age, and the musician has to adapt to it well. We have to teach them how to do that.

New Ways of Teaching and Learning Jazz

AAJ: What would be your utopian idea of the ideal jazz school for today's aspiring musicians?

WT: Well for one thing, the musician has to become extremely good at playing his instrument, developing his technique. Players like Wynton Marasalis raised technique to a very high level. That should happen in the bachelor's degree program. In addition, in the masters degree program, I try to push the idea of communication. How do you communicate on stage? Pat Methney came to our school and he said that the hardest thing in music is to monitor yourself on stage. You have to see yourself through the eyes of the audience.

AAJ: But many musicians say they have to go inward and focus on what they're playing, not adjust to the audience. The audience can be supportive, but it can also be a distraction.

WT: I disagree. I think the musician has to be aware of how to connect better to his audience. In her excellent book, Saying Something (University of Chicagao Press, 1996), Ingrid Monson discusses how musicians communicate when they perform: the musical interaction between the musicians, social interaction with the audience, and cultural interaction. You make a cultural statement by the way you play and interact. The musician has to be aware of all three.

My parents live near the village where Vincent Van Gogh painted. It used to be thought that van Gogh was a kind of madman who just poured himself into his painting, like a crazy jazz musician! New studies show that Van Gogh was highly organized about his painting. He had a clear idea of what he was aiming for artistically and knew that some day he would get there. Similarly, all the great jazz musicians know a lot about all these three levels of communication.

AAJ: I can't imagine a dedicated jazz musician like Bob Brookmeyer paying a lot of attention to an audience.

WT: In the 1990s, Bob Brookmeyer tried unsuccessfully to set up the World School of Jazz. I spent a lot of time talking with him about these things. He knew exactly what I was talking about. He knew how audiences work, how jazz fit in with the culture. He was fully aware of how to communicate with the other musicians, with the audience, and with the culture. He was aware of all three of Monson's criteria.

AAJ: Of course, from a business standpoint, or as a music scholar like Monson, you have to be aware of all these things. But when you're playing, your total focus has to be on the moment and the music.

WT: Again, I disagree. If you're really into the music, it connects you with the audience. The audience comes for the vibe and the groove, and they know when the music is really happening. The audience tells the musicians whether they are in that groove. They really influence how well the musicians play, and the musicians have to be aware of that.

Jazz Education in Different Countries and Cultures

AAJ: On another note, music is different in different cultures. Do you think teaching jazz in different countries, say South Africa as opposed to Japan, the U.S. or The Netherlands, should be standardized and the same everywhere, or should the teaching emerge from the specific culture and its musical heritage?

WT: That's an interesting question, and it's not so easy to answer. I think, as Wynton Marsalis and my friend, the Dutch drummer Eric Ineke say, all jazz everywhere should be based on swing and improvisation. There's something about jazz that's universal and lasts forever. That comes from the historical period. It's universal, and it's loved all over the world. Now each country has its own ways of relating to the jazz idiom. It has to do a lot with when jazz came to that country. During the Iron Curtain jazz was forbidden in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and now those countries have a different love-hate relationship with jazz than The Netherlands, where we've had jazz since the 1920s. So each country has its own history and its own relationship to jazz.

In the International Association of Schools of Jazz, I see that each country has its own approach. In Brazil, for example, there is the influence of bossa nova and samba rhythms. So the schools in each country teach jazz a little bit differently. Berklee now has established the Global Jazz Institute, and you can't imagine how diverse it is. All that is great, but it still has to be about swing and improvisation.

Improvising Life

AAJ: To take that diversity to its extreme, in a postmodern world, anything goes. There's no eternal truth, nothing really to hang your hat on educationally. In the sciences there are at least some principles and facts accepted by all the scientists. But in music and the arts, there are no longer sacred values and ideas that everyone accepts as valid. In a way, you have to fly by the seat of your pants. So what's the point of having a jazz school, when there's nothing consistent and true to teach?

WT: Let me put it this way. If all you teach is the historical period, the music of the past, then your teaching becomes a museum. That's not the way to teach jazz today. And then there are the "tranferabble skills," skills that you develop while learning how to play. My colleague Jari Perkiömäki and others have lectured at companies such as Nokia company about the "tranferable skills" in jazz: the jazz band as methaphor for running a company. In Berlin there are similar initiatives. Jazz can be applied anywhere in life.. They emphasize how the musicians interact with one another, that a mistake is not a mistake but can take someone in the band in a new direction. In the world of jazz, transferable skills are amazing, and jazz educators need to get that idea across to the world. Being able to improvise, to entertain, to have your own voice, to use mistakes to make something new, and so on can be extremely productive in many circumstances. There are other developments as well. My colleague Kurt Ellenberger is now developing the jazz model for all musicians, classical players included: good training, good skills, but very versatile, interactive, flexible. All musicians have to adapt to this digital age, the postmodern age.

AAJ: To sum up, given your experience teaching and leading jazz education programs, what guidance would you give to young, aspiring musicians in pursuing their careers?

WT: First, become very good at your instrument. Master the technique, sound, and so on. Listen to historical jazz as much as you can and absorb it into your own playing. Start asking yourself, "Who or what am I?" What do I have to contribute? What is my voice? Who do I want to connect with? In other words, be very self-aware and realize that change is the only constant factor in your life.

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