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Wouter Turkenburg: Jazz Education in the New Millennium

Victor L. Schermer By

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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!
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