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Wouter Turkenburg: Jazz Education in the New Millennium

Victor L. Schermer By

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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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