The Jazz.com Blog
December 31, 2007 · 2 comments
Forty years ago, jazz education hardly existed as a profession. The International Association of Jazz Educators hadn’t yet been created – today it boasts over 8,000 members in 42 countries. The Berklee College of Music, the most jazz-oriented of the major music schools, had not yet been accredited. Back in the day, the very idea that jazz musicians might learn their craft in a classroom would have struck many people as a peculiar concept.
When I learned how to play jazz, my two most reliable teachers were called Trial and Error. I listened intently to recordings and the radio, and went to the few jazz clubs that would allow teenagers to gain admission. I remain eternally grateful to the folks at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. Their radio ads on Los Angeles’s one serious jazz station invariably ended with the promise that “minors are always cool at the Lighthouse” – so when my friends and I showed up to check out the action, we tried to live up to the claim by acting with as much cool as we could muster. Down the road at Concerts by the Sea, where bigger name jazz musicians were routinely booked, I would be stopped cold by Howard Rumsey, or one of his employees, before I could get inside the front door.
My big step forward was when I learned how to make half-speed tapes of jazz recordings. Phrases that had previously zipped by in a blur of sound, now became digestible as discernible notes. I studied the solos of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Fats Navarro and Bud Powell, among others, in slo-mo, while my classmates were rocking and rolling in hi-fi. Then, in pursuit of the hidden first principles of the music, I went backwards rather than forward, immersing myself in early Louis Armstrong, even earlier King Oliver recordings, Jelly Roll Morton, and ragtime. Then I reversed course and dug into the most futuristic and advanced styles of jazz, but having first filled my ears and trained my fingers with as much of the early jazz tradition as I could cram into them.
But all this was done in isolation. I never even dreamed of finding a jazz teacher. I eventually stumbled upon a few jazz method books, and was actually quite upset when I found that all the advanced chord voicings I had developed by ear with painstaking effort over many months were sketched out in the fourth volume of John Mehagen’s series Jazz Improvisation . How much time I could have saved if someone had shown me those pages in advance! And how unfair that other people could learn these voicing without going through the trouble I had incurred.
My situation was fairly typical. I recall one of the better jazz pianists on the Los Angeles scene telling me how he had learned from the older musicians. They didn’t believe in giving lessons – they laughed at the idea – so he developed a system with them which he called “stop and cop.” “I would get them to sit down at the piano and play a song," he explained, "and when they got to an interesting passage, I would have them stop, and I would ‘cop' [copy or borrow] what they were doing.”
By the time I got to university the situation for jazz studies had hardly improved. For my audition with the Department of Music, I was asked to play a movement from a Beethoven sonata or something at least as difficult. I responded with a rapid-fire version of Scott Joplin’s “The Maple Leaf Rag,” and although I passed muster, my choice of this composition raised eyebrows. I felt distinctly out of place in the Department of Music, where jazz played no part in the degree programs. My formal studies did not advance my jazz knowledge one iota during these years. Even in the midst of a large university campus, I still needed to rely on my own ingenuity, exercises and schemes to expand my knowledge of jazz. I tried to set aside three hours per day for practice, and developed my own methodology on the fly. When I had questions, I turned to my peers -- the other players in the vicinity -- who were the only "experts" available to me. It would take a book to describe all the ways I invented of internalizing the jazz idiom. But I learned the art form this way, and perhaps with a greater intensity (and certainly with more devotion) than if all this technical and practical knowledge had been handed to me in ready-made lessons.
How times have changed! Today jazz education is growing even faster than the demand for jazz recordings, and an aspiring musician can look to instructors, schools, summer programs, play-along records, magazines and books and a host of other tools designed to teach an art form that once existed in isolation from all these trappings of acceptance and nurturing.
But, as Stuart Nicholson points out in his ”Jazz Letter from Europe,” this situation may be even more advanced outside the United States. He offers a fascinating account of a new generation of European jazz players who are equally at home in the world of classical music and jazz -- and primarily due to the structure of music education in their home countries. He quotes Wouter Turkenburg, Head of Jazz Studies at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, who remarks: “All of my students have one hour with a jazz teacher and half an hour with a classical teacher per week. If they fail the classical exams it’s hard for them to continue their study.”
Some will lament this state of affairs, believing that the essence of jazz is resistant to such institutionalization, and fearing that any attempt to adapt “our” music to the methodology of the conservatory will stifle and eviscerate it. On the other hand, a new generation of musicians with such broad backgrounds will invariably create new sounds and styles, and some of these will astonish and delight us. Nicholson looks at several interesting examples of this new type of jazz player in his letter.
I tend to take an optimistic view, but not without some nostalgia for the lost world in which jazz musicians learned by Stop 'n Cop, or turned to those two strict but sufficient teachers, Trial and Error. That pair would never get tenure at a music conservatory, but they taught me well and I still rely on their lessons.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia