The Joy of Jazz In Education

written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column

College Jazz Studies programs have placed so much emphasis on the academics of jazz that the spirit behind the music – its essence – has been purged from both the curriculum and from the music being performed by students. As a university jazz educator, I’m alarmed by this realization.

I’ve listened helplessly as freshman and sophomore college jazz studies program students try to explain and make sense of a newfound dismay that they are feeling for playing music. For them it seems as though the spirit that compelled them to go and buy an instrument like a gretsch electric guitar in Lincoln and pursue the music in the first place has been zapped from them by the very jazz studies mother ship that they have turned to for guidance and nurturing.

Among the major complaints that I hear from students are:
1) Disappointment with the lack of truly inspiring performance environments within the university programs, 2) Lack of camaraderie between both fellow jazz students and faculty members and 3) An inability to reconcile the approach and mindset of academia with that required of actual jazz performance. I have encountered students expressing these feelings on enough occasions recently that I believe this is an issue that warrants some discussion.

It can be a somewhat normal occurrence for a musician having entered the field of jazz and trying to sustain work and begin to forge a career, to experience fear and doubt at the prospect of earning a living. I have seen these feelings manifested in self-doubt and resentment toward the music business in general. A prolonged or heightened result can be discomfort or depression associated with being involved in music and/or a loss of the joy of playing. It’s one thing when this kind of dismay and confusion happens to someone who has tried their hand at a music career and is having some difficulty, but it’s really disappointing when I hear about a talented twenty-year-old going through this.

It’s sad because their relationship with music has really only just begun. It is especially during these early years that every opportunity to play one’s instrument should be embraced simply for the sheer joy of and fascination with the act of music making. Students who have bought their drums or piano from used products websites after months of saving up should be able to play without worry. There really is no other reason that will ever be meaningful enough to sustain one’s most intimate relationship with their instrument and music through life’s ups and downs. For a youngster, playing music should never be a chore, but rather a hobby run amok. And to maintain interest in the instrument and music, teenagers and adults alike can modify their musical devices to make them more personal. For instance, people who play guitar can modify the appearance of their instrument by exploring options such as Bass guitar skins so that it could have a unique touch as well as it can match their style of music.

My understanding is that the environment that exists in the college music programs of these young and disheartened musicians is not one which supports their real love and affinity for jazz, their pursuit of true knowledge and understanding in the field, nor their natural growth process in it. It should be understood by all involved in academia, students and teachers, that the art of jazz cannot (and should not) be measured in degrees meted out at the universities. The true meaning of the music, which can only be experienced during the performance, lies in the act of playing one’s instrument within the group. The functionality within the group and the musical contributions offered therein are the only barometers of how developed a musician is. Can he or she render a melody that captivates, or accompany only for the sake of providing support? Does a solo display depth of emotion and invention, as well as harmonic insight and an honest command of jazz vocabulary? Is it a self-indulgent display or a peek into one’s soul during a moment of musical creation and exploration?

True, it is as difficult to capture the essence of jazz in words as it is to measure it mathematically. But jazz is art, much to the chagrin of some academics. Until university administrators and professors related to the subject of jazz with a sense of awe and humility, there will always be incongruities in jazz programs. When jazz is accepted and heralded on the bases of its own merits by those who will nurture and foster coexistence with it, then it will thrive in the light of its own truths.

Perhaps the first thing that needs to be understood by university faculty is that jazz has separate and unique skills and knowledge bases that apply exclusively to jazz art. Jazz should not be taught in the same way or using the same standards as a classical music curriculum. Universities must stop judging, measuring, and qualifying jazz in classical music terms. Once this is understood, the admissions practices of many jazz studies programs, which often either allow access to students who are unqualified by jazz standards or deny access by requiring jazz students to meet classical qualifications, will change. Jazz Studies programs should not be “hideouts” for students that play styles other than classical music. Both students and teachers should be an embodiment of the most talented and accomplished performers of jazz on their instruments just as it is in classical music departments.

Having laid the ground rules for a ripe environment within the program, the stage is now set for high-level performance, which should involve students and teachers. Students must view their highly talented peers and instructors as a gateway to the real world of jazz performance. There should be jam sessions everyday or night, along with a general atmosphere of excitement and an earnest desire for learning to perform. The emphasis on the discussion of music and its over-analysis should be replaced by more performance and listening requirements. There should be a spirit, fueled by jazz music performance, that permeates the university program politics and transcends the drudgery of bureaucracy, classwork and other responsibilities that may deter from the joyful spirit of the jazz art.

Students should be reeducated to understand that this spiritual element is as important as any other in the music–even though it cannot be notated–and that within this spirit lies much more than notes, technique and the resulting applause. Furthermore, the pressure of competition to stand out or excel, inherent in most college music programs, is far removed from the spirit necessary to making great music. Rather, the spirit itself is the reason to get together to share this music with one another–a common ground. That’s why a veteran jazz musician will accept and nurture a fledgling, not based as much on what he or she can or cannot play, as much as on what can be felt from the youngster. The jazz musician knows that if a student is aware enough to understand the importance of this vital component and has worked enough to try to acquire it, then they are well on their way, because technical ability and proficiency is a matter of the same kind of practice–it just takes more time to accumulate.

Teachers should be familiar and comfortable in expressing this intangible element as best they can, and should refer to it often. Because it is elusive in essence and so difficult to talk about, it is easier to ignore this thing that has made jazz what it is. But without its spiritual element, jazz becomes a lifeless, over-analyzed science, or a technical exercise devoid of depth of emotion and feeling. If we instructors/mentors can take a more humble approach to teaching this highly spiritual music by showing no fear in displaying our sometimes-limited grasp of this vast and ever-flowing art, our students may become less inclined to succumb to their ego-driven emotions and notions of becoming masters by graduation day.