Friday, February 28, 2014

Tomorrow's Jazz Program

Many university jazz programs today are doing a fine job producing graduates capable of sight-reading, interpreting a wide variety of written music, improvising, composing and arranging --- all at relatively high levels. In many regards, the curricular structure, guidelines and expected competencies outlined in the N.A.S.M.’s handbook appear to be working. The dedicated jazz educator must now grapple with how to balance traditional, proven methods of instruction with new systems, approaches and tools to best educate and equip our students for the future.

At increasingly younger ages, undergraduate students are becoming adroit in transcribing and copying master musicians, and assimilating their musical vocabulary. This adheres to the fist part of Clark Terry’s celebrated philosophy for learning to play jazz: “Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.”

Transitioning from copying to creating is where students often falter. As mentors/guides/coaches, we collectively need to ponder how to help our students make the leap to musical innovation and creation. Ways in which this could be accomplished include:

  1. subtly modifying our pedagogy to emphasize the conceptual.
  2. encouraging and rewarding experimentation with instrumentation.
  3. increasing the required presentation of original compositions.
  4. prompting upperclassmen to write and play their own melodic lines, rather than only drawing upon transcribed material.
  5. directly exposing our students to cutting-edge, innovative artists through campus visitations. 
Jazz Education
If we are preparing and shaping tomorrow’s artists, we need to be concerned with their complete education. Skilled, conservatory-trained musicians without inquisitiveness for the world around them make boring artists. Somehow, we must impress upon our music students the importance of studying and contemplating the humanities. Artistic collaboration with other university units is one means through which to realize this mission.

Tracking the career paths of recent fine arts alumni reveals a trend towards blended careers, encompassing several skill sets. Tomorrow’s jazz program will embrace this shift, by developing/offering new cross-pollinated degrees which partner with business, education and/or other fine arts disciplines, thereby better preparing students for “real life” employment situations. Emphases in jazz studies within arts administration or business management degrees would be both practical and attractive. Adeptness in grant writing, project management and marketing has become mandatory for musicians, yet these disciplines have not entered the core curriculum of most conservatories.

Accessing information has never been easier than in this current technological age. We must not only stay current, but lead in finding new ways to utilize technology to our advantage. There is a need for the development of helpful music “apps”. Entrepreneurial ventures could be explored, such as a university-run recording label with online distribution. Streaming concerts and lectures will become the expected norm.

Our current jazz programs have done well in embracing the use of notation software in arranging and composition courses. Similarly, we should further stress the use of new recording technology. In the last decade, affordable, easy-to-use home systems have replaced the large professional recording studios. To remain current and create job opportunities, we must provide our students with the skills needed to create music for films, jingles, TV, video games and other digital media, from their laptops.

With a pang of remorse, the time may come when it will be necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of our jazz ensemble offerings. We will ask, “Has the big band become an obsolete instrumentation outside of academia?” If so, should our time and fiscal resources continue to be channeled into this area? Should big band be the default “flagship ensemble” by which our jazz programs are judged, or should we branch out to include other instrumental configurations? Options are limitless, but might include 10tet (decatet), jazz/strings lab ensemble, commercial ensemble, art ensemble, and studio orchestra.

The jazz educator’s work is not complete in challenging lingering, negative perceptions about jazz music and its practitioners. Even within music schools, classically oriented colleagues joke about our being up late at night, hanging out in bars. The jazz educator of today and tomorrow must be willing to proselytize for their art form and the discipline and intellect it demands. Every performance must be well-prepared and of the highest artistic caliber, capable of enhancing our collective lives, by providing unique expressions of emotion, thought and spirit.

Should a student of jazz ultimately choose another career path, he/she should be exalted for the transferable skillsets learned through the study of jazz. In saxophonist David Liebman’s article for Instrumentalist, “Jazz Education In the Century of Change: Beyond the Music”, he eloquently addresses the question, “What values does a jazz education offer beyond the music itself?”

Discussions of vocationalism are sometimes avoided within academia, based on the notion that professors are only responsible for transmitting information and guiding students’ artistic development. However, savvy students and parents are understandably seeking more thoughtful, calculated responses to their occupational queries. The tremendous cost of post-secondary education obligates the leaders of tomorrow’s jazz programs to know a multitude of current career options, and the route to attain such work. Industry mentorship programs could be cultivated at radio stations, concert venues, record labels, recording studios, publicists offices, jazz festivals, etc.

Personally, I bubble over with enthusiasm when considering the many possibilities for tomorrow’s jazz program. I believe the future is bright for jazz education!  I would love to hear from other passionate jazz educators about their vision for tomorrow's jazz program.  Do we stay on our current path, maintaining the status quo, or should we start instigating some radical changes?


  1. Should we rename "Piano Major?" I have always felt there is a delicate balance. We need MORE people studying music/piano/arts. Yet....we have plenty of piano players. There simply aren't many careers as piano players.

    In order to understand all the vocational skills (recording, business skills, etc...) do you still need to practice a lot and study privately? No other discipline (medicine, law, etc...) offers undergrads one hour sessions with professors. By teaching less piano/comp could you teach/reach more students?

    That would really change your audition process.

    Finally, do you know how many piano majors are graduated each year from CT schools? 100?

    1. Hi Brandt. I think you would be very surprised at the dwindling number of piano majors entering universities annually. It's a shocking national trend. I should look up the stats and share them.

  2. Your article raises a timely question. As someone who's been involved in playing and teaching jazz for over 40 years, I'm typically stunned with the high degree of proficiency many young people possess right out of a university jazz studies program. But I don't see much innovation (relative to such proficiency). So perhaps the question should be: "What is the aim of jazz education?"

    I happen to think the answer to that question can ultimately be based upon individual values (and can be supported by the appropriate learning institution). If innovation is an aim, then many institutions would have to make dramatic (in my opinion) changes. The five things you suggest in your post are a good place to start. I agree with them all.

    If innovation is of less importance than say, historical, contextual and stylistic competence is, then I think the schools are doing a stellar job. Again, it's all a matter of values. (And although I'm more of a "modernist" in my approach to jazz improvisation, I think there's nothing wrong with a more "historical recreation" of jazz offered by most university programs; if that's what an individual truly wishes to express, so be it!)

    But if innovation is important, then I think far too many students of jazz are somewhat deceived by Clark Terry's oft-quoted description of jazz study (imitate-assimilate-innovate). With all due respect to this great artist, Mr. Terry (by my ears) never made it to the "innovation" part of his formula. Perhaps that wasn't his aim, and that's fine. Perhaps, instead of describing the necessary process for learning jazz, he was describing a continuum of leaning in its most logical sequence.

    Innovation isn't for everyone, and there is no point in pursuing innovation for innovation's sake. (It most often leads to not particularly beautiful music). In my experience, those who tend toward innovation do so because they truly feel and imagine a different approach to what has been established. Innovation can't be taught, but it can be nurtured. And perhaps this is what some educational institutions could include in their collective thinking.

    At any rate, sorry to go on so long here. I really enjoyed your very thoughtfully written article, and hope it helps start a much needed conversation about jazz education. Thanks!

    1. Dear Bill,
      Thank you for your insightful, succinct, eloquent statement. We truly do reap what we sow. I love your notion of nurturing innovation rather than pursuing it inorganically.
      ~ Earl

  3. Another aspect: how is a jazz music education different from a classical music education? Is it?

    I agree that the level of musical competence among jazz studies majors is more on par with traditional classical conservatory training now than ever before. With that said, nurturing artistry, and by extension originality, becomes all the more important. My personal belief is that artistic freedom only comes from technical mastery. By nurturing the artistry in our technically proficient students, we can provide them with a real added value to their musical studies.

    A fuller dialog between jazz and classical artists for best practices in nurturing artistic expression in highly talented students is, I feel, essential. The best classical teachers I have worked with throughout my career have found ways to make me think about the meaning of each note I played, in order to realize the full artistic potential of my playing in the context of the music I was working on. This is one area in jazz studies that has been neglected in the rush to assimilate the canon and historical styles of the masters. By integrating this necessary technical work with a renewed emphasis on the artistic implications in the music itself, jazz educators will have many fruitful areas for exploration.

    Plus integrating new ensembles, recording, promotion, and all the other skills necessary for a career as an artist today! We have our work cut out for us...

  4. What a wonderful discussion this is, questioning and addressing our roles (as educators) in ensuring the future vitality and development of jazz and in preparing our students to earn a buck after they get out of school.

    At some point a few decades from now, you all - and the institutions you represent - will be seen as pioneers in jazz education.

    I would also like to raise the concern of jazz pedagogy as it is taught (or not) to music majors, particularly those who are not strong in jazz. The fact is that most young musicians are introduced to jazz through their school band programs. Yet, it seems that a minority of band directors are well-prepared for this task.

    I would like to suggest that many of the ideas Earl mentioned directed towards "jazz students" should also be taught to Music Ed students. And, I know that there is a growing movement (albeit underground) of Music Education professors who would whole-heartedly endorse these ideas, particularly those involving the nurturing of creativity and composition.

  5. Thinking about this a lot lately, as we are constantly revising curriculum at Berklee, and are in the middle of a major jazz job search at another place I teach.

    Three main things:
    1) Making sure improvisation education is an integral part of the program. It is better to have 20 people in a big band who can all improvise well (at the high school/college level, anyway) than just one or two monsters. You're already doing this, Earl, but it seems that making sure this happens in college programs will ensure it passes on to the high school and middle school.

    2) Entrepreneurship: Understanding that not everyone will be able to graduate and join Pat Metheny's band, teaching students how to set up private teaching studios, market themselves on the web, convince restaurants to feature live music.

    3) Diversity of skills. Related to #2, including composition, conducting, computer proficiency (recording and notation programs, even Photoshop to make gig posters), education, the ability to double on a number of instruments, basic accounting and economics skills; proficiency in classical music as well as jazz and other popular musics. This can mean the difference between getting a gig (playing/teaching/administrating) and not getting it.