Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Confusion Corner: Keepin’ it Real

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The greatest challenge I find in teaching jazz is to get students to understand and accept that they must invent their own pathways towards their personal performance goals.

Most students entering our jazz program feel that they are relatively independent thinkers already, yet they usually come in expecting a clear, stepwise, time-tested, and measurable methodology towards jazz stardom.
I always tell them that there are as many pathways towards their goals in music as there are people setting out to achieve those goals. I also tell them that there is no tried and true method for making a career in jazz music work. By setting foot on the path of becoming a jazz musician you immediately enter the tradition of managing uncertainty.

Recently I attended a conference where some of the current critical darlings of jazz spoke about the pros and cons of jazz education. They complained that jazz programs are turning out a lot of robots and fakers that lack originality and creativity. Artistry lies in the ability to tell an interesting story. The rub is the fact that because most students haven’t had much adversity to deal with yet, they don’t have an interesting story to tell.

Jazz is the legacy of a necessarily improvised lifestyle. The original jazz practitioners were social pariahs. They had little to no right to education, wage earning, safe banking, decent neighborhoods, police protection, voting or dignity. Just getting through the day with their spirits intact was often their biggest challenge.

African-Americans invented the blues to help them feel good about feeling bad. Ragtime helped to satisfy a desire to rejoice with a little syncopation. (I can testify personally that nothing feels better than a little syncopation every now and then!) Taverns and brothels were the main places where jazz musicians were allowed to work—and we begin to see the picture.

The allure of a jazz performance is its originality, creativity, sensuality and freedom. What jazz culture offers our society is a spirit of creating solutions to counter life’s many adversities. Very few people nowadays have had to be as creative about life as “Jelly Roll” Morton, Charles Mingus or Dinah Washington. African-Americans back then faced a publically accepted assertion that they were not quite human. Up until the 60s there were laws on the books that declared them only 3/5 of a person. Performing at such a high level was one way of proving that they were in fact fully human.

Things are a little less impossible for today’s jazz musicians. Unfortunately this means that the stories that they have to tell are increasingly less colorful while the acquiring of “chops” (the musical ability to tell stories) has never been easier. In other words, there’s a whole lot of musical talking out there without much to say.

To make matters worse, many universities and conservatories have begun treating students more like clients and acting more like trade schools. Because of student pressure, many educators give their students “how to” jazz regimens full of standard songs, licks and patterns which the student more often than not performs very mechanically. I’m not totally against this approach because it gives the student the basic building blocks to develop their artistry.

A university cannot guarantee artistry or a job but it can guarantee an education. At the moment, all of us—artist, educator, and student—seem to be confused about what a jazz education means. So here’s my attempt to throw some light on the subject.

To the student: By saying to the world that you want to be a jazz musician you are also saying that you love being in a career where your livelihood depends on your ingenuity and creativity.

To the jazz artist: A university’s mandate is not to turn out jazz artists (even though it is nice when that occasionally happens). We can offer methodologies, pathways, connections and insights about the music, the history, and the culture, but it’s an insult to jazz artistry to imagine that a university can create an artist, let alone do it in four years.

To the educator: Relax a bit—teach the basics and keep it real. Nurture an artist. Feed an enthusiast. Share your love, knowledge and excitement for the legacy of jazz with anyone who shows an interest.
What’s at the heart of this art form is love. You have to love people, and you have to like them too. It’s when you love and like people that you begin find the right things to do and say—whether that’s in words or in music.

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