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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Jive Spectrum and the art of "being that"

The blogg-o-sphere has recently been buzzing over comments made by saxophonist and jazz elder Brandford Marsalis about his students. While the controversy over jazz education itself has been raging for years I didn't think we were getting anywhere until this video went viral last year. Check it out for yourself...

It seems the floodgates are open. Teachers and students, young players and veterans, are all beginning to weigh in. Brandford's comments somehow got to the heart of the controversy and in a way that offended most everyone. Being insulted, people are now mustering the energy (courage) to speak out on jazz education, its place in jazz music and, furthermore, the role that jazz music has in our society.

Recently a young student in New York recently posted comments that over-lapped Branford's sentiments: Aaron Johnson

I won't try to over-simply the issues that these two musicians present. Their feelings are as deep and nuanced as jazz music itself. I did want to present these viewpoints to my McGill kids in the hopes of stimulating a discussion (their eyes had recently been glazing-over towards the end of an hour of studying block chords). We put down our pencils, shelved the Nestico scores and I started things off with a question:

"How do you, as aspiring jazz musicians, reconcile the lineage of musicians who were themselves the embodiments modernity, forward thinking, and individuality (even their style of dressing was on the cusp of the time in which they lived...Diz, Bird, Prez etc...) with jazz education which is by nature a study of that history?"

My class pondered this question. They were put-off by the tone that Branford used to express himself. He seemed to be old and farty and cynical. I pointed out the cynicism in Aaron's tone as well. What were they unhappy about exactly? When we began to deconstruct their arguments it seemed like they went further than just jazz education and were trying to address questions of honesty and authenticity. These notions, perennially debated in the jazz world, come up time and again as we struggle to understand the transitory nature of the idiom. Never before have there been so many styles, genres and blends of styles and genres that fall under the heading "jazz". My students all agreed that it is useless to resist these trends. However its hard to figure out where it all comes together for a jazz musician's playing. What is real and pure music and what is trend and novelty?

One of my students opined that on the one hand jazz education could never really be about teaching a person to become their own unique musician and yet it could provide some information important to their development. I agree and from my point of view (as an ex-jazz student turned reluctant teacher) I see often see how the attitudes of some students prevent them from using that education to their full advantage. Sometimes I hold back from saying something like "well if you already know all the answers why aren't you on the scene in New York right now?". "Resistance" was the topic of an earlier post. I think Brandford hits the nail on the head when he says that "the idea of who you are is more important than you actually being that". He's talking about jive. Our society reinforces jive and even rewards it. So yes or course jive plays a role in music and that includes music education. But as my students pointed out Aaron Johnson seemed to exhibit his own special blend of jive even though he was the person drawing attention to it around him. I think we all can fall somewhere in the "jive spectrum" but where it becomes a problem in art is the part it plays in an artist's intentions.

It is a highly romanticized notion that all the greats, the trailblazers, genre defining musicians came up with their own musical voice on their own. In academic literary study there is the concept of "The Romantic Author" who thinks of their own ideas by themselves; their own genius precluding any outside influence. And certainly to the novice jazz fan it does seem that improvising is an entirely spontaneous act. In actual fact it takes a village to raise a jazz musician. When you look at pictures of Diz, or Lester Young it only seems like they stood on their own as the innovators they were. In reality they stood on the shoulders of giants and what made them truly "great" was their artistic intentions to get up on those shoulders and be a part of something greater than any individual. In a sense it is almost beside the point (or perhaps it is the job of historians to determine who the greats were) for them to have set out to be innovators. What they had to do was find who they were themselves through the musician's path which is a sacred journey. And when anything gets in the way of that path it becomes "jive". Simplistically put our society doesn't reward or often even recognize those of us who become masters so there is less incentive to do so. In the short-run it is a whole lot easier to try to replace mastery with something else, something that makes us feel good about ourselves but only for a little while.

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