Monday, February 19, 2007

Jazz in the Schools

In 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts put up a "classroom resource" for teachers who wanted to do a jazz curriculum. Curious to check out the party line, I investigated. Imagine my astonishment at discovering the web project was produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center (and funded by Verizon Wireless).

Why does the mugshot of Dana Gioia on the "Welcome" page creep me out as much as it does?

No matter. Down to brass tacks. Let's look at the curriculum. Hmm, it appears to be nearly identical to the Ken Burns jazz documentary! And, for that matter to just about every other "history" of jazz ever written, from the perspective of the guardians of culture. (for a very telling snapshot, check out this Lesson Objective from Lesson 1, from the Teacher's Guide: "Students will identify the major early New Orleans jazz musicians, name the various roles they played (e.g., entertainer, teacher, transmitter of cultural tradition), and be able to describe their activities and achievements." Entertainer, teacher, transmitter of cultural tradition. Man, does that have Marsalis sauce all over it or what?)

But you all know what I'm most interested in. Once you get past the King Oliver, the Louis worship, the Bix and Benny and even Parker and Diz, golly, how will this National Endowment for the Arts/Jazz At Lincoln Center/Verizon Wireless curriculum make sense of all that Crazy Experimental Freedom?

Let's go to Lesson 4, "From the New Frontier to the New Millenium," and look at the list of Major Artists. Betty Carter. Ornette Coleman. John Coltrane. Wayne Shorter...hey, hang on a second kids! We missed one! How could we have skipped Wynton Marsalis?? And the perspicacious wisdom of his quote: “Jazz is an art form,” trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has said, “that gives us a painless way of understanding ourselves.” I have a painless way of understanding how Marsalis could be listed as a Major Artist with the likes of Betty Carter, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Wayne involves scrolling down to the bottom of the page and being reminded that the educational materials have been Produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center. As the Verizon Wireless guy would say, "Can you hear me now?"

Check out these "Jazz Lesson Objectives" provided for teachers:
  • Students will understand how jazz reflected the political and racial turbulence of the 1960s.
  • Students will learn about trends in jazz during the 1960s and 1970s, including free jazz, fusion, and neo-mainstream.
  • Students will learn how jazz earned its place as a significant American art form that today enjoys the support of government programs, private conservatories, and major cultural institutions.
"Teacher, how did jazz earn its place as a significant American art form that today enjoys the support of government programs, private conservatories, and major cultural institutions?"

"Well, sonny boy, read page 4 of the essay that goes with lesson 4, "From the New Frontier to the New Millenium," of the National Endowment for the Arts/Jazz at Lincoln Center/Verizon Wireless Jazz In The Schools Curriculum."

"Well teacher, it says:

"It turned out that, while the commercial vitality of mainstream jazz was fading during the free jazz and fusion eras, a younger generation of jazz musicians was being quietly cultivated not in urban lofts or in experimental ensembles but in colleges, universities, and music conservatories. By the early 1980s, the ranks of the “neo-mainstream” movement, as this new direction in jazz came to be called, were being filled in large part by talented young musicians who had undergone a rigorous program of instruction encompassing the entire history of mainstream jazz. In 1983 and 1984—after paying his dues as a sideman with the veteran drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the pianist Herbie Hancock—a young trumpeter from New Orleans, Wynton Marsalis, won two Grammy Awards, in both the jazz and classical categories. He was a convincing spokesman for jazz, and his music balanced inventiveness with tradition, group interaction with personal expression. The publicity he earned helped launch the careers of a score of likeminded performers—Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Peyton, Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnutt, James Carter, and Joshua Redman, among others—whom the press collectively dubbed the Young Lions."

"That's right, sonny boy....but, keep reading, it gets better."

"For the many critics and fans who had been fearing the demise of jazz, the music of the neo-mainstream movement was a welcome revival of the music’s core values. Others worried, however, that jazz was now in danger of being confined to a narrow orthodoxy that would blunt the music’s cutting edge. Their concerns would soon prove to be unwarranted, however. During the 1990s, as musicians such as Don Byron, Cassandra Wilson, Dave Douglas, Brad Meldhau, and Jason Moran—whose styles variously incorporate the full spectrum of American and world musics, from country blues to Baltic folk songs to hip-hop—joined the fray, it became clear that contemporary jazz was a big tent that could accommodate a huge variety of aesthetic approaches."

(our courageous student begins to ask what "being confined to a narrow orthodoxy that would blunt the music's cutting edge" really means, but decides against it...and reads on):

"Meanwhile, having already secured a prominent place in the academic arena, jazz began receiving recognition and support both from the government and from private foundations. In 1982 the National Endowment for the Arts created the NEA Jazz Masters program to honor individuals who have contributed to the advancement of jazz; as of 2006 more than 80 artists had received awards. In 1986, four years after the death of the brilliant pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, his family established the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz, which quickly became a potent force both for jazz education and for the recognition of aspiring young jazz musicians (its annual jazz competition has become the preeminent event of its kind in the world). And in 1987, Lincoln Center, New York City’s premier arts complex, added jazz programming to its lineup; less than 10 years later, Jazz at Lincoln Center, with Wynton Marsalis at its helm, took its place alongside the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic as a full-fledged constituent, introducing a full concert season, a permanent jazz orchestra, and a broad range of educational programs that reach audiences of all ages.

When, in 1997, Marsalis’s epic oratorio Blood on the Fields became the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize, the vital role of jazz in American culture in the coming millennium seemed assured. It’s true that jazz was no longer the nation’s dominant form of popular music as it had been during the heyday of the Swing Era, but in fact jazz had in some ways transcended the popular realm and had become a form of expression equal in stature to classical music, fine art, and literature."

"But teacher," says our courageous student, "I still don't understand how jazz earned its place as a significant American art form that today enjoys the support of government programs, private conservatories, and major cultural institutions?"

"Well, sonny boy, if you ask to ask, you'll never know...."


the improvising guitarist said...

Euww. A smart kid is going to surmise that, if the value of this music came from “colleges, universities, and music conservatories” instead of “urban lofts or in experimental ensembles”, this music is boring, conformist cr*p for the parents’ generation. I certainly hope that the smart and interesting young musicians run screaming into the electronica, nu-metal, neo-punk, avant-folk arena than get roped into this….
Marsalis, a unique musician with the reverse Midas touch.

S, tig

the improvising guitarist said...

On free jazz, regarding Ornette Coleman’s music, “some heard in it the influence of modern European classical music; others found it to be merely an expression of musical incompetence“. I had never realized that those were the only two readings available. Apparently reception boils down to “musical incompetence” vs. “European classical music”…
Idiots are writing these (sorry-ass-excuse-for) historiographies, right?

S, tig

peter breslin said...

hey- I don't know. I can't get authorship information from the website at the moment. I wrote a letter to the NEA this morning, though, which I also posted to (it will show up there as soon as it gets approved by the moderators).

I am tired of the mischaracterizations of the period from 1959 to now, many of which seem both willful (rather than ignorant) and pernicious. It's definitely time to set the record straight.

thanks for writing,


Good Times said...

First of all, I think it's time to hand over the leadership of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to Bill Dixon...

Massimo Magee said...

next up, LCJO version of Ayler's Ghosts?

peter breslin said...

ha, well, okay except then (with LCJO doing either my request, "Womb Waters Scent of the Burning Armadillo Shell" by Cecil Taylor or your request of Ghosts) we come perilously close to FREE JAZZ CLASSICS. which is a whole other story.

Bill Dixon? I don't think so! He needs to pay his dues with Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock first, and then win two consecutive Grammy (tm) Awards, one in jazz, the other in classical. And a Pulitzer Prize for an oratorio. I'm just taking note of the "job requirements" on the NEA/JALC/Verizon Wireless Jazz in the Schools website, in the Wynton Marsalis ad...I mean, section.


Chris Rich said...

Peter, I saw your post in Free Jazz and figured it would better to help out over here.

One central facet of this is that in the 60's, there were still a lot of artists living from all periods of the music.

So some of the "Avante Garde",(I like to call them 'Iconoclasts'), wanted to collaborate with the older guys and so Hank Mobley was invited to work with Archie Shepp.

Kenny Dorham was tossed onto a recording session with Cecil Taylor and Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins worked with Mingus and Eric Dolphy on Newport Rebels.

Rahsaan was a major instigator/inspiration for all this and it was a good thing for the most part proving a continuity denied at the time by worthless jazz scribblers.

The AACM also invoked elements of the long century in a lot of their work.

Baby boomer music execs like the horrific David Grusin foisted fusion off to pander to boomer rock slobs and that really made a mess of things.

It was so bad, it made Marsalis look like a savior rather than a stiff unremarkable Clifford Brown clone.

So in the recoil from the utterly crappy excesses of a spyrogyra world, Marsalis seemed to redeem an honest continuity that really amounted to tossing the baby with the bath water.

When I was a kid immersed in this stuff, I quickly concluded that the writers nearly always suck.

Instead of conveying some useful insight, they always seemed to appoint themselves as gatekeepers.

Stanley Crouch started out as a sloppy drummer from Oakland who rode on David Murray's coattails into town but then turned loopy and absurd as the leading overreactor to the spyrogyra model.

I can't blame them, a bunch of dull white guys from Berklee were hogging the limelight as panderers to dumb boomers who were cultural conservatives and demanded "accessability".

These dull jackasses from Metheney to Bob James essentially were grabbing the food off of honest jazz guys plates and leaving the crumbs.

When the fusion fart wafted away the boomers upgraded to some 1950's hard bop thing that became a fern bar fossil.

In the mean time, many of the honest players like Sam Rivers or Anthony Braxton moved to what I call an honest neo classicism shifting the ratio of improvisation and composition toward composition.

Many beautiful outcomes ensued such as the World Saxophone Quartet or Mr. Blueitt's "Clarinet Family".

No sooner had they began to recover from that then a new pile of white guy pests led by Zorn hogged the limelight again from a different angle with toxic Micheal Dorff and his Knitting Factory in the lead.

I used to present Zorn in Boston when he was still an obscure underdog record store employee, but I eventually figured out his crowd was more avid to compete than cooperate.

hey, O just started a brand new jazz blog

Drop in if you wish and if you end up in Boston I'm buying lunch.

Chris Rich said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
peter breslin said...

hey chris rich- thanks for that angle; I had forgotten the aspect of the history that included the semantically depleted slick-a-phonics of Spyrogyra et al. Also, great reminder of the older players who worked with younger seems Sonny Rollins was part of this too, briefly working with OC's rhythm section. And later on, Max Roach with Braxton and Taylor.

I'll definitely take you up on lunch in Boston if I'm ever there. I used to live in Allston...almost 20 years ago.

The site is sometimes interesting but the reaction to my NEA post there has been extremely silly. It almost immediately devolved into an argument over the word, "Jazz," which is a distraction and a waste of time.

anyway thanks again


Dan said...

Great discussion Peter and nice post Chris. I think George Lewis is a really important jazz historian and his angle on the AACM and their place in jazz history in his forthcoming book will add a lot to the discussion. If you seek out his essays in scholarly journals, or even the essays that he's posted on the AACM New York chapter website, he speaks very clearly on the subject. He talks a lot about the politics of being branded experimental, and the validity that white experimental music is given, the "New Music" so to speak, and he talks about the politics fo being included in the so called "Downtown Scene" in NYC.

Having been tangentially involved in the creation of a jazz curriculum myself in Chicago and having reviewed the NEA materials, I found them to be myopic but useful. Ultimately, the organization I was involved in brought in a bunch of local musicians and teachers and created a curriculum with them instead of mandating it from above. If I can get some outlines of that curriculum I'd be happy to share them.

peter breslin said...

thanks for visiting and commenting, Dan. I think the JALC/NEA/VERIZON curriculum does a fine job on the first 40 years of jazz, which is typical. They've done such a fine job in fact that there are some who seem to think that jazz really is dead. That it lacks current cutural relevance and is entirely a thing of the past. That it is now a repertory art form recycling various styles up to about 1960 or so.

I love the fact that you called on actual, living local musicians to develop a curriculum. There is still much happening in this music and in creative improvised and composed new music in general. It isn;t laziness that keeps it out of the spotlight but willful ignorance and self-promotion.

Chris Rich said...

Hey Peter,

I clicked on that NEA link. Yikes that guy looks like some dope who fetched donuts for Karl Rove so they tossed him in NEA. WHERE'S A B SPELLMAN?!?

He used to cover this and is exemplary with a healthy skepticism for the fossil factories, I mean music schools.

This too will pass.