Jazz in Education

There are three ways of learning any subject: (1) mentorship, (2) independent scholarship, and (3) the academic setting. For reasons of racial disparity, jazz was primarily learned throughout the 20th century by independent scholarship, coupled with mentorship; the latter being largely part-and-parcel of on-the-job training.

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

Russian Jazz Book 1926

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Semion Ginzburg’s collection Jazz Band and the Modern Music, published in the Soviet Union in 1926, was the first book ever published on jazz.

During its first 60 years, jazz was eschewed by American academic institutions, but jazz studies and research vis-à-vis mentorship and independent scholarship are nearly as old as the genre itself. A survey was conducted on one jazz-research message board recently regarding books on jazz history. It was determined that the first book about jazz, Jazz Band and the Modern Music, was published in Leningrad, Russia by the Academia press in 1926. It was a collection of essays written by Louis Gruenberg, Percy Aldridge Grainger, Cesar Searchinger, Darius Milhaud, and the book’s editor Semion Ginzburg. According to the board’s researcher, it was published at the same time that Benny Payton’s Jazz Kings (which included clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet) arrived in Russia for the first tour of that country by an American jazz band. Three years later, the first book to deal with the music’s history, Jazz – Future Sounds – Future Rhythms, by E. C. Hansen, was published in Copenhagen, Denmark. The researcher’s conclusion:

From this overview, no pre-1926 book on “jazz” came out, which incidentally gives Ginzburg’s Leningrad item a surprising cutting-edge position. From 1925 is the monographic number of Musikblätter des Angruchs—those who have seen it may confirm it’s a special issue entirely devoted to jazz, with articles from various dates, mostly in translation, which is what I take from its content list. Also, this seems to be Ginzburg’s main source. Nothing from earlier dates. In the USA, I guess only how-to-play-jazz stuff can be older, but I may be proven wrong.

Two years after the publication of Ginzburg’s book, the first academic jazz program was founded at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, Germany under the direction of the Hungarian-born composer Mátyás György Seiber (also spelled “Seyber”). The Third Reich shut down the program in 1933 and Seiber relocated to London where he composed jazz and pop music as G. S., or George Mathis (or Matthis). (He wrote “serious” music and taught under his real name.) The program lay dormant until trombonist Albert Manglesdorf resuscitated it in 1976. In America, pianist/composer Percy Aldrich Grainger, as part of his “General Study of the Manifold Nature of Music” lecture series given during his tenure at New York University, brought Duke Ellington and his orchestra to that institution on October 25, 1932, but it wasn’t until 1941 that the New School of Social Research offered actual courses in jazz history. And while Lawrence Berk had founded the Schillinger House of Music in Boston in 1945 (which would become the Berklee School of Music nine years later), the first jazz-related degree given by a university was “Dance Band” at the University of North Texas in 1947. More academic institutions followed suit, and by the 1950s there were a little more than 30 institutions of higher education offering jazz courses; but, by 1972, only 15 offered degree-earning jazz programs with the number increasing nearly fivefold within a decade.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

Now jazz education programs are nearly ubiquitous in the United States and becoming widespread in the global academic community. It has become an accepted field of study for those pursuing academic credentials and careers, with more and more schools offering jazz-related courses to undergraduate and graduate students. While Rutgers University has been possibly over-represented in this column (due in large part to my earning my master’s degree there), it is just one of many accredited academic institutions offering degrees in jazz. Big Ivy League schools and community colleges are teaching it and there are some schools that only teach jazz and jazz-related musical genres while excluding European art music studies altogether. But why did it take so long for the art form widely considered uniquely American to be taught in American schools? It might have to do with the degree by which academic research is divorced from independent scholarship and mainstream pedagogy.

This separation of educational mind and body was clearly responsible for the mythology of American history presented to generations of elementary school students. It began with Christopher Columbus discovering a continent inhabited by primitive and savage people who didn’t know how to domesticate livestock, worshipped strange gods, couldn’t read, and naively existed in disparate tribes or clans that battled each other out of xenophobic paranoia. It took years for its timeline to include that Leif Erickson might have arrived before Columbus, the existence and demise of the Aztec and Incan civilizations, and that some indigenous populations were decimated by diseases like chicken pox and the measles that the Europeans brought with them, but were themselves immune to. The colonization of the United States and the particulars of its cessation from England were introduced as the students neared their teens and slavery and the Civil War were usually addressed as they entered high school.
This plodding schedule and sugar-coated content was still in use during a time that a civil rights crisis rocked the nation to the point of enacting sweeping legislation. (Actually, rioting over race-related issues had been going on since before Reconstruction and are apparently on-going.) It was at this time that students in higher education began to protest for curricula that went beyond the Eurocentrically-leaning model and was inclusive of America’s subaltern experience and culture. This included African American studies and, therefore, jazz.

Sadly, many American people are slow on the uptake. There are many who refuse to accept the idea that people with more melanin in their skin are capable of doing the same things as those with less melanin. Fortunately, Barak Obama has set a new precedent to the contrary, but from the time that slavery was abolished in 1865 to 1968, when the Equal Housing Act was enacted, discrimination by skin color in America was acceptable by the government and in society. It was common to hear the “N-word” among the student body of the all-white pre-busing legislation schools I attended. The term is still used today, as an expression of brotherhood among non-whites as well as a derogatory adjective. This is just one sign of how racism is still popular in America and explains why American people of color, especially black Americans, find it difficult to be included in the American academic community. But this state of affairs, the marginalization of non-white Americans in academic liberal arts programs (like jazz studies) created a cultural disconnection within it. Jazz studies is still taught mostly by male white professors, mainly because white males have most of the teaching jobs. But this is a paradigm that is being humbly questioned from within its ranks. This can be attributed to the establishment of culturally diverse curricula that necessitated the inclusion of non-white professors to teach them.

When I decided to drop out of high school in 1972 and get a job playing music, I was fortunate to work for saxophonist John Handy, who was teaching at San Francisco State College. He was generous enough to tutor his young sidemen, who weren’t enrolled at “State” (myself, drummer Brent Rampone, and guitarist Mike Hoffman) about jazz in the less formal setting of his living room. The lessons were usually in a question-and-answer format, although he sometimes took a tune, like “Donna Lee,” as a starting point of a brief lecture. He mainly spoke of jazz history and its own political intrigue. Where the “Rahsaan” of Rahsaan Roland Kirk came from or Miles Davis’s interesting career and his relationships with the bebop masters (Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker). Sometimes he spoke about instrument technique: Charlie Mingus’s “nerve roll” (a rapid fire right-hand pizzicato performed with one finger) or playing notes above the standard range of the saxophone and trumpet.
There are three ways of learning any subject: (1) mentorship, (2) independent scholarship, and (3) the academic setting. For the reasons of racial disparity described above, jazz was primarily learned throughout the 20th century by independent scholarship, coupled with mentorship; the latter being largely part-and-parcel of on-the-job training. But basic musicianship was usually learned in public schools, where musical instruments could be made available to the interested student. This paradigm put the student (the mentee) in contact with a non-peer reviewed source of information that was primarily disseminated as oral tradition. It should be emphasized that this is no do-it-yourself approach to learning. Non-academy based jazz education is highly social and less isolating than its academic counterpart. Students in common locale compare their experiences and arrive at a consensus that acts as a larger body of knowledge, eventually influencing the entire genre. One such network is an alliance of jazz artists who study the methods and music of pianist Lennie Tristano. While some poke fun at this group, their dedication to carrying the torch for the arguably under-recognized genius is important in that they use a methodology that includes aural transmission instead of printed music to assemble a tightly knit personal and collective rubric and vernacular focused on the chord progressions taken from a few popular American tunes and the blues. Memorizing recorded solos is a vital part of the jazz tradition; but, ever since jazz became a part of America’s musical landscape (1916 or thereabouts), most of its practitioners read music. This is a fact that flies in the face of one of the commonly held myths about jazz: that most of its players can’t read music. As previously mentioned, most jazz musicians studied music while attending public school and knew how to read and write music. Transcription is part of the traditional jazz methodology that is easily included in the academic method. But the problem of the research to classroom “decapitation” still persists.

When I studied jazz history, I was mentored by one of the most important figures in jazz studies, Dr. Lewis Porter. Besides teaching, he is also a pianist and composer who has written a concerto for saxophonist Dave Liebman. As an author, he has written two biographies, Lester Young (and its companion, A Lester Young Reader) and John Coltrane: His Life and Music, that are essential material for studying these two iconic musicians. He created the Jazz History and Research master’s degree program at Rutgers and has been seminal in the careers of many jazz scholars and authors. However, research can make what was once accepted as fact obsolete. One of the lasting myths about jazz is that it is a kind of hybridization of African and European musical elements. While many of jazz’s original and greatest artists have been African American, to describe the music as simply consisting of African and European practices is overly simplistic. For example, Native Americans, Indians, are a part of the American saga, even if they have been omitted from the narrative of American history. Being from Indianapolis, Indiana and having worked closely with the Native American saxophonist-composer Jim Pepper, I was special note of the following excerpt on page 86 from Dr. Porter’s book Jazz: A Century of Change—Readings and New Essays:

England’s plan had been to send small numbers of its people to America (itself named after a Portuguese explorer, Amerigo Vespucci) to oversee the farming of its land with the actual work to be done by slaves. The English immigrants who ran the plantations at first thought of America as a remote, godforsaken place that nobody would really choose as a permanent residence. Of course, many English did eventually settle here permanently, and the growing African slave population was to become a major moral issue (not to mention the fate of the native peoples already living here, but that’s a whole other story).

I italicized but that’s a whole other story to emphasize that the fate of the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere are not a “whole other story” when it comes to jazz. Dr. Ron Welburn of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has been assembling a catalog of jazz musicians of mixed Native American ancestry. I believe the loping Charleston rhythm, the clave of Latin music, and the partido alto of Brazilian music are examples of Native American influences. So are the use of maracas and flutes. The ring shout, which is considered by many academics to be the source of all African American music was also common practice among Native Americans, as was (and still is) the practice of improvised call and response. Dr. Porter writes further on (p. 198) in Jazz:

In jazz, ever-present problems of tribalism are incredibly complicated. Jazz is, after all, the creation of African descendants in America, drawing upon the African American culture that developed during contact with European peoples and, to some extent, Native Americans. Then, out of this tribal mix, from the very beginning of jazz European Americans got involved. (White Americans are barely aware of it, but Native American culture had a major impact on them as well, as evidenced, for example, in the many Native American names that dot our national map.) Some, like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) and Paul Whiteman, used self-serving publicity that credited themselves for it all, and naturally black artists resented their success.

This statement is the product of a Eurocentric academic era in need of scrutiny and adjustment. For one thing, the ODJB was a group of mostly Italian American musicians and in 1917, when they made their first recording (which was the first official recording of a jazz band), Italian Americans weren’t considered white. For another, Paul Whiteman didn’t credit himself for the existence of jazz—although he did accept the product brand, “King of Jazz”—and stating that “naturally black artists resented [his] success” is far too simplistic. Certainly some did. Others could have cared less. Some were enlightened enough to acknowledge the larger issue of racism in American society as the target of their resentment. Some, like bandleader Fletcher Henderson, embraced Whiteman’s success and wrote arrangements for him, something mentioned only in reference to clarinetist Benny Goodman. Furthermore, “tribalism” is suggested as indicative of African and Native American culture. But the concept of “tribe” runs far into other cultures that sway heavy in academia and the jazz community. Porter continues:

Benny Goodman, a Jewish American, was not only respected among blacks but, with the support of his producer John Hammond, insisted on touring with such black colleagues as Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and later Charlie Christian. In his 1939 autobiography, The Kingdom of Swing (written with Irving Kolodin, published by Frederick Ungar, New York), Goodman devotes pages 156-157 and 161-162 to black arranger and composer Fletcher Henderson, crediting the success of the band to Henderson’s music.

The problem here is that subsequent scholarship has shown that it was actually the highbrow WASP John Hammond, a fervent socialist, integrationist, and possibly the black sheep of the Vanderbilt family, who convinced Goodman to play with a racially mixed combo (his big band was all white for a long time) and introduced him to Henderson. So, despite the great work of academics like Porter, there is some rewriting to do.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

Some are of the opinion that America is still, when all is said and done, an extension of European culture and industry, a last vestige of a pan-continental agenda of global dominance that gets much of its inspiration from Ancient Greece and, therefore, has trouble accepting anything non-European as culturally vital or even significant. Others believe that there is a part of American society that believes the United States should become the cultural wasteland that so many have jokingly called it for a long time. Whichever, or whatever combination of the two, it is, American academia is decidedly Eurocentric. Amiri Baraka, under the name LeRoi Jones, wisely identified in his landmark book, Blues People, the distinction between “illiterate” and “literate” cultures, one being able to roll with the times and change its point of view when necessary and the other having to defend whatever opinion it expresses until a new edition clears the errata sheet. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze described these phenomena as examples of reversible and irreversible time applied sociologically. He also thought that a sociological phenomenon like jazz is reliant on the reflexivity of the oppressed with their oppressors. But to suggest that anyone who is oppressed would be lost if no longer oppressed would be an example of delusion.
I think that Deleuze would be pleased to know that his theory can be called “Deleuzean” in English. Jazz was a music born out of the will to bring about real equality for a subaltern group, that group being non-white American musicians. It is important that jazz education revisit and revise what that meant then and what it means now that jazz is the official premier indigenous art form of America. Then we might have hope of contradicting Amiri Baraka’s concept of the “changing same.” In the meantime, the words of Bill Evans sum up jazz education very well:

This is the first of four parts, here are the links for Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.