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The academic year is nearing its end at the New School's undergraduate Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, where students in master trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah's Sun Ra Ensemble class slowly gather, some evoking the spirit of Ra by brandishing and striking conga drums as they enter the room. Ahmed begins by playing a recording of an in-studio performance the students did at WBAI, then solicits comments. "We sound good!" someone offers, to much laughter. What follows seems mundane: Ahmed leads a discussion on the real-world lessons learned from the experience of setting up, doing the recording, and handling interviews, along with additional tidbits gleaned from a foray to the elementary school where he teaches. But this seemingly inconsequential transference from mentor-figure to student lies at the very heart of what many jazz programs are increasingly about.
A quick survey of the faculties at university jazz institutions across the country reveals more and more veteran artists who have lived and breathed the music, sharing their experiences and imparting their knowledge to students eager to absorb it all. Veteran bassist Richard Davis heads up the University of Wisconsin-Madison curriculum; Branford Marsalis teaches at one North Carolina school and lectures at another; former Tonight Show bassist Robert Hurst is at Michigan; pianist Danilo Perez teaches at the New England Conservatorythe list goes on. Once music was learned informally from bandleaders, bandmates, and touring musicians. Now the apprenticeship system has hit the formal educational mainstream.
The New School's program is blessed not just by its centralized location but by an open-mindedness that began with late co-founder Arnie Lawrence. Current department head Martin Mueller has watched it grow from what Mueller describes as "the most expensive jam session on the planet" to a curriculum as multifaceted as the approaches of its illustrious faculty. Half of the program is core requirements, half electives, taught largely by veteran iconoclasts who also lead busy performance careers in the city and around the world.
Sometimes, Mueller acknowledges, "you get new questions about what is jazz and you get into some of those heated debates of canon," adding: "We had a little alumni panel the other day with Peter Bernstein and Ori Kaplan. Ori is very much downtown and has sort of rejected harmony and is exploring other things, and Peter is one of the great continuing guitarists in that beautiful tradition, so there was definitely some creative tension. But that's a beautiful thing. They clearly are both wonderful musicians, both succeeding at their craft, and yet they both came out of this incubator here in very different ways."
Indeed, much of the debate surrounding jazz education centers on issues of just what jazz should be taught in the first place, with criticism often leveled at institutions that mandate a more narrow, exclusively tradition-based path of study.
"Education has been geared towards showing these guys the fundamentals of jazz, but in doing so, some of the individuality in some of these musicians gets lost a bit because they're constantly saying to themselves, 'I need to get this together, I need to get that together, I need to get my big-band chops together,' " noted trumpeter Terence Blanchard. "But when you start to get your own ideas together, all of that other stuff falls into place."
Blanchard has served for five years as artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the University of Southern California, and seems particularly well suited to propagate an apprenticeship model like the one he experienced first-hand with Art Blakey's band. His program's concept is simple and highly selective: Every two years, a small group of students is chosen to study tuition-free with regularly visiting masters from Wayne Shorter to Jack DeJohnette to John Scofield as well as take regular classes in improvisation, composition, and performance. "The guys who come here have very strong beliefs about what they want to do with their music, and the only thing we provide is a safe place for them to do that without judgment, without anyone making them feel inadequate or inferior."
For students at Western Connecticut State University's jazz program, a nurturing environment away from the cutthroat world of New York is an appealing reason to study jazz in college. As one jazz major commented: "No one from my hometown was remotely as dedicated, and so I thought that if I came to college I would find people who were a lot more like me, who loved music so much that they wanted to practice, hang out, and talk about music all the time, where I could have high-level conversations and enjoy their company."
Master trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah
photo: Cary Conover
For others, the well-rounded jazz degree itself is the goal. When educator Justin DiCioccio took over as head of the jazz department at the Manhattan School of Music six years ago, his goal was to rework the program from the ground up. "It's based on the premise of what I feel is the complete Artist-Musician of the 21st Century, and that's a person who is a performer, a composer, and a pedagogue, with no separation in between," he enthused. "And the whole reasoning behind that madness is: This is what we do, it's how you make a living!"
Just making that living can be difficult. A sobering National Endowment for the Arts report suggested recently that there were over 33,000 jazz musicians in the New York City area, this in a city with perhaps 25 venues. "If you go to school to become an engineer, there are companies that want to hire you," suggested one New School student. "In music there aren't factories or companies that say, 'We need jazz musicians!' So it's like you have to almost invent your own job when you're done." To this end, some schools are wisely mandating more industry courses, with the New School offering a lecture series on the business of music, and recording or music industry internships.
Some, of course, will never be able to afford a degree program at all, and for them solutions range from seeking out local mentors to relocating nearer to city centers with jazz scenes. For those who do sign on, the financial costs are high. "It's like going to medical school, but after medical school you can pay off your student loans, and for a lot of people here when we're done it's like: OK, $500 a month, while I can't even get $500 for my gigs."
So do students ever feel misled by their institutions about the realities ahead? In the end idealism still often prevails. "You can't just focus on feeding your body; you've got to feed your spirit too," one mused. "If you don't, you're going to wither up."