02 July 2011

The New Traditionalist Critique?

The following recent comments from two respected older jazz musicians both level an accusation towards jazz academia that I find somewhat surprising.

First, here's drummer Ralph Peterson interviewed by pianist George Colligan:

GC: How important is it to have musical heroes?

RP: I think if you don’t know how to play like somebody else first, you can never arrive at what somebody can identify as your own style. That’s another problem with what’s going on right now. All these institutions are pushing kids to have their own style.

GC: Before they are ready.

RP: I’m telling you…. they ain’t got no fucking style. I don’t have no fucking style. My style is copying the style of the people I love and the way I combine it and that’s nothing more.

GC: But it has come out as your own identifiable style?

RP: Yeah, the way I combine these musical things is not going to be the way you combine them, even if we study the same guy’s playing.

Next, here's a passage from an article by bassist Chuck Israels:

Excessive reverence for the romantic illusion of "original thought" is the most fraudulent and destructive element in the institutionalized process of jazz education. Students are encouraged, sometimes even forced to engage in a frenzied "real time" search for "what to play", resulting in frustration for the student and the audience. The usual result is awful gibberish which ought to be embarrassing to all parties but which seems to be not only condoned but encouraged by those jazz educators who misunderstand the process of improvisation.

What we're accustomed to hearing, of course (or at least I am), is not that universities fail to impart style to their jazz students, but that this is, to a fault, all that they do, churning out soulless virtuosic clones in the process. A certain conformity among academically trained jazz players is indeed observable (and in many ways unfortunate), but I'm less convinced than I once was that this is particularly avoidable, or that it is in any way unique to the academic environment. As Peterson says, players with similar influences can (and should, and often do) arrive at distinctive personal styles nonetheless; I do think, though, that this presupposes a certain breadth of influences, as well as a generally staunch work ethic, and I'd say that these two characteristics are typically in short supply, not just among college music majors, but among most communities of musicians I've interacted with across many styles and career paths. Hence, in my mind, putting it all on the academics isn't entirely fair. These considerations, along with its malleability to so many different agendas, make the "clone" critique too easy to level, glossing over more substantive issues. To that end, the present accusations would seem to raise the possibility that this old trope, whether it's legitimate or not, has finally gotten under the academics' skin, and that they've (over)reacted accordingly. Are schools really feeling increased pressure to deliver more individualists and fewer stylists? Is this creating a scorched-earth mentality in jazz academia? Or are these two musicians just blowing smoke? I'm intrigued without being encouraged.

Both statements are rather severely worded, appealing to the notion of pressure or coercion. (Peterson: "All these institutions are pushing kids to have their own style." Israels: "Students are encouraged, sometimes even forced to engage in a frenzied 'real time' search for 'what to play'"). Without specific examples, I'm left to guess who might be doing the pushing and where they teach, but I will say that this strikes me as a very unlikely critique of jazz education, not only in my direct experience, but also in what I've been able to glean second hand from peers who attended different schools than I did. When we vent about our schooling, it's not about having been forbidden to have models, but rather about having had them prescribed for us. Israels argues against this, saying that, "A poor model is better than none...Get a grip, any grip; then move on to a firmer one." This is a refreshingly pluralistic statement, and on those grounds alone, I'm on board. However, the bigger topic under discussion here isn't stylistic pluralism, but rather the merits of establishing a single, pervasive model at an early stage of musical development. I'm less comfortable with this idea for a variety of reasons, some philosophical, and others personal.

My own number one critique of jazz education has always been its poverty of style-neutral pedagogical discourse; put another way, that the study of improvisation is only ever approached through the lens of particular styles (usually bebop) and never the other way around. Though I respect and agree with allowing students to choose which players or styles they might organize their study of jazz around, I disagree that improvisation cannot also be profitably studied abstractly or autonomously, and I don't think it's far-fetched to suggest that jazz students might benefit immensely from at some point being made to confront the practice of improvisation unburdened by their study of particular jazz styles or players. I consider improvisation to be roughly, if not perfectly, analogous to technique, and just as one's breathing or lip flexibility won't develop beyond an elementary stage without occasionally being isolated from the myriad other things one has to think about when performing, so too one's general improvisational technique can and should be isolated if it is to be developed to its fullest potential.

My purpose here is not necessarily to insist that the "frenzied real time search for what to play" is a viable performance strategy, nor even that it is, strictly speaking, a logical possibility, and I'll leave more specific hashing out of the nature of thought and the inescapability of influence to the neuroscientists and philosophers. My point is simply that attempting such a thing can be usefully informative about the state of one's own playing, thought and identity, and when done in the practice room rather than on stage, it can't possibly hurt anything. An art which stubbornly refuses to so much as entertain the occasional "romantic illusion" is one which I want no part of. One certainly could argue that style is inescapable, yet I'd say that I've learned the most about myself as an improvisor by finding out what happens when I try to escape it anyway. Don't just tell me that I'm bound to fail; I want to know how and why. This is invaluable information for a musician to have about themselves, and students shouldn't be discouraged from attempting to ascertain it.

I spout a fair quantity of abstract philosophical speculation in this space, but on this issue, my opinion is overwhelmingly informed by my own experiences. Having now been out of college longer than I was in, it's more apparent to me than ever that I've gained the most from intense study of a small amount of material over longer periods of time, and little-to-nothing from the opposite; but I also feel that my earliest such efforts created too many blind habits and not enough flexibility (again, the consequences of approaching improvisation solely through the lens of style; if only I'd understood it better). I'm particularly troubled by Israels' "favorite musician" standard, as this represents an even narrower band of influence than that which I engaged with at this stage. This was a time when, like many teen musicians, I'd only recently had my musical awakening, and the impact of having located "the real shit" meant that I fawned over virtually anything I heard. Once I'd heard a lot more music, though, this fawning subsided and I had a real problem, namely that my playing had grown up around models which were no longer as important to me as they had once been.

I've truly disavowed very little over the years, but even so, the impact of one's first influences can be all-encompassing, and even slight changes of taste later on can create crises of identity. This is more or less my story. All of this was magnified considerably when I became interested in non-jazz improvisational musics, but by that time, I was already fighting, if not yet winning, the battle. An overbearing teacher pushing me to sound more original would have been superfluous because I was, rightly or wrongly, strongly predisposed to play that role for myself. I was fortunate not to have too many run-ins with overbearing traditionalists either, and where they did occur, they were less run-ins that directly affected my academic standing than they were of the off-handed-codgerly-remark-in-a-masterclass variety.

There are many facets of my musical education which experience has since suggested might have been more productively undertaken working backwards from what conventional wisdom dictates. The stylization question is at the top of this list. To return for a moment to the technique analogy, one would never tell a student that "a poor model is better than none" with regard to general instrumental technique because poor habits must ultimately be unlearned, and they are harder to break than they are to develop. Perhaps the analogy to stylization is not a perfect one, but my own ongoing process of unlearning much of my earliest stylistic conditioning has made me wish a thousand times over that I had focused on more broadly applicable improvisational skills as a teen and saved deeper study of players and styles for later, when I really knew what I wanted, and when my ability to develop stylistic fluency without relying on blind physical habits was more fully developed. (Whereas Israels twice uses the word "habits" favorably, it has always been a jazz ed bugaboo in my book.) It is, of course, completely subjective what constitutes a "poor" model stylistically, and less so (though, I hasten to add, not entirely) what constitutes a poor model technically, and that's where the analogy breaks down; all I'm saying is that when I was 17, I had no idea that my own stylistic orientation might change, and under those circumstances, it has proven imprudent to grasp at the lowest hanging stylistic fruit. This is why I like to say that stylization is an advanced topic, not a beginning or intermediate one.

I've written recently about the mass disavowals of jazz among twenty-something peers, which I'm not convinced should be taken as an indictment of either jazz generally or its academic manifestations specifically, but which I am convinced is an observable trend which demonstrates the unlikeliness that your favorite musician when you're 18 will still be your favorite musician when you're 22. Settling on a stylistic orientation (or a constellation of them) is an unpredictable long-term process, and one which it could be argued that the attentive and driven musician never truly completes. In any case, to venture far enough down this path to attain even a transient stability requires a breadth of listening and study that most undergraduates won't manage to acquire before graduating. (In my case, having this forced on me by musicology professors rather than being left to my own devices sapped my very will to undertake it, and I've only recently recovered). If there's a good chance you haven't yet heard or even heard of your "favorite musician," then it's too early to invest disproportionately in imitation of a convenient model that you might not hold in such high regard shortly thereafter. Many students will suffer through this process, as I did, and survive more or less in one piece; I'm not convinced, though, that it is either ideal or unavoidable.

What else to say, then, about Israels' dissatisfaction with young players not being able or willing to name a favorite musician than that the very idea becomes increasingly untenable as one's breadth of listening experience accumulates, the best work of great artists therein coming to stand in equally high relief not only from the work of less accomplished contemporaries, but also from the bulk of their own output. Shostakovich is one such gloriously uneven composer: he wrote one of my five favorite pieces of music, but only two of my fifty favorite and probably not three of my hundred favorite. Were I to bump into Professor Israels in the hallway, Wayne Shorter would be my gun-to-the-head answer (probably after some throat clearing), both in terms of my overall attraction to his music and also time spent studying his style; yet his work is also uneven, perhaps moreso than some of the other candidates, and it doesn't really serve anyone's purposes to deny that. I think that the scale on which purposeful musical assimilation operates is much smaller than that of the Favorite Musician: rather, particular records or tunes, even particular moments in particular performances of particular tunes, are what we're really after. If "romantic illusions" about jazz are indeed to be avoided, then academia certainly should cultivate a willingness to judge case-by-case rather than constructing shrines. (Shit, even traditionalists have dirty words for people who indiscriminately worship a brand name.)

I'll close with a more personal reason I'm not comfortable naming a favorite, which is that the particular strain of wild-eyed idolatry that prevailed for many years among followers of Parker, Coltrane and others makes me very uneasy. From Phil Woods' forgery to Jon Faddis' soul patch to whoever started this nonsense about bebop being "the music of the future," no one has made it more difficult for my generation of jazz students to have "musical heroes" than those members of the older generations who have taken their own hero worship to such irrational, destructive, narcissistic heights. Seriously, guys, if this is a problem at all, it's on you and not on us. You showed us all the wrong ways to have heroes; forgive us, then, for being nonplussed when you ask us to name ours.