In his early book “Blues People,” Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) opined that the study of European classical music could interfere with the creative expression that produces jazz. As a young reader and jazz listener whose world mostly consisted of the non-conservatory players who came up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, I scoffed at this notion. After all, Miles went to a conservatory, right (although not to study jazz), and he could play anything.
Now we have reached an era when most major conservatories have jazz programs and some of them require students to pass a classical audition as well as a jazz audition to get in. This penetration of classical technique into the jazz form coincides with an era in which some critics say that jazz has become an esoteric, over-intellectualized music of more interest to the players than to the listeners. So is it possible that Amiri Baraka had a point after all? I’m here to say that he did.
Last year I enrolled in a jazz performance class at a local community college. According to the instructor, the academic study of jazz at the college level and above is focused entirely on modes. It doesn’t matter how many chords you know, in how many keys. If you can’t tell Lydian from Mixolydian, you can’t play jazz at the college level.
Now, “Kind of Blue” notwithstanding, am I the only one who thinks that listening to a musician play a scale over and over again—as opposed to improvising a new melody over chord changes—is boring? An awful lot of what I hear today on jazz radio sounds exactly like that: playing scales. I don’t hear any melodic gifts. I hear what my wife—not a jazz fan—calls “aimless noodling.” The fact that most of it is not aimless at all in the mind of the player does not make it any more fun to listen to.
It may be that the predominance of modes in college jazz classes is not the only influence that the study of European classical music has had on jazz. It is just the one with which I have personal experience and one that appears to emphasize the mathematical aspect of the music and limit the range of creative expression available. I don’t know whether that’s what Amiri Baraka had in mind or not. But if there’s a dominant approach being taught that emphasizes the intellectual side of the music at the expense of the emotional, and if the audience for the music is shrinking, then maybe we should think about broadening our jazz education approach.
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