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Tom Reney Asks: What’s the Matter with Kids Today?

Radio host blogs about recent experience as a guest lecturer at local liberal arts college

Duke Ellington and Strayhorn playing 4-handed piano, perhaps their favorite duet "Tonk." Note Duke's suits in the background.
Duke Ellington

I was a guest lecturer on jazz for two music appreciation classes at a private New England liberal arts college yesterday. You might say I had my work cut out for me. None of the 42 students in these classes had ever heard of Wynton Marsalis, Diana Krall, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, or Duke Ellington. That’s right, DUKE ELLINGTON. I double-checked, tried to encourage even a wink or raised eyebrow from anyone who might have felt shy about acknowledging their sophistication, but it was to no avail. What added to my shock and dismay over this revelation of American cultural illiteracy was learning that a couple of the kids had played in high school jazz ensembles.

What’s going on? We hear of cuts to arts and music programs everyday, but how can a kid play in a school-based jazz ensemble and learn nothing of Duke Ellington? Does it even matter? I believe wholeheartedly that it does, that Duke Ellington’s music and life are central to what we should know about ourselves as a nation. That’s why I call attention to the paucity of jazz artists recognized by institutions like the Kennedy Center, and the manner in which they’re honored. Still, based on my daily Google Alert for Ellington, his music seems to come out of the shadows every February for Black History Month presentations by schools, symphony orchestras, and community arts centers, but something’s not resonating.

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