Musical Facilitators: an endangered species? Never before in the history of improvised music have educational opportunities abounded. Even a cursory examination of professional and industry publications reveals that schools throughout the United States are now offering "Jazz" degrees on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The best schools are able to retain distinguished faculty, whose mission is research and imparting musical knowledge to the next-generation improvisers, regardless of whether they ultimately become well known in their respective fields.
However, an issue reasonably arises as to whether today's music educators are adequately serving the needs of their students. Of course, this question can be answered only on a case-by-case basis, as instructor backgrounds and approaches vary significantly. On one hand, some educators advocate playing transcriptions and other written scores as a means of acquiring improvisational skill. Still others use no sheet music whatsoever, allowing students to play what they hear, in time-honored fashion. Both approaches are valid. What then, is one of the key indicators of an instructor's formal ability? Arguably, the aspiring or developing musician should seek out a true facilitator; that is to say, someone who will make musical progress easier, not more difficult. And make no mistake about it: facilitating does not mean "dumbing down" instructional practice.
Unfortunately, with the intense competition for musician jobs, as described in the Federal Occupational Outlook Handbook, there is an alarming increase in musical gatekeepers, the self-appointed magistrates of musical taste. Unlike the facilitator, the gatekeeper's sole purpose is to preserve a musical clique or status quo. Unfortunately, musical gatekeepers aren't only found in academia. A Sillicon Valley regional Jazz society recently made this admonition to its prospective jam session participants: "The house trio has to insure the musical quality of the event since this is a public performance. (It is) our obligation to provide music that is for the most part pleasing to the audience, competently performed, and readily recognizable as Jazz." When faced with ground rules such as these, a prospective participant may wish to evaluate whether these events truly serve his or her educational needs. Public performances may not be a right, but when artificial barriers are used to restrict them, musicians at any level are denied an opportunity for creative self-expression. Had there been this type of gatekeepers at Birdland and Minton's, the art form that we know as Jazz would not exist today.
Which leads to the last point. Educators who pit students against one another, Van Cliburn style, may wish to consider the degree to which such conduct trivializes the profession they hold so dearly. The inner city youth who prefers original, chromatic melodies to fake book standards may very well be our next Mozart.
by James D. Armstrong, Jr. Editor, Music in Transition Jazz Now Interactive
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of the February 2002 issue
Jazz Now Interactive
or March 2002 issue, all rights reserved