Thoughts on the role of big band in and out of the jazz academe.
Keith T. Karns
Note: I am trying on a more relaxed citation format. Unlike previous posts there will be no bibliography. Sources are cited in text. If you REALLY don’t like it, or think that I am wrong about a specific source, send me and email and we will get things sorted out.
This week Camden Hughes published a blog post on learnjazzstandards.com advocating for less of a focus on jazz ensemble playing in high school and college and a refocusing of curriculum on jazz improvisation. Hughes joins a growing movement that identifies ensemble practice and performance as unimportant to musical development. You can read Hughes article here. This view is best exemplified by the 2008 David E. Myers article entitled “Freeing Music Education From Schooling: Toward a lifespan perspective on music learning and teaching”.
Here, Myers argues that the constant preparation and performance of ensemble repertoire does not do much to foster creativity or the desire for lifelong learning in students. This perspective is echoed in the article by Hughes. Both Hughes and Meyers are laboring under the assumption that little or nothing is gained by the preparation and performance of repertoire. Indeed, articles on comprehensive musicianship such as John Grashel’s 1993 paper “An Integrated Approach: Comprehensive Musicianship,” suggest that rapid preparation, performance and feedback are integral to musical development.
But I digress. This paper addresses three elements from the Hughes article: (1) Is improvisation the defining element of jazz? (2) why is big band music important—this I address from a musical and professional standpoint—and (3) what are the ways we can improve jazz education both in and out of the academe to present a more optimized system of instruction.
The idea that large ensemble jazz is somehow less worthy of attention is not new. In the 1940s jazz modernist Ross Russell used this argument to advocate bebop and argue against swing music. In the 1960s Leroy Jones adopted Russell's view and advocated that all composed or arranged jazz was a bastardized form of the music. Jones goes on to argue that important big band musicians and composers such as Count Basie and Ellington, made their most important contributions not in the bands that they lead and wrote for, but in their small group playing. Jones even goes on to claim that small jazz groups of two or three horns can duplicate the texture, orchestration, and overall approach of a large jazz ensemble.
Jones’ view was adopted by jazz critics and scholars in the 1960s and is still in vogue today. In the 1980s Gunther Schuller wrote "there have been no significant advances in arranging concepts since 1960". Ted Gioia writes that "large ensemble jazz is more of a tool of historical pedagogy, then a vehicle for artistic expression". The most damning condemnation of big-band jazz comes from Scott DeVeaux when he writes "5 or more musicians playing together on a stage brings to mind the specter of superannuated bodies shuffling to the music of yesterday, or worse the store reality of the University Lab band." Despite the popularity of this view it does little to reconcile the wealth of modern big-band jazz that has steadily been produced since the 1950s.
At its most basic level, this view argues against any kind of jazz that does not put improvisation in the foreground. Indeed, this is the stance taken by Camden Hughes in this article. Like Russell, Jones, Schuller, Gioia, and DeVeaux, Hughes makes no consideration for the musical elements found in big-band jazz such as orchestration, texture, and musical collaboration. This reflects a monolithic approach to the music, in which only the achievements of the individual are recognized rather than the contribution of the group. It is somewhat of a bizarre stance for a jazz musician to take, because all jazz performance is quintessentially a group effort governed not only by improvisation, but also by communication and collaboration.
In this article Hughes argues that improvisation is the primary element of jazz performance. However this immediately presents problems. If jazz must be improvised, we have no basis for dealing with important jazz contributions that do not feature improvisation. This is not just limited to large ensemble styles. For example Miles Davis' "Nefertiti," Duke Ellington's "Single Pedal of a Rose," and Charles Mingus “Self Portrait in Three Colors” do not contain conventional improvised solo statements.
Another problem with overvaluing improvisation comes in how we deal with prefigured material. It is common knowledge that prefigured solos were a feature in swing bands of the 1930s and 1940s. There are multiple instances of this from great bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. There is also evidence that many important recordings in small group jazz were prefigured, not improvised. In Thinking in Jazz—a magnum opus of jazz scholarship—Paul Berliner describes various processes where performers incorporate prefigured material into their solos. J. J. Johnson was famous for this, recording at times entire solos of prefigured material. In his book on Louis Armstrong, Brian Harker suggests that this was even a common approach used at various times by Sachmo. According to Hughes who values improvisation so highly, how are we to judge these solos?
Hughes’ perspective is also in conflict with current trends in small group jazz. The idea of improvisation as the prime factor when determining the quality of a performance implies that the more improvisation contained in a piece, the better it must be. This would imply that avant-garde jazz improvisation—free jazz—should be the basis of all jazz instruction. It contains the most improvisation so it must be “the jazziest”.
This idea is overly simplistic and does not represent a nuanced understanding of the jazz tradition or jazz history. Hughes's own conception of jazz history is far from complete. Hughes confuses genre with history. His narrow conception of genre has no room for later composed jazz contributions such as the work of Gil Evans, the work of Bob Brookmeyer, the work of Maria Schneider, the work of Darcy James Argue, and the work of John Hollenbeck. Additionally, he leaves no place for fusion—which practiced a kind of arranging structure done almost entirely in the editing room—or Afro Cuban or ECM styles. More generally, Hughes conception of jazz history is compartmentalized and does not allow for the fluid transition between styles seen in the collaboration between members of different music communities as was so often the case (For example, Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza, Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Claire Fischer and Bud Shank, Kenny Wheeler and Lee Konitz).
More importantly, Hughes ignores not only the quality of modern large ensemble jazz, but also the role that jazz ensemble's play in modern jazz communities. Many of today's most important jazz musicians such as Joe Lavano, Tim Hagan, Ingrid Jensen, Donnie McCaslin, John Fedchock, and Tom Harell, all spent significant time in big bands. Big bands are and important institution in virtually all jazz communities.
In his book Making The Scene: Contemporary New York City Big Band Jazz Alex Stewart argues that big bands function as vital professional networks in various cities across the country. They are a place where professionals meet to network, trade information, and get gigs. Stewart identifies over 100 professional contemporary big bands active in New York in the 1990s and early 2000's. This does not include dance bands and nostalgia bands. Stewart identifies modern big bands as a forum where young players can develop the most basic of jazz skills. This includes the ability to swing the ability to sight read, the ability to play in a section, and yes the ability to improvise. More generally, big bands provide students the ability to develop the skills crucial for life as a professional or semi professional musician. High on the list of these skills, is the ability to sigt read. While improvisation is without a doubt an important element of almost all jazz performance, very few jazz or commercial musicians would identify it as the primary skill needed to be a successful commercial musician.
Hughs’s main complaint seems to be that high school and college jazz ensembles do not provide enough instruction in improvisation. Hughes seems to be asking for increased emphasis to be placed on jazz improvisation at the institutional level. This is somewhat of a curious demand, because historically improvisational skills are rarely developed in institutional settings. The concept of an improvisation class taught at a high school or college is a relatively new concept, only emerging in the last 30 or 40 years. Prior to the 1960s, improvisation was taught in a much less formal manner—typically on the band stand. This is seen in mentorship between older and younger musicians, constant performance and listening, as well as in formal or semiformal gatherings such as the famous meetings at Gil Evans house during the 1940s, various jam sessions, or simply a group of musicians talking on a tour bus in between cities.
I find it interesting that Hughes, who views jazz education with skepticism seems to be advocating for a more institutionalized approach to jazz education, rather then re-instituting many of the informal and semi-formal music communities and forums. Historically, these communities were the most successful in developing jazz improvisation skills (for more on these communities see my blog post on jazz education prior to 1950).
This is not to say that jazz education has no place in an institutional setting, nor do I mean to imply that there are no areas for improvement in modern jazz education. One of the biggest tragedies of institutionalized jazz education is that by adopting formal European methods for instruction, the jazz community turned it's back on the informal and semi-formal educational opportunities that helped to develop so many of the greatest jazz musicians of the past 100 years. This continues to present problems for the jazz community, most notably our inability to attract an audience outside of the academe.
The biggest change needs to come in how we view the role of institutional jazz and music programs. Currently many institutional jazz programs seem to be the only or the primary resource for jazz education in a given community. Jazz exists in the halls of the academy but does not make it into the café, or the bar, or the nightclub. Institutional jazz programs cannot be the defining aspects of a jazz community. The role of the institution needs to be as a developer of local music communities. Rather than expanding departments, programs should be concerned with expanding opportunities outside of a school setting. Historically these are the opportunities that transform students into artists.
Eliminating the few programs that help teach basic skills of musical survival is not going to solve these problems. Rather than arguing for less instruction we should be arguing for more instruction and begin work to build more vital more diverse and more flexible jazz and music communities in every part of the nation.