Jazz Classes, in Detail
Jazz music, like philosophy, ancient literature, and other insular fields with limited real-world application, has created its own cozy home in the educational system. In secondary schools, it gives young musicians a relatively harmless introduction to a music they’ll later discard as outdated and irrelevant. But at the college level, jazz majors are irretrievably immersed in the music’s history, theory and—above all—performance. Once the real world shatters their performing aspirations, many flee right back to the university or conservatory where, safely ensconced in a tenured position, they perpetuate the vicious cycle.
Tenured university teaching posts are probably the most coveted positions in the jazz field (other than the exclusive province of the Chosen Ones). Ironically, the personality traits that make for success in the academic world have nothing in common with jazz artistry. Jazz professorships require advanced degrees, and those who pursue them are by nature practical, career-minded and—with their orientation to future security rather than present artistic expression—far from spontaneous.
Perhaps that’s why university professors have pioneered their own form of jazz. As they’ll explain to their Jazz History classes, jazz music has evolved since its inception to reflect the lives and times of its practitioners. From bebop through free jazz, the music has been the artists’ vehicle for reacting to their social, political and cultural environment. No surprise then, that jazz enables these same professors to express their own unique academic milieu: their music is the sound of personal ambition and scholarly thought. Performance and composition alike are theory-driven, and the ability to athletically navigate complex written chord changes is paramount. Rather than relying on their ears, faculty performers are glued to their scores, negotiating obtuse chords by calculating scale choices with mathematical efficiency. Unfortunately, the music’s intellectual underpinnings render it inaccessible to all but fellow professors and advanced students. Undereducated audiences are left behind, even those who recognize that appreciation of such intricate music could only be a mark of personal sophistication.
Although jazz professors rarely overlap in style with the Chosen Ones, most still aspire to join their ranks. Toward that end, they book Chosen Ones for concerts, often finding ways to share the stage with them, sometimes composing a special tune for the occasion (and typically naming the tune after the Chosen One, thereby marking their relationship for eternity). They wine and dine them, take joint photos, and if possible book them on the side for personal recording projects. Interestingly, although Chosen Ones are the subject of great envy among jazz professors, many aging Chosen Ones who neglected to plan for retirement eventually seek and easily land university posts. There they are allowed to bypass normal hiring procedures in exchange for lending their credibility and doing virtually nothing.
Like other tenured faculty, jazz professors are required to publish, and as the number of jazz PhDs increases, so does the obscurity of their topics. Jazz Educators’ conferences are full of presentations—scheduled early in the morning and sparsely attended—on subjects ranging from “The Scalar Implications of Minor Seventh Flat Nine Chords in Mid-period Bill Evans Voicings” to “A Study of Coltrane’s Reed and Mouthpiece Choices in Relationship to His Late Career Dental Work” to “Post-Chromatic Stress Disorder in the Neo-Lydian Landscape.”
If you, Reader, were to try to look like a jazz artist, you would wind up looking like the jazz professor, who tries far harder to look like a jazz artist than an actual jazz artist does. Goatees, berets, tinted glasses, African skull caps, ponytails, and earrings are standard fare. By contrast the committed jazz artist, especially the Epiphyte, doesn’t much care what he looks like and doesn’t have the money to try anyway.
- The aforementioned jazz disguise
- The university professor is fully bilingual, equally at home with the pinched, grammatically correct language of the academic, and the jargon-laced, “street” banter of the jazz artist. By necessity, he has multiple personalities to complement his linguistics: entering a music department meeting, he can readily swap out his loose jazz cool for the requisite constipated classical clench.
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