On Learning the “Classics”

I recently came across an interesting blog post Ronan on his Mostly Music blog. This post, entitled 21st Century Bebop, asks some good questions that jazz educators might want to consider.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills – playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn’t been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past?

Years ago, when I was still teaching in academia, I was sitting in on a juried recital for a drummer jazz studies major. He was accompanied by a couple musicians that he played around town frequently with and they seemed to draw the music primarily from the tunes they play on their gigs. The performance was excellent, but I was concerned about the lack of variety I heard. Afterwards, I commented to the student’s studio instructor that I wanted to hear something in the swing style and was confused when he insisted that there was. It took me a moment to realize that while I was talking about a jazz style and repertoire from the 30s and 40s, his instructor was thinking of something that had swing 8th notes.

It still seems strange to me that an undergraduate student completing a bachelors degree in jazz studies would go through 4 years of higher education and not be required to demonstrate a familiarity with performing in jazz styles developed prior to the 1950s or 60s. Perhaps it’s my professional bias as a trombonist to find myself performing traditional jazz and swing styles more than a drummer might, but I see a familiarity with the history of the style to be more than simply being professionally ready to play a gig where you need to play in a non-contemporary jazz style. Ronan addresses this too.

So – technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

I would take this a step further. I may be misremembering who exactly said this (and I may even be making this up entirely, but the point is still valid), but I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said it’s equally important for jazz students to get experience learning to play “classical” music as well. First, the pedagogy and practice on development of instrumental technique has been refined already with classical studies to a point that I still don’t see with jazz methods. The skill set you will learn from performing a classical recital or performing in an orchestra or concert band is going to benefit in a way that playing in a jazz combo just can’t provide. For example, if you’re performing a solo concerto you are going to have to have the chops to make it through all the movements and play what’s on the page, whereas when we improvise we unconsciously make choices that we already have the technique to play. Classical music challenges jazz musicians to improve their skills and become familiar with phrasing, articulations, and other nuances that you just won’t get playing contemporary jazz.

And, for that matter, I make the same argument for classical musicians learning to improvise and become familiar with jazz styles. I’ve listened to and played many pops concerts and noticed how uncomfortable the classical musicians sounded trying to phrase and articulate jazz and pop styles.

Of course we’re all going to have our personal preferences and strengths. There are some musical styles that I have little to no interest in learning to perform and others that I have made a conscious effort to become as good as I can playing. However, my experience has been that becoming a well rounded musician has been beneficial to performing in my preferred styles. Furthermore, my abilities as a “musical chameleon” have made it possible for me to work successfully as a professional musician and music educator in a wide variety of situations that many of my peers cannot.