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If Jazz is Dead, then why do we study jazz?

Miles Davis

A recent article from the acclaimed trumpeter Nicolas Payton circulated heavily in music circles on social media entitled, “On Why Jazz Isn't Cool Anymore.” His first sentence said, “Jazz died in 1959.”

This article created quite a stir, and for sure it created much dialogue since I work in a music college, and amongst many of my students and alumni. I decided to write this as a response and a positional statement so my friends and students can hear my thoughts on this.

I agree with Nicholas Payton. If the definition of a genre of music being “alive” means that it has to be commercially viable, then yes definitely Jazz died in 1959. That was when jazz was last commercially viable with the release of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. According to music industry statistics, jazz accounted for 1.2% of the listening audience in 2017, just ahead of classical music by 0.1%.

Well according to these statistics then Jazz is not TOTALLY dead. It's on been life-support from jazz lovers, jazz students, jazz educators, jazz geeks, and jazz innovators since 1959. I do not believe it will ever “die” now, just like classical music will never “die.” For a music to die, it has to cease to exist...completely. But is it commercially viable? Depends who you ask. Michael Buble, Dave Koz, Chris Botti, and Snarky Puppy are doing ok. These guys are grabbing a big market share of that 1.2%. And it's enough for them to live comfortably...well for Snarky it's enough for them to stay on the road and stay in the game. Jazz purists would argue they do not play jazz. The general public certainly thinks they do. Depends who you ask man.

So why do we study a “dying” art form, or one that is on life-support? Shouldn't we study more “relevant” art forms that are less dead?

To answer that question I would have to delve a little into what I believe music education is all about...what is the essence of studying and going deep into music? What FORGES a master musician?

In my 20 years of experience working in higher education, forging musicians who go into the world in various capacities, those who succeed in the industry have 3 things in common:

  1. they can make music feel not just right, but GREAT;

  2. they have developed improvisational “chops”;

  3. they can create.

Forging a Musician:

1) Making Music Feel Great

For a musician to make music feel great, he/she has to know what makes a genre of music function, along with all of the nuances that differentiate it from other genres. He/she has to open the proverbial hood, and study the inner workings. For those who work in multiple genres, this process has to happen over and over again. This entails getting deep into many songs within a genre, and getting EVERYTHING right: the tone/sounds, the notes, the rhythms, the interactions between other musicians, the mix, etc etc. All of this combined we call “the feel.” This is in essence what happens when you play covers. Those who play in cover bands has to copy EVERYTHING to make things sound right. And the really great ones who have done this process for a significant amount of time gets the nuances to a point where it begins to sound and feel GREAT. Practically musicians go play in actual cover bands, or for those studying pop Christian music seek to play in churches that are doing this music at a high level of excellence. For all intents and purposes, Anglo mega-church bands are all excellent cover bands of the popular groups on Christian radio/streaming. Some of these bands evolve from copying to creating.

2) Chops

At some point in a musician's career you are bound to get in a situation where you are asked to “play off the page.” Meaning, rather than play what is prescribed to you from a recording or a piece of sheet music, you are asked to come up with your own it a new lead line, a new groove, a new set of chord changes, a new lyric, etc. The first time that happens is when panic sets in. You think, “holy crap, I don't know how to do that!”

The road to be able to create on an instrument starts with copying others, as I mentioned in point #1 above. Once the musician get on that process, they will slowly build vocabulary of that particular musical style. The process of creating starts when they first attempt to say something musically in within that particular style, after having exposed to the vocabulary. It's very much like how a baby learns to talk. At first they fumble and mix words, and slowly but surely they become understandable. Eventually they become brilliant over time, saying the darnest things.

Whenever I see someone who is saying something musically brilliant on social media, I repost with #VirtousityKnowsNoBounds. Virtuosity is the road to gaining the facility to be able to speak a musical language fluently enough to have something to say. To become a virtuoso requires the musician to have great technique on their instrument, and having the ability to play the most challenging music within a genre. Virtuosity, along with the deep understanding of a genre=CHOPS.

In my definition of chops it is not enough to just be able to copy a great passage or solo from your favorite genre. It is having the ability to CREATE that line on your own. Moreover, to have chops is not just knowing what to say, but knowing that what you're about to say is appropriate in that situation. LOL have you ever known someone who says the wrong things at the wrong time? Do you want to be around that person very long?

3) Creation

Once a musician gains facility on his/her instrument, and has developed a voice to have something to say, he/she is ready to create music from scratch. It starts on their own instrument, which is only a part of the whole. Along with the understanding of multiple genres and the nuances thereof, the musician has enough technical and creative knowledge to tackle creating ALL of the parts of a piece of music, not just his/her part. This is when a musician evolves from a player to an arranger/producer, and then a composer.

Why Study Jazz?

Studying Jazz covers all of these processes mentioned above: the need to copy and learn a musical language; the acquisition of technical prowess along with a working knowledge of how to speak within that language; and the ability to create not just your part, but the ability to arrange and work with a band. The parts where jazz excels beyond playing covers are parts two and three: building chops, the ability to improvise, and the ability to create. Copying is not creating. To create you have to have copied, but you need command of the language. It's the difference between a typist and an author. Of course the author types. But the typist cannot create.

The study of jazz in this day and age is about the acquisition of the aforementioned skills. My aim has never been to create jazz cats who will play jazz for a living, because that is just 1.2% of my student base. But my aim has been that my students can go on to APPLY the skills of acquiring a musical language, utilize their facility on their instrument, and go on to create great music, in whatever genre that they are required or that suits their fancy.

Because this is true: no genre of music or culture has a monopoly on virtuosity. One can gain facility on their instrument by playing heavy metal, bluegrass, or Armenian folk. There has been several great students who came knowing how to play progressive rock, and they have gone on to become amazing musicians, getting back into progressive rock after having studied jazz. If you asked them why they studied jazz, they would tell you that jazz made them think about music differently, it helped them get more chops, it developed a discipline of how to acquire a musical language, and it gave them a creative process.

It has been said that if you can play jazz, you can play anything. I have found this to be true in my life. A large part of this is due to the influential nature of western and American music around the world, but in particular the impact of African-American based musics: Jazz, R&B, Funk, Gospel. The evolution of jazz has progressed tonal music to the far edge of what is possible to create with 12 notes. Once you gain a proficiency of rhythm along with your understanding of those 12 notes you can play anything...with 12 notes. (sorry you can't play Indian or Turkish music that has way more than 12.)

I leave you with some fun jazz quotes from some of the jazz greats:

Miles Davis - "I never thought Jazz was meant to be a museum piece like other dead things once considered artistic."

Richard Bona - "I consider music being a school that never ends."

Gary Burton - "Improvising musicians are musical travelers, voyagers. There is a freedom to wander the musical landscape."

George Gershwin - "Life is a lot like Jazz... it's best when you improvise."

Melody Gardot -"Why Jazz? This is just the way I see music."

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