School for Cool: The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity, by Eitan Y. Wilf

Does formal teaching of jazz contradict the improvisation that is at its core? Trevor Herbert examines the evidence

August 14, 2014

The blurb on the back cover captures this book’s main concern: “Jazz was born on the streets, grew up in the clubs, and will die – so some fear – at the university.” Eitan Wilf, an anthropologist, spent a year testing this bleak prediction at two well-regarded jazz schools: Berklee College of Music in Boston and The New School in Manhattan. He completed his fieldwork by hanging around jazz venues listening to teachers and alumni.

The contention is that the academy, being a product of values originating in the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationality, contradicts the culture of jazz, which cherishes intuition, improvisation and individuality. Thus there is an apparently irreconcilable tension, in which homogeneity triumphs over individuality.

Jazz finds itself in this position because of a relatively late realisation in the US that it was a major and very American success that needed legitimisation. To elevate it from the lowbrow, jazz was incorporated into the academy to associate with elements that could be seen to contradict its spirit: curricula, assessments, monographs, honorary doctorates and the insatiable tendency to analyse.

Wilf observed classes and conversed with many educators and students, taking careful note of what they said and apparently believing every word of it. He is careful not to sully his professional objectivity too explicitly, but it is not always easy to avoid the impression that he has a decided view on what is good and what is, well, more foreign to jazz as he understands it, especially in his frequent references to “the administration”, which he delivers in ominously Orwellian tones.

School for Cool is thoughtful, provocative and well written, and addresses questions that might be posed for higher education in the creative arts more generally. It is well researched, too, although Wilf covers his back with a dis-claimer about the limitations that accrue from looking at just two fairly similar institutions in one country – and this is very wise.

Despite the book’s merits, the author ignores some important realities, or passes over them with undue haste. He writes of jazz as if its idiom and techniques can be addressed in the singular, when, in fact, the jazz century has yielded many diverse, complex styles. Stu-dents go to music schools to learn to play, but also to get a wider education. Institutions can hardly be blamed for providing a framework that is indeed “rational” and consistent with the values and standards applied to any other field of endeavour.

As Wilf properly points out, jazz schools have done much to provide forums for performance and can be seen as having nourished the future of jazz. Perhaps School for Cool’s most serious omission is its failure to explain or acknowledge that in jazz, as with any other subject, formal education provides the start, not the conclusion, of the creative endeavour. Teaching may stamp the student with the imprint of the teacher, but that imprint is not impenetrable by subsequent experience or agile imaginations. The present state of jazz, marked as it is by diverse, individualistic and essentially unique creative talents – many of whom are products of the jazz academy – is testament to this.

School for Cool: The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity

By Eitan Y. Wilf
University of Chicago Press, 288pp, £63.00 and £21.00
ISBN 9780226125053, 5190 and 5220 (e-book)
Published 23 May 2014

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