Hot and bothered over all that jazz

December 25, 1998

The introduction of jazz performance courses is causing wild discord in Britain's musical establishment. Tony Tysome finds out whether jazz can be taught and, if it can, whether the teachers are up to the job

There are only two types of music: good (jazz) and bad." So said jazz master Duke Ellington, and it is a sentiment that appears to have taken hold in universities and colleges.

Jazz performance courses are being introduced across the United Kingdom, alongside the more austere classical training long provided in the music conservatoires. Bach's preludes and fugues and Beethoven's string quartets are making way for the East St Louis Toodle-oo, the Creole Love Call, and the Black and Tan Fantasy. Students are learning to forget allegro ma non troppo, andante and vivace, and instead think "swing", "groove", "bebop", and "riff". Even the previously conservative Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music is cutting in, with new exams in jazz piano offered from January.

But the courses are fraught with controversy. A fierce debate is raging in the schools as musicians clash over the question: can jazz really be taught?

As a professional jazz educator, Richard Michael, a consultant for the Associated Board's jazz syllabus, believes fervently that jazz can, and should, be taught. Sceptics tend to be members of the "doom and gloom brigade, who think jazz is something you can only learn in smoky dives", he says. But "this is nonsense, because the way you learn anything is through study and application".

He turns to the piano to demonstrate. "Take a Bach fugue," he says, playing a few bars. "Just change the phrasing, and you make it sound like jazz." My foot starts to tap as the piece is transformed from calculated counterpoint into fugue with "funky feel". "You need to get the right groove: there is a Bach groove and there is a jazz groove - the difference is in the execution, which can be taught."

Among the sceptics are jazz musicians such as Nick Weldon, also a piano player. Even though Weldon teaches jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, he has serious reservations. British colleges, he warns, must be careful not to duplicate the mistakes made by their American counterparts.

"In the United States teaching jazz is often treated like painting by numbers. They think that if you follow certain steps you will get to a creative pot of gold. Very few institutions, either in the US or in this country, have had a shot at teaching those techniques that are quantifiable while at the same time trying to develop the inner voice. It can end up with everyone sounding the same".

Jeremy Price, who is coordinating a bachelor of music jazz degree course starting next year at the Birmingham Conservatoire, could not disagree more. It is "almost impossible" to turn out musicians who sound the same, he says, because each responds to the music in a different way. Individuality emerges by default, but first everyone, even the most talented, has to learn the nuts and bolts of the craft.

"When people are first confronted with jazz it sounds very free and spontaneous. Some, therefore, assume it is an illiterate art form that cannot be taken into the musical establishment. But when you take a close look at the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, you realise they are extremely well schooled and disciplined."

Ian Carr, author of Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, gives students an insight into the schooling of the jazz masters in lectures at the London Guildhall School of Music, where he is professor of jazz history. Some of the greatest jazz musicians schooled themselves to sound undisciplined, even though they practised hard and had their own gurus, whose sound they copied, he points out. Will Marion-Cook, an informal tutor for Duke Ellington, once advised that the best way to develop a jazz theme was to "find a logical way, and then avoid it".

Carr particularly admires one Ellington number called Hot and Bothered, in which improvisation takes precedence over technical perfection. "It's better to have the fluffs in there," he says.

Quite what the Associated Board examiners will make of any fluffs made by pianists attempting the new graded jazz exams remains to be seen. Dorothy Cooper, jazz coordinator at the London Guildhall, has written to the Associated Board about her worry that most piano teachers are not up to teaching jazz. She is "appalled" by seminars held for teachers considering introducing the syllabus, and by their poor knowledge of even the most basic jazz principles, such as how to play a "jazz quaver".

"None of this is written down. You just have to know it. Trying to get these people to feel the music is a massive job. I do not think the Associated Board has really thought it through," says Cooper.

One point on which almost all involved in the debate agree, however, is that you have to listen to an awful lot of jazz before you can play it. That is the principle upon which the Royal Academy of Music has based its four-year bachelor of music in jazz. Graham Collier, jazz professor at the academy, says: "We teach the course on the premise that the way jazz has always been learned is by listening to people doing it, and then doing it yourself. We have concerts every other week and everything is as practical as possible."

He admits that listening and doing can get the aspiring jazz musician only so far. They still need "a lot of application and also that mysterious something".

Perhaps the last word should go to Charlie Beale, a jazz pianist who helped compile the Associated Board's jazz syllabus. Students who worry that their jazz course will stump their creativity should remember the words of jazz revivalist Eddie Harvey: "I but then again, you can do what the hell you like."

CAN YOU TEACH JAZZ?

NO

Jeff Clyne has learned a lot from others in his 40 years as a jazz musician, but he still feels there is a significant part of jazz that cannot be taught.

"It's like learning a foreign language. There is only so much books can teach you: you have to listen to people speaking the language to get the accents right. You learn by copying and experimenting by yourself and with others."

Clyne, who plays double bass, is involved in jazz degree programmes at the London Guildhall and the Royal Academy of Music. But he has reservations about grading jazz performance and attempts to standardise the curriculum.

"Either you can play, or you can't. Having learned the basic requirements,it's all down to personal development," he says.

YES

Georgina Williams wishes the Birmingham Conservatoire had introduced its bachelor of music jazz course two years ago.

Jazz has been the focus of much of her work and was at the forefront of her mind when she auditioned for a place at the conservatoire.

She plays tenor saxophone in the conservatoire's jazz ensemble, and feels her experience there has taught her some valuable lessons. "There is a certain amount you can learn just by listening. But at the end of the day, there is so much more you can be taught that makes the difference between playing pop saxophone and playing jazz," she says.

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