Monday, June 22, 2009

Branford Marsalis on the state of jazz education

Branford Marsalis will be performing at the Calgary jazz festival. Here are some excerpts from his interview in the Calgary Herald:

For the 48-year-old saxophonist, composer, teacher and leader of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, the importance of learning from those who have gone before--not only with regard to musical refinement but also the spirit of community that lies close to the heart of the jazz music-making experience --is largely lost on the average young, well-schooled jazz musician of today, for whom the rush instead to be considered a new and unique voice is paramount.

"They're not in it for the tradition," the famous musician says, pointing out that the current artistic climate in the United States, which he sees as being shaped by "40 years of cultural narcissism," is largely to blame.

By the time the 1970s rolled round, he says, "the idea of jazz being reflective of a community and jazz being a sound where a solo was an integral part of the music but not the main issue" had evolved (at least insofar as the average jazz student was concerned) into the notion of the solo as "the only part of jazz they were interested in."

"The idea of playing with other musicians and playing together--all of those things had been pushed aside for a more self-absorbed philosophy based on a mastery of patterns and scales that work on chord progressions, et cetera, et cetera."

"It really depends on how the teacher is teaching as to whether it's important, but what I often tell my students is if architecture or aviation or engineering was taught the way jazz was taught there would be planes and buildings falling out of the sky. They'd just be crumbling everywhere, because the jazz version of (teaching) architecture is, 'Sure the Greeks had something important, sure the Egyptians developed certain structural things but we don't need to study it because it's not current. We're going to start around 1970'--and I don't have to tell you the end conclusion to that."

"I was lousy when I started, which the records bear out," Marsalis says. "But when I had the privilege of meeting people like Art Blakey and he would say to me, 'You don't have enough sound' and Dizzie Gillespie would say 'You need to learn the blues,' I didn't just say, 'Oh, they're just jealous because they're old.'

"I didn't make up an excuse to dismiss the central theme of what they were saying--which is something that was popular among my generation, to ignore those guys.

"A lot of musicians were more interested in getting gigs than they were in becoming competent and really good at what they do."

I go back and forth on my thoughts About his views on education and contemporary jazz. I see a point in what he's saying (particularly on the over emphasis of the solo and the importance of ensemble playing), however, as Bill Harrison wrote, there are times when Branford bugs me.

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