Corey Mwamba


as_the_tex(t): roots

Simon Purcell shared a very interesting article by Ronan Guilfoyle, and we had a really good discussion about it on Facebook; so I thought I would document my thoughts in an easier-to-find format. In the blog post, Guilfoyle discusses the relevance of teaching a music "that grew out of a set of social circumstances a long time ago, in a far away country, and from a society of which we are not part". He then sets out reasons why "traditional jazz skills" and repertoire should be taught. These are summarised as

From my perspective as a musician working in the field of jazz and improvised music, there is much that is important in the post. And it also raises questions when we consider the purposes and methods of education; and how those methodologies reflect what is unique and important in jazz.

First, what are "traditional jazz skills"? If "the tradition" is taught predominantly at a syntactic level (harmony/melody/rhythm), then the question is answered; but is it really "teaching the tradition"? The syntactic skills Guilfoyle lists are all skills required in rock music; or folk. If so-called "classical" training is thorough (and there are compelling examples of this—read various chapters of Improvisation and Music Education: Beyond The Classroom1; or—going back to my Master's work again—read Busse Berger's work on medieval music and the art of memory2) those skills are apparent there too. They don't have to be taught through the prism of jazz3. So why is jazz special/exceptional?

I feel that Guilfoyle begins to explore this exceptionalism by talking about a tradition. But this raises more questions. Connecting all groups that play with bass and drums with the tradition is over-simplistic—I could make a stronger argument for piano and drum combinations, which pervade the history of the music for a longer span, even if we only count from the first jazz recordings. That collective improvisation occurs in jazz is also not special when we examine other musics. So if these things do not make jazz special, we have to ask again: what is it within jazz that makes it exceptional?

I believe it is in Guilfoyle's final point where he indicates the exceptionalism in jazz; the high level of musical thinking and philosophy. But he begins this section with a lament.

I often think that jazz schools spend too much time explaining jazz history as a linear construct ('And then in 1945.... etc.), and not enough time exploring, with students, the aesthetic and philosophical thought that underpinned some of the greatest music created in the 20th Century. [...] Sometimes, unfortunately, there is an unspoken belief that these musicians were producing this music without any analysis or musical/philosophical underpinning for what they did. However even cursory research, reading of interviews etc. reveals people for whom the aesthetic and seriousness of what they were doing was all-important. The giants of the music were deep thinkers and full of wisdom about music and its importance in their lives, and by extension, in the wider world of thought, art and ideas.

It is this: the quality of thought; the notion of working differently and thinking about how to do; the aesthetics, that marks jazz as exceptional. In the Heble and Laver book I referred to above, the creative musician William Parker describes his working through the music scene of New York4. He talked about how there were "as many ways to improvise as there were to speak" in the communities of musicians that he hung around with. He then said something that I found quite stark and inspiring:

Technique is just how one saves the drowning child. Aesthetics is the impulse to save the child.

And each musician's aesthetic is exceptional to another's. Ted Gioia talks about these differences with regard to King Oliver and Louis Armstrong5. I could throw out a number of names in "Great Man" fashion, but there is no need. We know that in the musicians we love, there is an exceptional aesthetic. But further to this, these different aesthetics are coordinated within the social acts of jazz making. We hear an array of methodological frameworks not just across different artists, but also within a single recording; and it is this coordination (or the striving towards coordination—the "impulse") of aesthetics that I think does not occur in any other music.

For me, Guilfoyle's article presents a challenge. If aesthetics is important to jazz practice; but it is not explicit within formal jazz education; then why is this the case and how can the importance of aesthetics be made more apparent?

  1. Improvisation and Music Education: Beyond the Classroom, ed. by Ajay Heble and Mark Laver, 2016. 

  2. Anna Maria Busse Berger, Medieval Music and the Art of Memory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). 

  3. For the sake of brevity, I will occasionally use the word jazz as a short-hand for jazz and modern improvised music, with full knowledge of the problems that this could cause with improvisers who do not see themselves as jazz musicians (or indeed, jazz musicians who don’t improvise!). 

  4. William Parker, ‘Becoming Music: Building Castles with Sound’, in Improvisation and Music Education: Beyond The Classroom, ed. by Ajay Heble and Mark Laver, 2016, pp. 176–80. 

  5. On King Oliver, Gioia focuses on performer’s sound to give context to Louis Armstrong’s playing. Oliver claimed to work on his cornet tone for ten years, developing many ways of altering the timbre of his instrument through growls, smears and mutes. But with Sidney Bechet, Gioia states that the saxophonist’s concept of sound is a New Orleans attention to tone production, rather than an "Africanized" attention. Gioia relates Oliver's development of personal sound to a "more Africanized sensibility", alluding to the predominance of sound texture over pitch; and contrasts these alterations in tone to Armstrong’s technical facility and cleaner tone. Is the "New Orleans attention" Africanized, or does it come from New Orleans itself? What then is the sensibility or attention of Armstrong, who – like Bechet and Oliver – was born in New Orleans? Gioia frames this as an inspired, innovative use of Western music on the part of Armstrong, "a true master of licks and all the complicated notes that appeal to the Western musical mind". This is despite the wide diversity of tonal music from across the African continent employing a large array of pentatonic, hexatonic, and larger scales or modes. The Pythagorean legacy that Gioia suggests is not a distinctly Western idea, but the comment on complicated notes appealing to a Western musical mind as distinct from an "African" mind is an Africanist (after Edward Said) sentiment. See Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, 2nd edn (Oxford University Press, 2011). 

comments (3)

Han-earl Park

4th Jun 2017 | 8:57pm

fwiw, it seems to me that Guilfoyle is making a conservative argument. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such an argument, especially if you’re making it to a room full of conservationists, but it’s likely to leave those on the outside unmoved. One might (uncharitably for sure) take statements of the form “I cannot think of any other…” as indicating a lack of imagination about alternative worlds shaped through a different set of historical accidents.

The thing about core skills or repertoire is that they have come to be so because of accidents of history. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, the same way as there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with how Bach chorale harmonizations have become foundational because a bunch of 19th Century composer basically decided they were foundational.

But I digress….

My main reservation about Guilfoyle’s piece is to do with the argument that these (more-or-less finite, more-or-less clearly bound, more-or-less well-understood) tropes of ‘jazz’ connects students to a tradition, and the implication that this tradition and/or connection is itself intrinsically more desirable or foundational than some other tradition, connection, traditions or connections. It’s a beautiful liberal thought that ‘jazz’ transcends racial, social and historical specificity; that a white man from Dublin could be equally part of this through this kind of formalism. But what this ignores is how many institutions and structures that have (possessively) invested in this formalized ‘jazz’ have worked to excommunicate many musicians—many of whom are/were black, American and working class—precisely those people whose experience ‘jazz’ was supposed to be an expression of.

Corey Mwamba

5th Jun 2017 | 5:57am | replying to Han-earl Park

I would agree with that. The lament is more of a "if only..." rather than a "we should...". I'm hoping it's clear that the founding aesthetics I'm talking about are from African-diasporic lived experience; and if aesthetics were foregrounded over repertoire, a student would not be able to avoid the social and historical aspects of the music.

Han-earl Park

6th Jun 2017 | 1:03am

Aesthetics were foregrounded over repertoire, a student would not be able to avoid the social and historical aspects of the music.

I think if you define aesthetics as a moral impulse or imperative as Parker does in the quote above, then this follows. (As for me, I never know what ‘aesthetics’ means in any given context %^} )

If only more people would engage in the moral, ideological implications of aesthetics, perhaps we wouldn’t see so much violence carried out in the name of aesthetics.

Sign in to comment using almost any profile.