Beyond the Music – what a jazz education offers beyond the music itself


Question: What values does a jazz education offer beyond the music itself?

     Artists have always had a supply and demand problem. Since time immemorial there have been more people with creative ideas than an audience to communicate them to, especially if the art demands more than a cursory attention span. In the current world of  jazz education, the situation vis a vis graduating more and more of the most equipped musicians in history (every year more so) in stark contrast to the scarcity of  paid performance and recording opportunities has assumed epic disproportion. To deny this would be like ignoring global warming. Serious educators are and should be concerned. Discussions on the subject are sometimes uncomfortable, but are nonetheless taking place worldwide. Notwithstanding that this situation might differ in degree from country to country or even regionally (all trends have their own natural ebb and flow), it is incumbent that responsible educators address this issue.

     The standard response has traditionally been that it is not our responsibility to be concerned with the vocational aspects of an arts education. Our job is the transmission of  knowledge, peripherally, if at all, addressing matters concerning the ramifications of making a living pursing one’s art in the “real” world. This viewpoint does not hold up under scrutiny and is at the minimum a matter of principle and ethics, let alone economics to some degree or another, if one considers the rising cost of a college education worldwide and the financial debt that a young person might be straddled with from the onset of their “real” life. Obviously, the situation in America vis a vis the cost of a college education is the most glaring and outrageous example of this part of the problem. Responsible educators should have something to offer these young men and women beyond cliches that is relevant and specific, at the least enumerating proven attributes of a jazz education that go beyond the music itself and will enrich their lives. Yes, Coltrane (and other artists) offer a high aesthetic and spiritual plane, but what about the here and now?

     I think it is safe to assume that most students (and their teachers) would in a perfect world, choose to play and communicate their art while maintaining  a steady financial basis. When I address my master’s degree students at the Manhattan School of  Music the first day of class I ask them point blank if they could have it their way, how many would rather contemplate questions of harmony, rhythm, etc., instead of  having to deal with making a living, the most obvious route being teaching. The obvious response is unanimously 100% towards playing. This is after all what most of us dreamed of when we became enamored of jazz way before thoughts of a formal education in this music surfaced. It’s possible that on a case by case basis a certain measure of success may somehow occur to a gifted, deserving and fortunate individual. But for the majority of young aspiring students looking towards the future this scenario is unlikely for reasons that are well documented (demise of the record business, venues closing, arts funding down, etc.)

Question rephrased: What specific values and/or skills have our students learned through the study of jazz that could possibly be of use in the world and life they will encounter? 

Jazz skill(learned): Spontaneous improvisation.

Life skill(transferred): The level of personal honesty that an individual brings to a playing situation is a given since there is nowhere to hide when improvising in the jazz tradition. Who you are and what you represent go beyond the moment touching upon deep philosophical and spiritual aspects of what it is to be alive.

Key concept: Honesty

Jazz skill: Soloing.

Life skill: Having the ability and attitude necessary to assume leadership, taking charge when and if required; also to hand over leadership unconditionally when the situation calls for it.

Key concept: Leading and following

Jazz skill: Soloing as a “multitasking” activity.

Life skill: Dealing with a lot of information quickly; ability to integrate and synthesize information in a creative fashion.

Key concept: Clarity and focus

Jazz skill: Learning from mentors.

Life skill: Being able to learn from older mentors by graciously accepting their wisdom as a vital part of the learning process. This implies suspension of judgment as to the immediate personal value of the material offered.

Concept: Experiential learning

Jazz skill: Participating in a group effort through ensemble collaboration.

Life skill: Maintaining an open and respectful attitude towards other group members by working with them as peers, regardless of age, gender, proficiency level, nationality, religion, race, etc. This infers that being better at a task does not mean personal superiority or the opposite.

Key concept: Mutual respect

Jazz skill: Realizing one’s unique “voice.”

Life skill: By honing one’s own vision, the individual assumes an active role towards changing and improving a given situation by offering unique and personal ideas towards that end. This involves critical and creative thinking along with honest self evaluation, discipline and a desire for change towards discovering a better way to accomplish a given goal.

Key concept: Clarity of vision

Jazz skill: Knowing the “standard” repertoire (history and traditions) as it exists with the ability to vary given directives in creative and multiple ways, accomplished both spontaneously as well as pre-planned.

Life skill: Being able to adjust and change direction in a situation already framed by a given set of rules and conditions which may or may not encourage new discoveries and innovation; seizing the moment and affecting immediate change while at the same time being actively involved in the process itself; having the necessary confidence to accomplish this goal with the awareness that the final result might not be realized until later with no guarantees concerning the outcome.

Key concept: Flexibility

Jazz skill: To be able to “swing” meaning being part of the surrounding context (“groove”).

Life skill: Being part of the creative process taking place; to energize and be energized by interacting with the involved parties towards realizing a goal; feeling a “joie du vivre” through being involved in a group effort.

Key concept: Commitment

Jazz skill: Composing original music, etc.

Life skill: Creating something new and/or modifying an already established tradition or practice based upon one’s imagination, skills and experiences.

Key concept: Individual creativity


Jazz skill: Being in the moment, aware of what is happening around you in all ways.

Life skill: An open attitude towards the new and unexpected without fear or immediate judgment; realizing that out of the old comes the new to be embraced and refined as befitting the specifics of a situation.

Key concept: Awareness

Jazz skill: Interaction on stage; communication with an audience; working within one’s immediate musical community.

Life skill: Realizing your relationship to one’s direct working and social environment, meaning the immediate group as well as society at large; the ability to see the “big” picture in both one’s private and creative life.

Key concept: Citizenship

Jazz skill: Being an entertainer and communicator.

Life skill: Realizing the social component and purpose of your work; the ability to offer one’s ideas and creative work in a manner that will successfully convey ideas and concepts to a given audience for consideration.

Key concept: Communication

Jazz skill: Being an artist

Life skill: To recognize the deep intrinsic values of what one does in life on both a practical and spiritual level; communicating core universal values (truth, beauty, compassion, etc.) in a way that both educates and entertains.

Key concept: Spirituality

     John Dewey, one of America’s foremost thinkers on educational philosophy concerning learning how to learn:

     “..each (individual) shall have the education which enables him to see

     within his daily work all there is in it of large and human significance….first

     and foremost to teach habits of learning.”

     Thanks to Walter Turkenburg, Jari Perkiomaki and those educators who

     offered comments.