Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Is the IAJE bad for Jazz?

For quite some time, I've been meaning to write a contrarian piece about the IAJE, probably since the annual conference in January, but never got around to it. So I was grateful to see notable jazz critic Doug Ramsey pick up the idea in his blog Rifftides, from his recent experience at the Lionel Hampton Festival in Idaho. His basic question: how is it that jazz education is booming by seemingly every measure, but the jazz audience continues to decline? Mae sure to read the comments there is much of value in both his post and the responses, but I want to step back and take a different tack to the question.

I don't know exactly when it happened, but I think it's safe to say that at some point in the 1980s, maybe earlier, the center of gravity in the jazz world, financially and intellectually, though not musically, moved from clubs, record companies and musicians organizations like the AACM and BAG to educational institutions, with the International Association of Jazz Educators (or IAJE, the umbrella organization for now thousands of primary, secondary and collegiate jazz programs) and later Jazz at Lincoln Center the two largest. It's not simply a jazz neo-con phenomenon, either- Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, and Roscoe Mitchell among others are now based at large universities, and the School for Improvised Music in Brooklyn is a decidedly left-of-center alternative/addition to young players' options. In many ways, we now have something of a patronage system for jazz much like the classical world had in the 18th century, with the schools replacing the aristocrats.

One major, and/or related consequence of this shift is now most of the up and coming young players have come through some sort of jazz academic program. Most of the great players under 40 on many of jazz's mini-scenes- from Brad Meldhau to Ralph Alessi to Taylor Ho Bynum to Darcy Argue to Wynton's hot young drummer Ali Jackson to (insert name here). This is a very real shift from even twenty years ago, when most of the hot up and comers- Wynton, Kenny Garrett, Dave Douglas, etc. were still mostly getting their training on the road. (people seem to forget that Dave toured with Horace Silver, but I digress...)

There are two related but not identical issues here- what this institutionalization of jazz does or doesn't do for jazz's popularity, accessibility, etc, and what two generations of academized players (of which, of course, I'm one) does to the music and its audience. Vijay Iyer says some interesting and very provocative things about #2 in a recent piece I highly recommend. I'll come to #2 later, but want to focus in this post on #1.

There are certainly advantages to this move to academia, and I don't want to downplay them. A college teaching gig offers stability and fair wages (often, not always) for the musicians who teach at these schools, the opportunity for unusual and creative programming that clubs and even festivals don't allow (evenings of new music by student big band composers, album concerts of Mingus or Hemphill, concerts that juxtapose Bird with his classical idols, etc.), a safe space for young players to work out ideas and identities, etc. And through high school and now junior high music programs, a lot of kids are exposed to some form of jazz that may never be otherwise, especially with the current state of Big Media.

There are also, obviously, obvious drawbacks to this system, drawbacks that have more than a little to do with the disconnect that Doug Ramsay calls out. The first is not limited to the IAJE, or J@LC, or jazz- any institution's first priority becomes the survival and success of the institution. If there were a choice between the health of the IAJE and the health of jazz (as if you could measure such a thing), the IAJE would win every time. This is the nature of organizations. The IAJE's first priority is to its board and member organizations, who may or not be active musicians. This lessens the incentive, even subconsciously, for the IAJE to address the commercial decline of jazz, lack of real-life performance venues, etc. as long it can point to its own growth and programming as a sure sign of jazz's health.

As jazz gets more institutionalized, it becomes less connected to the real commercial marketplace. This is important- as long as the fulcrum of a music is a commercial label, then finding an audience, communicating and developing and marketing talent is important to that fulcrum. When the music is not beholden to a popular audience, but to academic bosses and grant boards, is there any wonder that it's not selling as many records. Alex Ross spends much time and space in his blog cataloguing new and interesting approaches to presenting and subsidizing classical music, and building new audiences. There is no equivalent to that kind of innovation (or certainly not on that scale) in the jazz world. Partially, I think, because the IAJE and its ilk wants to believe that everything is OK. (See Peter Breslin's deconstruction of the NEA/J@LC's recent "curriculum advice" if you need further evidence.)

Case in point, the IAJE's world headquarters is in Manhattan... Kansas. In a college town, yes (Kansas State), but a college with, according to its website, a full-time jazz faculty of... one. A little town an hour from any real city (Kansas City), and three hours from any town with a scene to speak of (St. Louis). Miles away, and light years in headspace, from any real center of music or musical thought, by any measure, in America- NYC, Chicago, Denver, LA, Boston, Miami, you name it. In other words, about as far away from the real successes, problems, and struggles of the average jazz musician as you can be.

(An aside- I was talking to one of my fellow yogis- a sharp, hip twenty-something woman- at a studio yesterday, and we got to talking about what I do. When I mentioned "jazz" or something similar, she got very excited, and mentioned Mehldau's Radiohead covers, Dave Douglas' "Infinite" album with the Bjork and Wainright covers, and a project called Radiodread. Partially since I was in the middle of writing this post, it really struck me. I'm not saying that Wynton needs to run out and make his Clap Your Hands Say Yeah tribute album, but this woman will buy records, and go to concerts, and wants to be engaged...)

And if you're far away physically, it allows you to be far away philosophically. I'll borrow (again) from Darcy's comment on Ramsey's piece:

"Most of these students learn that jazz is something that happened in the past, and in fact the way to do well at these competitions is to faithfully recreate historical styles. A lot of talented high school and college band directors never program anything more adventurous than Thad Jones -- or worse, third-rate Thad Jones knock-offs. [This is not to knock Thad, of course -- I love Thad.] Many of them are completely unaware of any developments in jazz since, say, 1967, and aren't even aware of what's going on locally."

Nate Chinen's aforementioned Times piece talks about the fact that the Gordon Goodwin band, never seen on concert tours or mentioned in jazz magazines, are celebrities at these youth jazz festivals. His charts are well written and well played, but are mostly warmed over, more jocular versions of Basie or Herman charts. This level of disconnect, that jazz is something you do at school, rather than something you listen to or talk about with your friends or, God forbid, see in concerts, is what allows this great disconnect between education system and audience to persist. I think historical recreation of great jazz charts is a worthwhile enterprise, especially in school. (I think the J@LC's best contribution to the music world is making original, accurate Ellington charts widely available) But it can't be ALL they do, as is too often the case.

Most jazz teachers that I've met at the high school and junior high are pretty good to very good musicians, and heroically hard-working educators, who are teaching jazz the way they had it taught to them in high school. Which is driving sideways. (I talked some about this on one of my degeneration x posts. Skip to the last third, which starts with "The rise of jazz education...) And I have worked with and know some educators who present a wide variety of music, including commissions (Ned Corman's Commission Project is wonderful, even when I hate some of the product. We need more like it) A couple have even played my music, for which I'm very grateful. But I fear too many students are taught to view jazz as a museum piece, fun to visit for a few hours a week, but not someplace you live.

And I don't think the IAJE does much to combat this problem, and often contributes to it.

I'll pickup on Vijay's piece, and the fallout it's produced- related to this in my head at least- next time...


Marty Khan said...

A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. But it's most important to realize that the IAJE, like Lincoln Center, etc. are not only failing to address the problem, they are in essence, the symptoms of the problem.

By design, they exist to exploit. The problems are fuel for their benefits, just as terrorism and war are fuel to a government that is, in essence, Halliburton and its ilk. They could not get fat without the existence of the problems they're supposed to be adressing. So why would they want to address those problems. They thrive upon them.

Consider, the jazz education business is spewing out thousands of new musicians every year, but only hundreds of opportunities exist. Every year, the gap grows larger, yet the education industry continues to thrive. Eventually it will fall apart. By then, those responsible have socked away their gains - and fuck the inhabitants of the scorched earth who are left behind.

Once they succeeded in persuading those inhabitants (the musicians) that they were all going to be benefitting from this new economy, any and all resistance to the New Order dissolved.

Fundamental to this most insidious plan is the existence of artificial, supposedly advocate organizations, who are diverting attention away from the reality of the situation and offering false hopes that somebody is on the job, looking out for the health and welfare of the music and its creators.

Forget about it. They're as full of crapola as some sleazy, work-the-door-now-and-share-in-my-success-later clubowner. Only they're worse. Because they're liars and hypocrites who are just looking to get their share of the easy gelt. And worse, they use the sanctity of Trane and other slightly less profound truthtellers as their subterfuge.

As a longtime warrior in these battles, believe me, I know what I'm talking about.

If you want to know how we got where we are, you may want to check out a short series of articles I posted at allaboutjazz.com

Read them in this order:

Hello...I Must Be Going

Prelude to a Kiss-off

With Friends Like These...

They'll give you a perspective from 30+ years in the trenches.
But even these do not expose the treachery and ugliness that have occurred in the few years since they were written.

For my credentials check our web site:

But don't see it as a beacon of light on the edge of hope. There is no hope.

Sorry to be so negative. It comes with knowledge.

Marty Khan

pat said...


Thanks for reading- I am familiar with you, and grateful for your work. I think we've been in the same room at the same time at least once.

Maybe it's because I'm relatively young, but I'm not as dark as you are. I know enough good, well meaning academics to question the "insidious nature" of education. (though not its ineptitude) But more importantly, I'm not convinced that the pond is inevitably drying up, that there's a finite number of gigs out there, and we're all fighting for the same crumbs. Americans spend more of their income on entertainment, I believe, then they ever have. By reliable measures the classical music scene in america, also drowning in conservatory trained young musicians, is growing right now. I'm not naive enough to think that this is a permanent phenomenon, but it gives me hope that if musicians are as creative about programming and educating as they are about playing, there is some hope. That, however, is a BIIGGG if.

Marty Khan said...

Thanks for the kind words, Pat.

Again I'm sorry to sound so negative, but what can I say. Obviously everything is relative. For me, having been blessed to have entered the scene during the 60s, to have seen the sacred in Trane once, and so many past giants many times each over the years, my models are so high.

But what's so tragic these days is that even among the older giants still among us, money seems to have replaced the purer essence that drew me to this profession, as opposed to more popular arts, or banking, for that matter. The Lincoln Center/Marsalis travesty should have fired up major musicians to fight the encroaching syndrome. Instead it seems to have just made them envious - or hoodwinked into thinking that this was the start of some other form of monetary rewards beyond those associated with organic development. I've found that self-empowerment is only something they want in between record deals.

We're now living and trying to survive within an environment as artificial as the political system.

The IAJE and its sister-in-crime, the JAA (which is nothing more than the old cast of scoundrels masquerading behind advocacy) and the phonies behind the NEA Jazz Masters awards and similar hustles have all contributed to a toxic atmosphere that has become all too overwhelming.