Northwestern University’s Jazz Blues

written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column

The case of the wilting of Northwestern University’s Jazz Studies program is a particularly sad one. Northwestern recently announced that its School of Music will no longer offer a Jazz Studies major. With the school being located so near the city of Chicago, one of the few cities besides New York that has a thriving jazz community in addition to world-class musicians, the opportunity exists to offer a standout jazz program, one that would attract and engage and provide superior training for extraordinarily gifted jazz students. The fact that N.U. dismisses this and seemingly has no knowledge of Chicago’s jazz society, nor of the merit and reputations of some of its area musicians, educators and potential educators, is reprehensible.
As Northwestern University bids farewell to its suffering Jazz Studies program, concerned lovers of our music once again have the opportunity to witness that time-worn impasse where jazz meets its maker… namely, America. Once again jazz stands in her shadow and, as is often the case, it seems that the dream America inspires in some is in stark contrast to the kind of genuine socio-spiritual enlightenment that would encourage its society to realize, accept, cherish and enjoy the genius, beauty and power that is behind its greatest art form, jazz music.

It’s not as though jazz hasn’t been down this sad road before. Clearly it has. Some might say that jazz music was born on the side of this road of indifference, or along its terrain of intolerance. In the early years of the Twentieth Century jazz met with all kinds of scorn and ridicule in the form of musical and social critique; including the propagation of racial stereotypes and caricatures in print media, which debased not just jazz itself, but black Americans in general. At that time however, black Americans’ obvious connection to the creation of jazz was being fully acknowledged, otherwise those problems, or those that have arisen in subsequent years surrounding the validity and position of jazz music in our society, would not have reason to exist.

After jazz had taken hold of America’s youth in the 1920s and it was clear that the music was here to stay, jazz was codified, orchestrated and exploited during the thirties in order to capitalize on its national popularity. A new “king of swing” was crowned. Since then, the business of jazz has seemingly not been done in order to celebrate black America’s musical contribution and cultural gift to the world.

From the 1950s to the ‘70s, America again exploited the cultural innovations of jazz, this time using its native musicians as ambassadors or diplomats to spread good will and America’s brand of democracy to foreign countries. Some of the bebop era’s most dashing personas, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Sarah Vaughan, as well as other jazz innovators and personalities such as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson and Ornette Coleman were chosen to represent the U.S. abroad. Meanwhile, the extended families of most of these aforementioned musicians had been discriminated against by an America that had subjected African Americans to slavery and brutal racism.

As the information age of the 1970s dawned, the emphasis on the exploitation of jazz via the academic institution became increasingly viable. Jazz academia pioneers Jerry Coker, David Baker and Jamey Aebersold laid the groundwork by their practice in the nascent field and their published works and instructional material in support of jazz as a viable area of study. Thirty years later, the field of jazz education has skyrocketed with the existence of accredited, university-level jazz studies programs, as well as increased awareness and focus on jazz at the high school level and earlier, by affluent school music departments and philanthropic community outreach programs.

Since the 1980s, the study of jazz music has provided the most pertinent and comprehensive methodology of music theory and performance training relative to modern American music.

Despite the major growth in jazz education, jazz at-large has still not benefited. Many of its most talented and deserving musicians continue to be underappreciated with regard to artistic respect and business relations. As corporate marketing of jazz emphasizes globalization, once again the authorship of jazz comes into question for a number of musicians/artists, while the significance of and meaning behind the origins of jazz is seemingly useless in the marketplace. Additionally, institutions of higher education have all but wrested what’s left of the control of the music from its musicians. One of the results being that jazz thrives at corporate-sponsored festivals throughout the world and in schools and education-related venues, while suffering at home, closer to the communities where its great-grandparents lived and developed the art.

Another result of mismanagement is that a tenured jazz musician who has crafted a career of performance excellence (often having done so alongside recognized masters in the field) most often will be overlooked for tenured positions as instrumental studio or classroom professors of university jazz studies programs. This can make for a weak representation of genuine excellence in jazz throughout those departments at both the faculty and student levels.

Excellence as a jazz educator requires the endorsement and validation of jazz masters and experts (which usually requires vast experience, ability and performance credentials), as well as the ability to articulate and transfer this skill, knowledge and understanding (much of which cannot be codified) to students. Authentic excellence in jazz is what is necessary to establish and build viable jazz departments that can and will stand up to disrespectful, bigoted, and elitist colleagues of intramural departments.

To some degree, I fault jazz musicians for allowing this occurrence of further loss of control of their music to happen over the past thirty years. Not enough band together or speak up. Those who have a significant interest in the music and its history, either via actual and substantial performance with masters, or some other connection to jazz, by way of production, promotion, journalism, and so on, should have the necessary experience, training, knowledge and understanding to discuss these issues intelligently, from the standpoint of jazz as a performer’s art form. Despite all of the bureaucracy and protocol involved in the world of academia, ultimately, the goal of any true jazz studies program should be the nurturing and development of students who show exceptional performance talent and are qualified to study according to established jazz standards and practice.

Having said that, I must also question the role of the IAJE, the leading organization in the field of jazz education. I hope that they will pinpoint and address these crucial issues of faculty credibility and credentials for the betterment of the representation of jazz excellence in education. This group should be working together with premier performing jazz masters to establish 1) hiring practices that place a premium on the most sought after and experienced jazz musicians; 2) universal audition requirements for students and 3) a core jazz curriculum.

It is my understanding that many within the classical department have protested the development of the jazz program at Northwestern for many years, resulting in successfully hindering its establishment and growth there. It is both negligent and foolish that the school of music of such an esteemed university as Northwestern and more specifically, its classical music faculty, could seemingly be so mired in ethnocentrism, intellectual supremacy and maintenance of the status quo that they refuse to accept that jazz is in fact high art which, as a field of study, is vital, pertinent and necessary, academically and culturally for so many including young, college-age, aspiring musicians.

As one of the last graduates of its Jazz Pedagogy Masters Degree program that was terminated in 2005, I was not surprised in the least by N.U.’s recent decision to finish the job at the undergraduate level as well. In ’05 I saw the writing on the wall. Perhaps that was because while a student there, I sensed that the jazz program had never been able to successfully combat or manage the lack of genuine respect for and understanding of jazz music and its culture that ultimately pervaded and ruled at the school. During the 2006 academic year, it took the parents of concerned Northwestern Jazz Studies majors to force the hand of the administration to feign interest in developing a viable jazz department. However, my underlying understanding was that it would be just a short time before those students with the disgruntled parents graduated, after which time,
Northwestern could fulfill its wish of doing away with jazz altogether. Today, the remaining disappointed and neglected upperclassmen continue their plea to save the jazz program, as if blowing into a reed-less saxophone mouthpiece.

If a seemingly enlightened institution such as N.U. doesn’t wish to accept the cultural importance and equal aesthetic value of jazz and therefore cannot and will not carry out the implementation of a successful and superior program of study (in spite of its having much to gain by doing so), then as difficult as it may be for some of us to accept, the art of jazz is actually better off without their partnership.