Marks out of Ten?

Marks out of Ten?

There are a number of things I’d have been happy to rant about this evening, but since it’s come up a few times already, I’ll take the bait and jump in on the subject of institutionalised music education. I want to stress that this is a rant: kernels of various ideas I’d stand by are certainly here, but they’re laid out in something of a polemical fashion. The ‘argument’ is hardly that, presented in this format: to be dignified with that label, it would need a great deal more nuance, and much else besides. I have friends and colleagues who stand as excellent counterexamples to any number of things I’m going to say. But this is a rant, and part of the fun of that is that you’re allowed – indeed presumably supposed – to be blunt.

We live in a managerialist era. We like to assess, measure and evaluate. The funders, service providers and clients in our educational-industrial complex definitely like to do this. And to assess things, it helps to have criteria for assessment. Which can be fine, if we’re talking about disciplines which lend themselves well to objective standards. But which seems downright perverse if we’re talking about something like creative music (I’ll call it jazz from here on in, although the term is of course problematic in any number of senses, not least the narrowness of construction to it applied by most institutional accounts in the UK). So anyway: with our criteria for what is correct (which is what scores you mark in your final, which is what gains/keeps your institution its funding, and gets you what you paid for), we have ‘improvisers’ learning an imposed set of norms, rather than adopting their own; a ‘top-down’ conception which strikes me as curious in a context where personal expression is at least part of what is important.

With people learning to conform to these imposed norms, it becomes harder to tell one person from the next. Of course, we still fetishise the idea of individuality: but how to achieve it when someone else is narrowing your choices about which notes you really should be considering next (notice the narrow musicological focus rather than the broader anthropological/sociological view)? And so I think we get people turning to ephemeral aspects of the music enterprise. The glorification of presentation: dress right, talk right, and of course have that quasi-industrial-presumably-east-London publicity photo. We’ve ended up with a group of people joining – consciously or not – that culture of seemingly being more interested in ‘being a musician’ than ‘doing music’.

Another popular way of finding an individual identity in this context seems to be disavowing the label ‘jazz’. On ideological grounds, I can absolutely get behind this, as suggested earlier. But I’m talking here about the phenomenon such as we see in biographies and online of the list of influences (the thorny question of ‘likes vs. influences’ aside, since I’d never presume to comment on what people like to listen to): the music is influenced by ‘Stravinsky, Aphex Twin, Radiohead, Xenakis, and [nb there’s always the ‘quirky’ non-musical influence in the list] the Coen Brothers’…but then you listen; and really? Xenakis is in the mix?

Back to the content rather than the form: the top-down approach leads to a focus on easily isolated/practiced elements of style. I suppose a few years ago, we could have pointed to the legions of tenor players in the long shadow of Michael Brecker learning their diminished patterns every which-way. For the last few years, Mark Turner seems to have been similarly sinned-against. But are we painting by numbers here, or improvising? If I want to hear Mark Turner’s stuff, for sure I’ll listen to him do it: eyewitness accounts tend to have something personal about them…

So let’s not get alienated from the creative moment. Modern conservative (sadly, imagine a capital ‘C’ there if you will) society is already doing that. Let’s not write about people in terms of who they most sound like; let’s help those learning the music to understand the history as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. This is an era in which people can be found at a gig, watching the gig through their iPhone screen. Let’s not commodify this stuff: that digital copy is adding to the background noise.  Let’s remember the value of parsimony, and to paraphrase and simplify (rather grossly) an idea of Bill Dixon’s, find a good reason to interrupt the silence.


Note: this article is an edited version of a Rant given as part of the 2015 Jazz Rants at Club Inégales on Wednesday 18 November, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

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