Robert Blocker put his foot in it properly last week. Outraged tweets on my timeline were soon followed by several valuable longer objections.
Matthew Guerrieri. (If you look at just one of these links, make sure it’s this one, a brilliant set of unlikely connections concluding with a luminous call to arms. Soho is always a good read.)
It’s so nice when a member of the opposition makes a public mistake, it gives us a chance to pile on and declare what we are striving for on our side.
Despite wonky essays on DTM and professional entanglement with European classical music, I do not self-identify as a product of “academia.” Therefore I have no serious opinion about what should be taught in music schools. Certainly jazz greats need the gigs at colleges these days, so…sure! Give our masters tenure. Of course. I nominate Billy Harper to lead the new Yale jazz program.
This next bit is addressed to students:
1) It seems to me that if you do go to college for music, the best thing to study there is European classical, the stuff that Blocker calls “canon.” They know how to do it, they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years, it is material that makes sense out of textbook.
Learning that stuff is not going to stop you from dealing with black music, the blues, or anything else. It will just give foundation and context for all sorts of song form and harmonic modulation. The last time I played with Ron Carter, he had already done a jazz record date earlier in the day. In between the session and the gig, he listened to Beethoven in order to, “Clean out my ears and get me ready for B-flat seven again.” (Ron Carter studied European music at Eastman.)
2) All the jazz greats existed outside the system. Indeed, most of them ignored the limitations of their racist society to create not just music but whole ways of living that forced fellow Americans to give respect. This kind of cunning, streetwise, and unstated elegance is a key to the music. I’ve never met an important jazz musician who wasn’t some kind of gangster. (The last sentence could be said of most significant artists in any field, but it might particularly apply to jazz.)
So: If you are in a system, like a college jazz program, think about ways to undo the rules and make the system do something it might not think it can do.
3) Finally, go to the library! After you leave school, civilian libraries will seem terribly unimpressive compared to those at any major conservatory. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s bestselling memoir Between the World and Me is in part a magnificent homage to the library at Howard University. Possibly the best part of my sad and truncated career at NYU was just being able to go peruse the scores and books at Bobst every day.
I’ve gotten quite interested in Harold Shapero, a major composer who just might have been the greatest American Neo-Classicist. When he died only recently, I had barely even heard his name, partly because he hadn’t composed much since about 1960.
There were apparently two reasons Shapero stopped composing, both connected to college. He became a teacher himself: He stopped being a gangster. He fell in, raised a family and had hobbies. (All this is very bad for artistic production.)
The other reason was peer pressure to deal with the twelve-tone system. “Academic” is right! A whole crew of postwar intellectuals seized power in the universities and declared that rigorous atonality was the perpetual future.
When Blocker says, “new music,” I suspect that this kind of unpopular “academic” genre is what he’s talking about. Of course, “new music” could mean just about anything these days, and I certainly don’t know what exactly they are up to at the Yale composition department. But surely a gold standard for the phrase “new music” is Milton Babbitt, and it is impossible to divorce Babbitt’s (terrific) music his academic positions at Columbia and Princeton.
It makes sense. You research science, math, and the most esoteric and obdurate combinations of tones in the Ivy Leagues. Few people will know, few people will care, but you should still do it.
Babbitt and many other serialists created wonderful music, but it was a shame how a whole generation of great composers were seemingly forced to march to that serial drum. Shapero tried the twelve-tone system in his Partita for piano and orchestra. It is his last major piece, and it’s terrible.
The real Shapero is found the the piece written just before Partita, the profound masterpiece Credo for Orchestra.
Credo is far from twelve-tone music: indeed, there are only nine pitches in it, the C major or the F major scale.I can easily hear Credo as a requiem for all the melody/harmony-oriented composers who gave up under the onslaught of academic serialism.
So: Be careful what you wish for. Sure, it would be great to have all American institutions give money and respect to jazz. But based on the historical record, getting in the ivory tower doesn’t help to sing the blues or make your girlfriend dance. And if there’s no blues or dancing anywhere, then there’s not much jazz, either.