Other Places: Guilfoyle On Jazz Education

Ronan Guilfoyle is an Irish jazz musician and educator whose blog, Mostly Music, probes issues that concern working musicians as well as academics in institutions Guilfoyle.jpgwhere jazz is taught. Those are often the same people. Increasingly, professional jazz players also teach in jazz schools. In part, that is because they need day gigs to support themselves; it should be unnecessary to convince anyone that for all but a handful of stars, there is little steady employment playing jazz. In part, it is because they are dedicated to an educational ideal, helping young musicians develop.
In a recent post titled “In Defence of Jazz Education”, Guilfoyle begins his essay by attributing to “the jazz media” three common criticisms of jazz education. However much one might like to duck it, his scattershot indictment of jazz writers bears enough justification to be taken seriously. Guilfoyle characterizes his triumverate of ignorant assertions as “knee jerk attacks.”

1) Jazz education turns all who partake of it into clones.
2) The proof of jazz education’s failure is the fact that though there are more practitioners than ever before the percentage of great players hasn’t got any higher.
3) What is the point of turning out jazz graduates when there are no gigs?

In discussing the clone argument, Guilfoyle writes:

What a lot of critics forget about is that most high level jazz school courses are staffed and run by professional jazz musicians. These are musicians who deal with the realities of playing the music, and who are aware of the skills necessary to survive in the professional milieu. And it is largely these same musicians who decide the curricula for the schools – not some faceless bureaucrat. So the information that is provided is largely that body of information which professional musicians agree are basic prerequisites for a life as a professional jazz musician. This basic information – harmonic, technical and rhythmic as well as repertoire – is generally agreed by most professionals to be part of the essential toolkit of the contemporary jazz musician.
Yet the writer James Lincoln Collier says:
‘With students all over the United States being taught more or less the same harmonic principles, it is hardly surprising that their solos tend to sound much the same. It isCollier.jpg important for us to understand that many of the most influential players developed their own personal harmonic schemes, very frequently because they had little training in theory and were forced to find it their own way.’
So – there we have it, the noble savage syndrome – for the sake of your creativity and originality it’s better to have no training. It’s hard to know where to start with the refutation of an argument this stupid. It’s like suggesting that if you want to become a writer it would be better to to be illiterate and figure out the rules of English yourself, rather than go to school and be taught how to read, how spelling, grammar and syntax work, and being directed towards great writing of the past. Yet this is the bizarre subtext of much of the criticism of jazz education – in order to be creative and original it’s better to be uneducated. But though these writers idealise the self-taught musicians of the Coltrane puzzled.jpgpast, how many of these same jazz greats would have taken advantage of educational institutions had they been available to them? Most I’d say. And if they had, would it have stifled their creativity? Would Coltrane have sounded like a thousand other saxophonists if he’d gone to a jazz school? To suggest that he would have is to deny his innate genius and originality.

To read all of “In Defence of Jazz Education” and more of Ronan Guilfoyle’s stimulating views, click here.

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  1. says

    Many are called but few are chosen!
    Those that throw stones are guilty of the same thing. Ronan started a jazz school in Dublin and his curriculum is no different than any US Jazz Studies Department.

  2. hank constantine says

    I think you’re taking it too extreme, Ronan.
    The basics are the basics & even the “jazz greats” weren’t totally un-educated, musically. I think everyone can agree that Trane & others had varying experiences in a higher musical education situations, (granoff studios, etc.) perhaps most did not graduate. Somehow, most seemed to find a way to learn the basics, and not “on-the-street”
    It was the artistic nuts-n-bolts that were learned on the bandstand, not by a teacher guiding & coaching them.
    What the critics are talking about is the MACHINE called Jazz Ed. Teaching how to think & make artistic choices, the same way.
    Your analogy of teaching English is a bad one…this has been happening in Creative Writing Programs for the last 25 yrs, MFA programs churning out scads of Raymond Carver clones, all writing the same type stories or poems…and every once in a while, a standout breaks through.
    I see many parallels between creative writing programs & jazz ed.