Other Places: Learning Through Hearing

Jazz as an academic discipline has made huge strides in colleges and universities, even in high schools and middle schools. Students can major in jazz studies in music departments where 40 years ago they would have been suspended for jamming in practice rooms. The University of North Texas, Indiana University, the University of Illinois, Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory are among dozens of institutions of higher education turning out hundreds of graduates educated in jazz. In a feedback system not lacking in irony, jazz degrees do not pave the way to making a living in clubs, concerts, festivals and recording studios. Rather, in today’s market, many jazz graduates end up teaching in programs that turn out still more musicians unable to sustain themselves performing the music they love.
Problems of economics and our jazz-deaf culture aside, how effective is formal jazz education in transmitting the kind of knowledge and experience—call it wisdom—that musicians in earlier eras accumulated on the road with big bands, playing extended engagements in clubs, sitting in after-hours jam sessions? Do they get the kind of seasoning young Paul Desmond (pictured below) described in a letter to his wife in 1950? He was on the road in New York with Jack Fina’s band. Pianist Sanford Gold invited Desmond to a Sunday night session at Eddie Condon’s club.

I got out to Condon’s after the job, about 10 minutes before they finished. As I came in the club and unpacked the horn, they played, in rapid succession, my three Desmond, NYC ca 1949.jpgfavorite tunes, things I hadn’t even thought of for a year. The rhythm section was swinging, Sanford was playing impeccably, and the horns were miscellaneous and unimpressive, instead of the trumpet-trombone-clarinet thing that I was a bit worried might be there. I had stayed up the night before, was feeling more like playing than I had for years, and the situation seemed expressly designed to restore some of my shattered confidence. One chorus of a ballad, I thought happily as I climbed up on the stand, and at least somebody around here will be interested. If I can just get something across to one person, all is not yet lost. Seething pleasantly with lyrical ideas, I sat down just as they started the last tune of the night. “Cherokee,” at a circus tempo. I played miserably. After that, they went home, and Sanford Gold went to the hospital for three weeks for an operation.
Before he left, Peanuts Hucko said “Sounds nice, man.” He smiled at me the way I used to smile at Herbie Caro*…
*A San Francisco tenor saxophonist not highly regarded by Desmond, who died in the 1940s.

A widespread criticism of modern jazz education is that it concentrates too little on the formative risks of jumping in and possibly failing, as Desmond claimed he did at Condon’s, and too much on putting fashionably hip post-Coltrane chords with theDelfeayo with horn.jpg appropriate scales, too much on reading arrangements. Delfeayo Marsalis is a part-time educator who has another method. He is in northern California this week using a special kind of ear training to inculcate in high school musicians a feeling for jazz that cannot flow from manuscript paper. Paul Conley of Sacramento’s Capitol Public Radio visited one of Marsalis’s classes. To hear his story, go here and click on “Listen Now”.

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  1. says

    It was refreshing to listen to the piece about Delfayo Marsalis’ work with student musicians. Aural learning cuts to the chase of speaking the jazz language. Such an approach enables the musician to absorb all of the inflections and nuances of the music (i.e. the jazz “accent”). It liberates the musician from the shackles of the page, automatically increasing his awareness of the sounds going on around him. And it taps into one’s innate musicianship (that we all possess).
    The list of benefits for a learning approach like this goes on and on.
    I place an (uncommon) emphasis on aural learning in the music lessons I teach. Also, when directing student jazz bands—whether they be in a clinic situation, or an honors festival in which we’re preparing for a concert—I *always* teach the entire big band an entire tune by ear. I’ve found that, after being taught a tune by ear, the students have more than enough information to use for improvisation, whether or not they have any understand of chords, chord progressions, etc.
    It’s all good — and always good to hear about other educators taking a similar approach.