School for Cool: The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity

School for Cool: The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity

by Eitan Y. Wilf

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Jazz was born on the streets, grew up in the clubs, and will die—so some fear—at the university. Facing dwindling commercial demand and the gradual disappearance of venues, many aspiring jazz musicians today learn their craft, and find their careers, in one of the many academic programs that now offer jazz degrees. School for Cool is their story. Going inside the halls of two of the most prestigious jazz schools around—at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York—Eitan Y. Wilf tackles a formidable question at the heart of jazz today: can creativity survive institutionalization? 

Few art forms epitomize the anti-institutional image more than jazz, but it’s precisely at the academy where jazz is now flourishing. This shift has introduced numerous challenges and contradictions to the music’s practitioners. Solos are transcribed, technique is standardized, and the whole endeavor is plastered with the label “high art”—a far cry from its freewheeling days. Wilf shows how students, educators, and administrators have attempted to meet these challenges with an inventive spirit and a robust drive to preserve—and foster—what they consider to be jazz’s central attributes: its charisma and unexpectedness. He also highlights the unintended consequences of their efforts to do so. Ultimately, he argues, the gap between creative practice and institutionalized schooling, although real, is often the product of our efforts to close it. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226125220
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/05/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 708 KB

About the Author

Eitan Y. Wilf is assistant professor of anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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School for Cool

The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity

By Eitan Y. Wilf

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-12522-0



The Academic Jazz Program as a Hybrid

The Practice of Creativity and the Creativity of Practice

It is a cold, mid-February Friday night. Pierre and I are preparing to begin our weekly playing session in the deserted main office of Berklee's guitar department, where Pierre works part-time as part of his student fellowship. I suggest we begin with a Miles Davis tune titled "Four," but Pierre is not sure he knows all the chords. He plucks the chords hesitantly on his guitar, one by one. When he arrives at the thirteenth bar of the B section of the tune, Pierre repeats the same chords he played at bars thirteen through sixteen of the A section and in the same harmonic rhythm. Suddenly, a deep, irritated voice thunders at us from another part of the office: "No, no, no! G minor 7, then immediately F-sharp minor 7 to B7, then F minor 7 to B-flat 7, then E-flat major 7!" Pierre is confused. "What?" he asks loudly. Pierre tries to play the chords of the B section again and stops at the thirteenth bar. The voice thunders again, spelling out the chords: "No, no! Listen: G minor 7, then immediately F-sharp minor 7 to B7, F minor 7 to B-flat 7, then E-flat major 7!" Pierre, discouraged, gives up.

"Who is it?" I ask Pierre. I cannot see the person talking to us, because he sits behind a partition that divides the office into two sections. I didn't even know there was another person in the office until I heard his voice. Pierre, still focused on his guitar, says: "That's T.K. He's a piano teacher at the school. He often hangs around in the department." I hear footsteps and then T.K., a tall black man in his midfifties, appears. He nods to me quickly and then speaks to Pierre: "Man, how come you don't know the chord changes to this tune? You consider yourself a jazz player, but you don't know this tune?" Pierre gives an embarrassed half-smile. T.K. stands silently for a minute and continues: "Can you tell me how the relationship between Miles [Davis] and Herbie [Hancock] changed by listening to their recordings? Can you tell me how Trane's [saxophone player John Coltrane] thought evolved by listening to his music?" Pierre and I remain silent. "Man, this is ridiculous. Everything here in the school is ridiculous. They teach you nothing. Do you think that in the past a player would not know that in his later recordings Miles asked Herbie to play fewer chords? If you want to play a tune you have to know everything about it! In the old days a player would play with Art Taylor [a legendary drummer], and when the player would mess up the tune A.T. would tell him "Stop that bullshit" and then he would tell a story and that's how you'd learn! But here, there's nothing like that. It's all sterile. And this is why you can't play this tune!" Pierre and I remain silent while T.K. walks away and disappears in the other part of the office. After a brief moment, Pierre begins again, hesitatingly, to outline the chords to the tune. This time he incorporates the chords that T.K. suggested. It sounds good. Everything starts to fall into place. Pierre repeats the chord sequence faster, each time more fluently than before. At a certain point, T.K.'s voice thunders at us again from behind the partition. This time it is much more encouraging: "Now you got it!"

As I was walking back home after our long playing session, I kept thinking about this incident. T.K.'s criticism of the academic jazz program brought to my mind Walter Benjamin's well-known essay, "The Storyteller" (Benjamin 1969a), which is illustrative of the Frankfurt School's concern with the crisis of experience in modernity (Jay 2005). In this essay, Benjamin argues that the ability to transmit experience via the art of storytelling has disappeared in modernity because experience itself has been devalued. According to Benjamin, a story can transmit experience only if the storyteller grounds herself in the life-world and living praxis of her audience. This art necessitates face-to-face interaction between storyteller and audience. It requires the audience to adopt a certain disinterestedness that verges on boredom, a stance that allows it to assimilate the story more deeply. Benjamin argues that with the advent of modernity, storytelling has been gradually replaced with "information"—knowledge that is decontextualized from the life-world of those who consume it, disseminated in printed form as in newspapers and novels, and produced and consumed in isolation by authors and audiences who are endowed with an instrumental and goal-oriented approach to knowledge.

On the surface, T.K.'s words resonate with Benjamin's diagnosis of the crisis of experience in modernity. T.K. argues that in the past, novice jazz musicians would learn their craft by playing with seasoned musicians who had experiential knowledge of the music and its history. He invokes legendary drummer Art Taylor—A.T.—as an example of a person who had firsthand experience of the living reality of jazz. Taylor understood jazz tunes not only in terms of abstract melodies and chord changes but also as musical entities embedded in specific histories that he himself had lived. Taylor could transmit this experience to neophyte musicians through stories and anecdotes about legendary musicians, performance situations, and notable recordings that are the building blocks of a tune's meaning. As I soon realized, T.K.'s criticism represented a general malaise about academic jazz education both within and outside of the jazz programs I worked in. Many of the educators I encountered had little doubt that jazz training has suffered from its introduction into the academic program. They argued that knowledge has become increasingly abstract, disseminated through method books and other pedagogical aids that transmit standardized information about jazz, and inculcated by professional educators who lack the experiential authority of an Art Taylor because most of them acquired most of their knowledge by attending the same colleges and schools in which they now teach rather than through extensive firsthand experience with the past masters. This has been compounded by the fact that today's students have fewer opportunities to implement this knowledge in real-time performance because of the decline in jazz's popularity and the subsequent disappearance of venues where jazz is performed.

Yet something in the incident that involved T.K. and Pierre did not fit well into this scheme. As I was approaching my apartment, it became clear to me that this incident had another dimension. T.K.'s mode of reprimanding Pierre was at odds with the content of his criticism. While T.K. argued that jazz knowledge is no longer transmitted in the form of stories told by seasoned musicians about their lived experience as performers, he conveyed this argument in the form of a story that relied precisely on his own lived experience as a performer. In other words, T.K.'s mode of imparting knowledge mirrored what he himself experienced when he played with Art Taylor in a nonacademic setting a few decades ago. Now it is T.K. who orders the junior musicians in his presence to "stop that bullshit" and who uses stories as a pedagogical tool for teaching jazz.

It took me many months of data collection and analysis to realize that this apparent contradiction at the heart of T.K.'s criticism epitomizes the complexity, challenges, and potentialities of the institutionalization of creativity, which are reflective of a key problematic in the cultural code of Western modernity. This book builds upon a tightly focused, two-year ethnographic study of two US academic jazz programs—Berklee College of Music in Boston and the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in NYC—not only to clarify this problematic in the specific context of the academic jazz program but also to tease out its implications (filtered mainly through anthropological theory) with respect to modern individuals' attempts to engage in creative practice within modernity's rational institutions in general.

An Academic Jazz Program?

Not limited anymore to classical music, the plastic arts, and dance, the socialization into a growing number of art forms—from poetry writing (McGurl 2011; Myers 1993; Wilf 2011) to turntable technique (Muther 2004)—now takes place within the institutions of higher education. Today, for most neophyte and aspiring artists in the United States and elsewhere, becoming an artist means enrolling in one of the hundreds of specialized art programs that confer degrees (from BA to PhD) and certificates in art (Elkins 2009; Singerman 1999).

The dramatic rise of academic jazz training in the United States over the last few decades has been one of the most visible aspects of this institutionalization of artistic practices. Although throughout most of the first half of the twentieth century jazz was mostly excluded from American institutions of higher education due to its basis in African American communities and presumed lack of artistic value (Ake 2002; Caswell and Smith 2000; Lopes 2002; Ogren 1992; Prouty 2008), in 2010 JazzTimes's Jazz Education Guide listed hundreds of collegiate jazz programs in the United States alone, in which thousands of students enroll annually. A recent New York Times article addressed the expansion of academic jazz education as it found expression at the thirty-fourth annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education in New York City. The article, significantly titled "Jazz Is Alive and Well; In the Classroom, Anyway" (Chinen 2007), marvels at the eight thousand conference attendees and the numerous panels, concerts, and merchandise booths in which hundreds of jazz pedagogy books and audio and video materials were sold. Its author concludes that the health of jazz education seems to be in inverse proportion to the music's popularity outside of school.

The expansion of academic jazz education has generated much ambivalence in different circles. Many veteran jazz musicians who received their training by prolonged apprenticeship with master musicians prior to the fullblown academization of jazz training have been dismissive of the very idea of the jazz program. The late drummer Max Roach argued that

we wouldn't have the Duke Ellingtons and the Charlie Parkers if we had gone to the universities and got doctorates because our minds would have been locked into something else [Academia is] okay if you want to get a job and be like everybody else. But if you want to go outside and above all that and be like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Chick Webb, and these people, academia can't teach you. (Monson 2007, 285)

Similar views abound in the jazz world. The ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner quotes pianist Walter Bishop Jr. as saying, "I was a high school dropout, but I graduated from Art Blakey College, the Miles Davis Conservatory of Music, and Charlie Parker University" (Berliner 1994, 36). With these words, Bishop invokes the opposition between the institutionalized jazz school and apprenticeship with the great jazz masters. Bishop suggests that of the two, the latter rather than the former mode of learning is conducive to great jazz. Similarly, on the Lower East Side in Manhattan operates the nonprofit organization the University of the Streets, which offers various educational activities to young people. Jazz plays a key role in the identity of this institution. Its name invokes the same distinction between the university and the supposedly "real"—meaning noncodified and informal—learning environment that is presumably the basis for great jazz. When I attended one of the Friday-night jam sessions hosted in this organization and described my research to some of the activists there, one of them commented that "all those students sound the same. This is not where you go and learn jazz." Presumably, great jazz emanates from the "street," a trope denoting an informal learning environment that is closer to jazz's humble origins in the earlier decades of the twentieth century.

These views have been rampant within academia, too. In her piece, "Jazz Goes to College: Has Academic Status Served the Art?" scholar Alice Marquis quotes a former editor of DownBeat magazine who argues that "the gravest danger facing jazz may lie in ... comfortable acclimation to the academic world It will leach the individuality out of the art" (Marquis 1998, 122). Marquis ends her article,

Yet, jazz deserves all the respect, scholarship, and training that its presence in academe suggests. It deserves to be taken seriously. But, unlike the classical music created for society's stratosphere (elite), jazz erupted from the lowest levels of society, to capture the hearts and bodies of exuberant masses. Despised and persecuted, jazz won a place for itself at the center of American culture.... Now, swaddled inside the velvet cage of academic music, can real jazz survive? (Marquis 1998, 122)

Thus, jazz's entrance into academia signals for many commentators its inevitable abstraction and divorce from affect, the body, individuality, and social marginality—all, presumably, loci of creativity. Although academia provides stable employment and prestige, it is also assumed to be stifling in its rational rigidity—a combination Marquis figurates with the notion of the "velvet cage." Something "real," which is never fully defined (and whose rhetorical force lies precisely in this lack of definition), is thereby lost (see also Nicholson 2005). Such skeptical and pessimistically one-sided scholarly commentary on academic jazz education has been prevalent.

The dismissive stance toward the jazz program reflects a deep-seated suspicion in relation to the academic art program in general. Scholars of artistic practice have often considered the academic art program as a contradiction in terms because, so they argue, art cannot be cultivated in the institutional environment of modern schooling (Adler 1979). Indeed, one author titled his book on art education, "Why Art Cannot Be Taught" (Elkins 2001). These reactions resurfaced whenever I disclosed the subject of my study to laypeople involved neither in academia nor in the jazz world. Many of them responded with surprise, saying "An academic jazz program? I didn't know you can teach jazz at school!" and then adding "The music probably sounds really bad!"

Different versions of the ambivalence toward the academic art program have played a key role in anthropological theory too, especially in the form of the entrenched opposition between rule-governed behavior and creative practice. A number of foundational scholars located creativity—whether individual or cultural—on the margins of social reality, that is, away from society's normative center and its codified norms of conduct. For example, Franz Boas, writing on the Native American art of the north Pacific Coast, argued that the emergence of pattern books signals the decadence of folk art (Boas 1955, 157). Boas thus associated codified behavior with the demise of creative practice. Max Weber instituted a similar distinction between creative (charismatic) and rule-governed (instrumentally rational) social action, arguing at one point that "genuine charismatic education is the radical opposite of specialized professional training as it is espoused by bureaucracy" in that the latter retains hardly any of "the original irrational means of charismatic education" (Weber 1978b, 1144). Decades later, Victor Turner developed the notions of communitas and liminality to designate the potentially creative state in which society's members step outside of and reflect upon taken-for-granted social norms. Significantly, Turner argued that this state takes place away from society's normative centers and routine work, for example, in initiation rites in premodern societies, and in leisure and art in modern societies (Turner 1967). Similarly, in an edited volume dedicated specifically to the anthropological study of creativity (Lavie, Narayan, and Rosaldo 1993), the editors begin by qualifying Turner's view of creativity as located on the margins of social reality by arguing that creative practices are "integrated into the mundane arenas of everyday life." However, they also add that "creativity (not unlike laughter) often erupts at unpredictable times and on unexpected occasions" (5). They thus continue to relegate creativity to the realm of the unpredictable that is set apart from rule-governed behavior. More recently, the view of Western schooling as a site of abstract formalization that cannot be conducive to creativity has been given expression in an anthropological study of apprenticeship into a specific form of an improvised musical practice in Turkey (Bryant 2005). After surveying the specific mode of socialization into this art form, which includes immersion in the social context within which this art form is practiced, Rebecca Bryant adds: "Hence, the contradiction of trying to teach [this improvisational form] in lessons modeled after what is considered to be 'modern,' that is, 'Western' music learning: Doing so would be very much like teaching someone how to think by offering him or her a set of instructions" (Bryant 2005, 228). In all these accounts, then, formalized or rule-governed social behavior is consistently viewed as the opposite of creative agency.


Excerpted from School for Cool by Eitan Y. Wilf. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Introduction: The Academic Jazz Program as a Hybrid 2 Contexts and Histories: The Search for Cultural Legitimacy and the Reconfiguration of Obsolete Jazz Scenes 3 “Think-Tank Music”: Public Ambivalences and Contradictions 4 Charisma Infusion: Bringing the “Street” Back into the Classroom 5 Rituals of Creativity: Inhabiting the Echoes of the Past 6 Transcribing Creativity as Creative Transcribing: Legitimizing Theory and Expertise 7 “Now you have to think simple!”: Improvisatory Techniques of the Improvising Body 8 The Games Students Play: Technologies of the Listening Self
Notes Works Cited Index

What People are Saying About This

Donald Brenneis

School for Cool is one of the most creative, comprehensive, epistemologically and substantively provocative, and just generally fascinating books I’ve read in recent years. At the core of it lies the complex nexus of improvisation, aesthetic traditions and their emergent reworkings, institutional practice, and the simultaneous socialization of young jazz performers into canon and creativity. In considering this array of subjects, Wilf provides a remarkably attentive and wide-reachingaccount of cultural production, reproduction, and transformation.”

Alessandro Duranti

School for Cool is a very original book within a new tradition of critical jazz studies that examines the contemporary scene of jazz education and socialization from the point of view of the tradition’s struggle for self-preservation, legitimization, and competition in the music industry. Wilf invites us to rethink the art of improvisation and convincingly argues that one cannot understand the paradoxes of jazz higher education unless one understands the changes in the club scenes and the types of young people who are, today, attracted to jazz as a profession.”

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