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Fragile Beauty, No. 10: How Comprehensive Does Jazz Education Need to Be?

When I began a study of Jazz in the 1970's, it wasn't inconceivable to look back 50 years to study artists such as Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, as well as continuing a trajectory including Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano, Chet Baker, etc... And then in looking at what was current in Jazz in the 1970's we have the decade of Fusion Jazz. I can remember hearing about a new release from Weather Report or Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, the Brecker Brothers among others and we would get a copy and listen to this music for the very first time. I can only imagine what someone in the 1940's must have felt upon hearing Charlie Parker for the first time on a radio broadcast or on the first hearing of Ornette Coleman in 1959 and listening to the album the Shape of Jazz to Come.

Now admittedly, this is a pretty narrow list as I am sure you can come up with many players that are historically significant that I have left out, as well as the players that stand out for you on your given instrument. With that in mind, let's come back to the present and let's go back fifty years from 2019 for someone who is in high school today and beginning a study of Jazz. Where will these students begin their study? Is it conceivable for students today to comprehensively study 100 years of Jazz history to incorporate these various styles into their playing through listening and transcription?

In working and listening to younger students today, two generalities come to mind. The first is that the year 1980 has become a demarcation point in the linear timeline of Jazz. This marks the emergence of Wynton Marsalis and those dubbed as the Young Lions some of which included Wynton's brother Branford, Kenny Kirkland, Ralph Moore, Terrance Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Carl Allen, Steve Coleman, Mulgrew Miller and once again, so many more that you can fill in.

And second, it appears that this is the new starting point for many young players today. Now let me state right away that thanks to the work of Wynton Marsalis there has been a concerted effort through educational programs such as the Essentially Ellington Festival, as well as programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center, students are aware of many of the pioneers of Jazz like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles, Coltrane (once again, feel free to add others to this list). 

So, my first questions are, how do you address this with your students? How far back in the timeline of Jazz do you go?  Who do you hi-light as must players to study? From that question, I would like to bring up how you address players such as Hank Mobley, Tina Brooks, Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, Dizzy Reece, Paul Chambers, Curtis Fuller, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Art Taylor, I think you get the idea. Not to mention, for me players like Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little and Woody Shaw. Names we know and admire, but how do we include them in the study of Jazz when there is so much to cover and so much more that will be added as we move into the future? I guess a correlation would be in how and who do we prioritize in a study of orchestral music from the Middle Ages to the present?

For me, I feel it is essential to study the past, especially that first fifty years from Louis through Lester and Roy into BeBop, Post-Bop, Free Jazz and the New Thing into Fusion. Maybe that's just my age showing, but I believe that this is the foundation. On the other matter, how do we keep the names of these other players alive? I feel that one way to address this is to study the record labels as broad categories such as Savoy, Dial, Blue Note, Impulse!, Riverside, Prestige, ESP and so many others. They each had their own distinct sound and a roster of players that literally covers the full spectrum of the history of recorded Jazz.

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts/ideas/agreements and even disagreements to what I have written here. Thanks for reading and for being a part of the continuing dialogue.

Bill Stevens Artist, Composer, Educator


  • September 29, 2019
    The Shadmoor, New York, NY
  • October 6, 2019
    Tomi Jazz, New York, NY
  • October 27, 2019
    The Shadmoor, New York, NY

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