Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

One Last Kick at the Can.

Okay, I realize I'm going on about this, but forgive me, I'm a teacher. It's what I do.

One of the more fequent canards you hear about "jazz education" is that jazz "can't be taught." Now put aside for a moment the no doubt purely coincidental happenstance that this is often uttered either by musicians who can't or don't teach, who've tried to find a place in the jazz education system and failed, or who, having found one, have decided the system sucks (and in many ways, it does). Let us ask ourselves, "is this not somewhat counterintuitive?" Because people are clearly learning how to play jazz. As Kenny Werner points out in his excellent book "Effortless Mastery," there's no shortage of jazz musicians out there, if anything, there's an oversupply. Somebody must be teaching them.

The obvious fact is that jazz can be taught, and has been since it's inception as a music. The fact that the 'institutions' of early and mid period jazz education were not formal academies in no way diminishes their status as 'schools,' it just means you didn't get a sheepskin after four years of jam sessions, cutting contests, and picking other players brains on the road with the big bands.

Now admittedly the university as an institution is not particularly flexible when it comes to the kind of collective and individual hands-on mentorship that builds jazz musicians. If I were a terminally candid sort, this is the point where I would lay out all the nefarious corner cutting, creative interpretations of grading curves, accredation methods, lesson plan structure and jury-evaluation procedures I and every other jazz educator worth his or her salt indulges in, with the justification that these moves will satisfy the University's demands for numbers and structure while at the same time giving the students the information and experiences they need to develop as musicians. But I, you know...kind of like my job so, in the words of the late Paul Newman, "Fuck candor."

I will say this, it's doable. But one of the first things you must convince the student himself of is the nonsensical nature of the "evaluation" processes he will be subject to, because he or she needs to know that they are some seriously sad shit. I know, I went through the same processes, and I know that it is absolutely possible to do everything you are told to do, to get "A" in your acedemics, to play all the etudes at all the recitals, solo in the university orchestra, swat up your jury pieces so you gets "A"s there...it's possible to jump all these hurdles and still not be able to play worth shit. Not by professional standards anyway. Because the bar is set much higher than any university is willing to set it. They are businesses first, academies second, and no university music department could possibly survive enrolling only those students willing to do what it takes to play jazz (or any serious music, really) on a professional level.

Kenny Werner says, "if you can talk, you can play," and I think that's right on the money, because good small band jazz very much resembles a social conversation. The problem often is that the paradigm for teaching music at the university level more often remains like preparing a formal speech, which is what classical music is. You practise and practise alone in a room or with your teacher. You rehearse with your accompanist. Then, at the end of the semester, you give your performance. Preparation in jazz relates more to learning vocabulary and song forms, which are then interpreted and created on the spot. Jazz musicians play together a lot, both before audiences and in more informal settings, far more than classical musicians do. It's an essential part of their developmental process.

This is what we're trying to re-create at Tulane. When Jesse Mcbride gets students to come down and jam at his Sunday night gig at Donnas, or when I hire them to play on some hotel-convention gig, we're deliberately setting up the total immersion scenario, the "it takes a village" process, necessary to get students fluent in the language of jazz. There's no mystery to it. Jazz has always been 'taught' this way.

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