Culture  Education gets jazzed up

Schulich’s jazz program represents a growing trend in musical teaching


n 1974, Whitney Balliett, the late, prolific New Yorker jazz critic, wrote that, “The number of jazz musicians…who piece out their lives in the shadows and shoals of show business has always been surprising.” Balliett’s comment still resonates today. So many jazz musicians find work in the business’s back corners: hotel lobbies, restaurants, weddings, street corners. But perhaps more surprising is the number of jazz musicians who make do in the halls and classrooms of the university as teachers of their craft.

Since the 1970s there has been a great boom in jazz education at the university level. The beginning of that boom coincided with a creatively dry and nebulous period in jazz.  Shadowed by the death of John Coltrane in 1967 and the rising popularity of jazz-fusion, a controversial new sub-genre, the identity of jazz was in question.  The emergence of jazz programs, one might say, saved jazz.

Founded in 1981, the undergraduate program in jazz at McGill, the first degree-granting jazz program in Canada, offers its students a variety of classes in composition, arranging, and improvisation. While this program has produced more qualified jazz musicians than ever before, qualification is tricky.  A degree does not guarantee a job, as most students know all too well.

In the past year or so, on jazz blogs and magazines like Downbeat and JazzTimes, there has been a spate of discussions and articles – some probing, some frustrated, some bad – on the nature of jazz education: What’s good about it?  What’s not?  How could it be better?

There is really no way to prepare any student for entering the job market. School might be a necessary step to getting a job, but what you learn in school is not final. In an interview with Josh Rager, a Montreal pianist who teaches jazz performance at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, he explained, “Jazz education and becoming a jazz musician are two different things, in a way. They’re related, but one doesn’t necessarily guarantee the other.”

Jazz used to be more of a vernacular art, unmediated by formal institutions. If you wanted to be a jazz musician, say, in 1945 at the height of the bebop era, you didn’t go to school for it.  You learned on the bandstand through ad hoc apprenticeship.  That still happens, but now those modes of apprenticeship seem split between school and the professional world.

Schulich offers its jazz students the opportunity to bridge this gap. Students perform in small jazz combos at one of Montreal’s finest jazz clubs, Upstairs. This lets students work in a professional context, make connections, and have an audience.  Jazz is really a performance art.  “It’s a great opportunity because it allows us to listen to the up and coming musicians,” said Joel Giberovitch, owner of Upstairs.  “The professional guys who are gigging right now, many of them came through McGill, and many of them we heard on our stage,” he added.

Jarryd Torff, a fourth-year studying jazz saxophone at Schulich, thinks performing at Upstairs is a vital stepping stone in the jazz program. But this is not an end, it’s an education. Torff performs regularly in Montreal in The Ruckus Fo’tet, a jazz hip-hop group that evolved from a McGill jazz combo. “Every jazz musician wants to be a college teacher because they actually pay and then you can do your gigs on the side,” said Torff.  “Music is a competitive market, but so is teaching,” he said, “and I’d rather go into something that I feel more passionately about.”

Rager, who graduated in 1998 from Schulich with a degree in Jazz Performance, also returned a few years later to get his master’s degree.  The reason? So that could be qualified to teach.  “I wanted to make it work so I could enjoy a fairly decent standard of living,” he said.

Most jazz musicians who opt to teach jazz performance are those who could not support themselves working solely as performing musicians. But that is not unique to jazz.

In Montreal, many classical musicians, despite having full-time jobs with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra or the Orchestre Métropolitain, have opted to teach in institutions like Schulich. Full-time positions, however, are rare or practically non-existent in jazz performance.

“In terms of jazz musicians, it’s not like you’re a dentist where you get your degree, you go out, set up your shop, and now you’re a dentist,” said Gordon Foote, interim Dean at Schulich. “Jazz musicians are very creative people, and they’re creative in the way they make their living,” he said.  “They have to be.”

While speaking with Torff, he seemed eager to graduate, to start working, and to move to New York City – still the jazz hub of the world.  His ambitions are common among jazz performance undergraduates, but they run against tough odds.

Getting publicity and an audience requires intuition, luck, talent, and hard work; all of which are things a degree in music – or any degree, for that matter – probably can’t offer.  But jazz education certainly provides a foundation, a safety net. “Without jazz programs there would not be nearly the number of people who are knowledgeable about and interested in pursuing or listening to jazz,” said Foote.

There are many ways to pursue this interest. Jazz musicians are artists, but they still have to eat. Stability can be balanced with creativity. When Rager began teaching, it didn’t interfere with his touring schedule. Then he had a son and didn’t feel comfortable leaving his wife alone for weeks at a time.  However, he could still teach and play locally.  “That just wouldn’t have occurred to me when I was twenty, and I was just willing to put it all on the line for my art,” said Rager.  “And now that I’m in my thirties, what putting it all on the line means is a little bit different than what it was ten years ago.”  Rager encourages his students to follow their dreams, but tells them that they should allow their dreams to change.

That’s the most worthwhile kind of advice any good teacher can offer.  Jazz education is, after all, a lifelong process and jazz programs are only as cloistered as jazz teachers allow them to be.   The classroom and the bandstand are not mutually exclusive.