Jazz education rhetoric and reality

by Saul Richardson, 2018.

There is a popular misconception that playing jazz is exclusively about uniquely talented individuals expressing an unusual inner creativity that only a select few a born with. Popular “wisdom” also says that jazz is mysterious and cannot be taught. As Paul Berliner pointed out in his landmark study of improvisation Thinking In Jazz (Berliner, 1994), most people’s experience of jazz is based on hearing fully-fledged professionals, most often great and famous ones, at the height of their prowess. What people don’t see is the long learning processes. How the greats achieved success is publicly invisible, a mystery.

For those outside the jazz community who discover improvisers as mature artists through their recordings, these issues remain mysterious. For prospective musicians who wish to follow in the footsteps of their idols, however, unravelling the mystery is essential (Berliner, 1994, p. 2)

Adding to the mystique is a tendency even for jazz musicians, who really know better, to buy into the mythologizing of their art. Claims about jazz like “You can learn it, but you can’t teach it” (Betty Carter interview, in McLeod, 2001, p. 76), and the saying “if you have to ask, you’ll never know” attributed variously to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong or others, serve to obscure the education and training that precedes public success.

All that makes for good publicity and is great fun. But for students, students’ parents, and music teachers, and other stakeholders, it is a real problem. Why?

It hides what is really involved

It hides the years of training in techniques, skills, theory, procedures, and practices that actually go into developing a high-level jazz player. Paul Berliner (1994) and Ingrid Monson (1996) are good starting points for getting a sense of what really is involved. Because it is hidden, it can be very hard for students or music teachers with limited experience or training in jazz to know what to learn or teach, and how. The rhetoric excludes people from learning jazz by hiding how it is done.

It lowers the status of jazz and jazz education

It lowers the status of jazz education and jazz as a field of study. It can also lower the status of jazz musicians. The reason is that it is likely to be seen not as a structured, rigorous thing, but a self-indulgent frippery attractive mostly to indolent narcissists that is of little consequence to anybody but its players. Because of this, jazz  may be widely perceived as lightweight, just for fun, unstructured, hedonistic. This has certainly been my experience interacting with parents and people outside jazz who may admire the skill, but the Bohemian image is not for them or their kids. Consequences of this include: parents don’t see jazz as a viable alternative study to exams and classical music; students avoid it (if you’re not a genius, then why bother trying?); universities cut it; governments don’t fund it; and, it is belittled as “just for fun” or sidelined by schools as merely an optional “extension activity”.

It leads to bad teaching

It leads to lots of really, really bad teaching. Jazz musicians who buy into the mythology see the music as the natural expression of innate qualities of people: they see it as already inside, something for students to discover independently within themselves and may even characterize intervention by a teacher as redundant or even authoritarian. They valorize self-teaching and make the (mistaken) claim that “the greats were largely self-taught” (they were not, but that is for another post, based on research in my PhD in progress).

Where this too often seems to lead is “lessons” that are a series of, at best, loosely-related experiences lacking connection or educational logic. The conviction is that a jazz student will learn jazz regardless of what a teacher does and failure just indicates that the student didn’t have jazz in them to start with or was just the wrong kind of person. It is lazy and unhelpful pedagogy, not conducive to knowledge-building. It enables teachers to absolve themselves of responsibility and blame students for failure. The rhetoric gets in the way of effective teaching and learning.

It drives people away from jazz

It doesn’t help that few jazz musicians who teach have any training or expertise in education. Because of this, many students likely have negative experiences with jazz education. Certainly, jazz education has a very high attrition rate, in the sense that lots of people do it but then have nothing more to do with jazz: participation in and consumption of jazz is small and declining among adults (ARIA, 2016; BuzzAngle Music, 2017; Rabkin & Hedberg, 2011), despite relatively high numbers involved as younger students indicated by participation in student festivals (GIJ, 2018). School jazz bands also seem to be relatively common, although much less so than classical or concert ensembles (Engadine Music, 2013; NSW School Band Festival, 2018). Can jazz afford to be turning people away?

The reality is that of course jazz involves creativity, all the arts do, as do many things. However, becoming a fluent jazz improviser involves a large body of teachable, trainable skills, techniques, procedures, and concepts. They can be taught and learnt effectively in a logical, useful sequence that should be treated with the same rigor as classical music typically is. Ignore the rhetoric, the claims that “no one ever taught me” and that “jazz musicians just learn to play on the bandstand”: these things come from a mythology so potent that people involved in jazz have come to believe them as fact.

I certainly reject that unhelpful approach as exclusive, pernicious, and damaging. Jazz can, and always has been, taught and learnt. If you have to ask, then I will try to teach you what you don’t know.



ARIA. (2016). Distribution of music sales in Australia from 2010 to 2015, by genre. Retrieved from http://www.aria.com.au/pages/documents/genre-origin.pdf

Berliner, P. (1994). Thinking in jazz: the infinite art of improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

BuzzAngle Music. (2017). BuzzAngle music 2017 U.S. report: a report on 2017 U.S. music industry consumption. Retrieved from http://www.buzzanglemusic.com/wp-content/uploads/BuzzAngle-Music-2017-US-Report.pdf

Engadine Music. (2013). Bandfest 2013. Retrieved from http://www.engadinemusic.com/bandfest

GIJ. (2018). About GIJ: what is Generations In Jazz? Retrieved from https://www.generationsinjazz.com.au/about-gij/

McLeod, J. (2001). Jim McLeod’s jazztrack. Sydney: ABC Books.

Monson, I. (1996). Saying something: jazz improvisation and interaction. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

NSW School Band Festival. (2018). 57th NSW School Band Festival. Kensington, NSW: NSW School band festival ltd. Retrived from https://schoolbandfestival.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/2018-SBF-Program-FINAL.pdf

Rabkin, N., & Hedberg, E. (2011). Arts education in America: What the declines mean for arts participation. Retrieved from Washington:

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