Unveiling the truth about jazz prodigies and marketing.
Jazz marketing & mythology
The marketing of jazz creates a mythology that can lead us to believe that great jazz players emerge, fully-formed. First, they are born and then, next minute, they are there “on the bandstand” either learning by osmosis from other jazz greats or already at their peak through insane natural gifts. Of course this is just marketing and doesn’t reflect reality (see Richardson, 2019, Ch. 4).
Online videos of very young jazz players often emphasise prodigy and virtuosity. Viral videos of kids playing jazz tend to showcase extraordinary young musicians who have already reached a high level of technical and, often, musical performance. We see the prodigy and are dazzled by their achievements. Amazing, so young, so talented, etc.
This video explores the issues of jazz education vs jazz prodigies and marketing. It’s on my new channel, Teaching Jazz, a channel about jazz education for teachers and musicians. Like this blog, it includes advice, research, reviews, and discussions of issues around jazz teaching and learning.
The reality of jazz prodigies & great players
What the prodigy videos don’t show is the work that led up to that performance, all the teaching and learning, the practice, the mistakes, the incremental progress over time. Really, the same is true of professional musicians too. When we hear jazz greats playing we’re quite rightly astonished and transported by their artistry and skill but we don’t see what led up to that point. And why would we? It is mundane. It is teaching and learning, it is tedious practice and painstaking hard work. As fans of the music, we don’t need to see that to appreciate great playing. But, as jazz educators, students, parents and mentors of aspiring jazz musicians, it is important to see not just performance, but also to see teaching and learning. We need to be able to see education.
Jazz education is hidden (and that’s a problem)
Jazz prodigy videos, and jazz marketing, also tend to gloss over the often-extraordinary opportunities and support given to those child stars. Significant support and teaching within the family becomes spun into some version of ‘it was all me’ or ‘such-and-such a jazz star was self-taught’. Even musicians who are open about their school, private studio, and tertiary music training, will reflexively claim to have been ‘self-taught’. Again, see my doctoral study ‘Teaching jazz: A study of beliefs and pedagogy using Legitimation Code Theory‘ for a very detailed analysis of this with many examples. Chapter 4 examines and explains this issue (maybe a future blog post?)
The issue is that jazz education is hidden. We know jazz education happens. We may see it every day, but we probably see it as something we do, something for ordinary people. There is a disconnect between, on the one hand, the marketing of top jazz players and jazz prodigies and, on the other hand, how they learnt to play. Their training is obscured. That makes it hard for us as students, teachers, and parents to see how it is done.
- A look at the extensive early musical training of Lester Young, one of the earlier jazz greats and former jazz prodigy.
- Another example, Dizzy Gillespie’s musical training, including in jazz and improvisation, in childhood, teens, and tertiary-level.
- Emily Remler, jazz guitar virtuoso
- The childhood and teenage music education of Horace Silver, pianist and jazz great.
- Jazz Mythology and reality. Similar focus to this post, but not just a rehash.