Relativism in Jazz Education

By Saul Richardson,
Jazz education is hampered by notions of relativism among its educators. The view confuses the technical features of language with the ideas, meanings and emotions it can express. To downplay the importance of teaching students how to play jazz is based on a fallacy and does them a great disservice.

“That’s so great! Fantastic!! Really excellent!”

These are the all-too-common catch-cries of the well-meaning jazz educator. It doesn’t matter what the student plays, it is all valid. They are “having a go” and are expressing themselves, and that is all that matters. This approach is based upon relativism and is destructive. It is responsible for a lot of truly bad teaching in jazz.


Does every utterance really communicate effectively and idiomatically?

I have just read a chapter in an otherwise excellent book on jazz pedagogy about teaching improvisation (Jazz Pedagogy: A Canadian perspective, by Brian Lillos1). The author claims that there is no single correct way to teach jazz. This makes sense and is obvious. However he continues with some more troubling ideas. Firstly, that all approaches are valid. Secondly, that what is important is deep learning rather than speed of progress and, thirdly, that what matters most is the development of creativity and personal expression. Such sentiments are representative of a common weakness in jazz education: relativism.

Relativism seems to be most predominant in the UK, in Australia, among jazz educators who have not been trained in teaching, and in informal settings. There seems to be disagreement between institutional-type teachers, typified by academics in US colleges and universities and non-academic teachers or musicians whose main work is professional performance. Relativism is often the hallmark of the latter group.

Relativism implies that everything any student or musician does is equally wonderful, that there is no better or worse, no right or wrong. Everything is valid, anything goes. But does it really? Do such ideas really help students?


Jazz is full of rules & judgments

The reality is that jazz is characterised by highly complex rules, conventions, structures, and value judgements. There is a canon of great jazz works and recordings, a pantheon of admired players past and current and very clearly recognisable styles within the genre. In the world of professional music we always make judgements about players and their work. Some are great, others are not. We can tell, by listening, whether someone is playing bebop, or ECM, or New Orleans, or swing, or cool, or any other of the sub-styles of jazz. We can also tell whether a musician can play fast, or slow, or in tune, high notes, low register, with good technique or if they are sloppy. To suggest that anything goes is simply wrong: jazz is not just a free-for-all. Within each style of jazz there are characteristic features of the language and conventions required to sound idiomatic.

Certainly a musician can play anything they like, in whatever way they feel expresses their ideas. But outside of a broad range of approaches music ceases to be recognizable as jazz. There are musicians who dwell on the fringes of jazz and whose work is debated: is it jazz, or not? Keith Jarrett’s solo piano concerts or John Zorn are examples. There are other forms of expression that no one seriously mistakes for jazz: Opera, ballet, the music of AC/DC. If our job as jazz educators is to teach people how to play jazz, then our task is to train students the language and conventions broadly recognizable as jazz. Heavy metal is for the heavy metal educators, and Jarret-esque contested areas are a decision for mature musicians. Jarrett is certainly fully fluent in more conventional jazz playing.

Clearly, in jazz, “anything” doesn’t go.


Self-expression or fluency?

One commonly expressed aspect of relativism in jazz education is that its purpose should be to enable creative self-expression. Sometimes this includes self-development and catharsis rather than placing any importance on technical or theoretical aspects of jazz. However, this view confuses the technical features of language with the ideas, meanings and emotions it can express. To downplay the importance of teaching students how to play jazz is based on a fallacy and does them a great disservice.

The aim of teaching someone how to play jazz should presumably be to teach them how to play jazz. Teaching free-for-all self-expression and personal development does not teach someone how to play jazz. In order to enable self-expression through the language of jazz teachers need to actually teach their students how to play the music. That involves skills, techniques, vocabulary, features of style and rhythm, theory, and so on. Self-expression is internal to learners; skills, techniques and theory exist externally to learners. It is these external aspects, essentially a body of knowledge and procedures that need to be mastered in order to achieve fluency as a jazz improviser. Fluency should be the aim of jazz education. Fluency enables self-expression.

The concept of fluency is easy to understand if we use language as an analogy. The aim of language education is to create fluent, literate speakers who are able to express themselves and communicate effectively. We don’t just make up our own languages, we learn the sounds, formulae, skills, techniques, procedures, conventions and grammar of an existing language so that we can communicate effectively. Primary school teaches do not baulk at the idea of teaching language fearing they will stifle their students’ creativity. That would be absurd, as it is in jazz education.

Ideas, meanings and emotions are not the same as the technical features of the language used to communicate them. The aim of effective jazz education should be to facilitate communication through fluent expertise in recognisable jazz language. In other words, jazz educators need to teach their students how to be fluent improvisers.

“Deep learning” rather than rapid progress

Lillos repeats a common jazz view: that it is more important to learn in depth than it is to make rapid progress as a player. Related to this is a notion that there is a difference between being a mere technician and being a musical player. The argument says that students need to spend time exploring their inner creativity, and that just because someone has great technique it doesn’t follow that they can actually play jazz well. Lillos points to the clear development in the playing of famous performers like Coltrane or Potter over their careers.
This kind of notion is strange and confusing. It seems to suggest that there is no point teaching anything at all because players will grow and mature at their own pace over a very long time, and you can’t teach experience. It is also just a trite truism. Of course musicians develop as they age. But as teachers we are dealing with young musicians as they are when they come to us. Our job is to teach them how to play jazz. The effective way to do that is by teaching them the skills, attitudes and techniques to become fluent jazz players, fluent improvisers. Certainly their ideas will develop and mature as they gain experience, but we can’t teach that. To neglect to actually teach is both a dereliction of responsibility and a shabby excuse for not doing any work.

I should make it clear that Brian Lillos is not saying that people shouldn’t teach, but the relativism implicit in his argument is too easily misinterpreted and misused by unskilled jazz educators and has led to a lot of really bad teaching. I also think that making fast progress is a good thing and should be encouraged. Why not teach students things while we wait for them to mature? What a waste of time if we don’t!



A problem worth noting with “deep learning” is that the term stems from a social constructivist view of learning that comes from a constellation of views that seek to dismiss the acquisition of skills and the explicit transmission of knowledge as “shallow” or “surface” learning. The constructivist argument is that learners construct their own unique understandings of the world through interactions with it and with other people. All teachers can do is facilitate and guide this process; explicit teaching is impossible and pointless. Education can thus become a kind of unstructured “free-for-all” while educators wait for students to construct their knowledge of the world almost by osmosis. It is easy to see how constructivism and relativism could go hand-in-hand.

Social constructivism is in vogue in teaching and in educational research and is attractive to many because it positions itself as progressive or even radical. Its constellation of ideas proposes another powerful dualism: that of “student-centred” versus “teacher-centred” education. “Student-centred” education invokes ideas of democracy, openness, freedom, respect, and nurturing. In contrast to this “teacher-centred” education is suggestive of restriction, control, domination, lack of respect, and coldness. Teaching approaches that focus on skills, facts and the explicit transmission of knowledge are damned by association. However, the dualism is a false one and the reality is that constructivist teaching is often profoundly conservative and tends to actually favour a privileged few students who already have the background needed to figure out what is expected of them.

If we want to teach people how to play jazz, we must actually teach them how to play jazz and not just present them with a series of encounters and hope that eventually they “get it”. That is an unreliable, ineffective and very slow way to go about it. Given that not every student has unlimited patience, it is little wonder that jazz education has a high attrition rate.


Is every teaching approach equally valid?

All approaches cannot possibly be equally valid. A valid approach is one that helps students become more fluent jazz players. We can tell whether one player is more proficient than another because we can easily compare their playing to well-known norms of style, sound, technique, and so on. It is not difficult, for instance, to tell whether someone is playing bebop or not. Or whether someone is playing in tune, or has the technical ability to improvise fluently. The job of a teacher is to teach, not just hope that some students magically improve.

Jazz teachers often show a reluctance to intervene in students’ playing and are hesitant to impose or dictate. However, that is precisely the job of a teacher, and they are doing more harm than good through their non-teaching. In the case of the exuberant educator who I opened with, heaping praise on a student, it presumably stems from a natural desire to be positive and offer encouragement, a worthy sentiment to be sure. However, simply offering unconditional praise and refusing to critique our students is not good educational practice. It does students a great disservice and tends to be counterproductive.

If our aim as jazz educators is for our students to learn how to play jazz, we have to actually teach them how to do all the things that that involves. We have to teach them how to play jazz.


1Lillos, B. (Ed) (2006). Jazz pedagogy: A Canadian perspective. Toronto: Author.

1 thoughts on “Relativism in Jazz Education

  1. Brian Lillos says:

    Dear Saul, I think you’ve missed the context of my book. Aural tradition is the most important part of my teaching. The jazz I know and studied is an African American music. It was taught to me by African American mentors and it was mostly learned holistically through imitation and discovery. Cheers, Brian

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *