My Summer Vacation, by Adam Benjamin

Posted by: adam on June 23, 2006 @ 2:05 pm
Filed under: Kneebody (Artist Thoughts)

Adam Benjamin is doing research for a book on jazz education and can be contacted at adam@kneebody.com.

I was fortunate enough to serve as a faculty member at the Banff Jazz Workshop this summer. Dave invited me up to see how the program works, as part of my ongoing research into approaches and possibilities in jazz education. It was an unbelievable experience, and I cannot recommend the program highly enough to prospective students – it’s a fantastic opportunity to spend extended, focused time with a diverse and talented student body and faculty, and I am completely sure that each and every student and teacher left enriched and inspired. (And this is without even mentioning the breathtaking setting in the Canadian Rockies.)


I have been interested in jazz education, as a student, teacher, and researcher since I was an undergraduate student at the Eastman School of Music, and later at the California Institute of the Arts. Certainly, there is much about teaching jazz in the university that is an intriguing subject on a theoretical level; primarily, though, my interest lies in a more practical realm. Simply put, the jazz education world is growing quickly – the number of degree-granting programs, the number of students they are enrolling and graduating, and the percentage of young jazz performers who attend these programs are all increasing rapidly. At the same time, career opportunities for jazz musicians outside of formal education are, depending who you talk to, somewhere between holding at their current level and slowly disappearing. We can certainly agree that they are not growing as quickly as those in jazz education. Thus, whether we like it or not, jazz education is becoming one of the primary mechanisms determining the future of the music. This trend, to some, is highly problematic, and I agree that there are dire possibilities. But rather than attempting to fight off the trend wholesale, I prefer to concentrate on the possibilities of reform within educational institutions, and moreover on the possibilities within jazz education that truly serve the creative history and the great potential for the future of the music.

Certainly, there are more restrictions and complications when designing a university curriculum in Jazz Studies than in designing curricula at an independent arts center like Banff. But I think that what is going on at Banff can, in many ways, serve as an instructive model for possibilities in college-level jazz education. Most significantly, the program is designed for self-motivated students to have the time and the facilities to create original work collectively with other students. This is, without a doubt, the central activity of most professional jazz musicians, but it is often given short shrift in jazz education curricula, either underemphasized, or buried within a curriculum of more easily defined pursuits such that the student has little time or energy left for it. The Banff workshop is only three weeks long and still many unique bands form and evolve throughout the course of the workshop – if the average four-year college program concentrated as much on the self-directed formation of ensembles and projects, I think we would see more unique and creative music coming from college programs, and students graduating with a clearer idea of their direction.

Another key aspect of the productive and creative atmosphere at the Banff workshop is the diversity of faculty. Again, the Banff workshop is only three weeks long, but Dave brings in a completely new group of faculty every week. This gives the students a much richer learning experience than could occur with a single group of faculty. Although everyone agrees that one of the most compelling aspects of jazz music is the conceptual and stylistic diversity of its creators, this is often not reflected in a jazz education program.

Several factors can lead to this disconnect. Educational institutions may be pressured by their funding sources to promote a certain image of jazz and to graduate students that perpetuate that image. Program administrators seeking a coherent curriculum of their design, may hire faculty that share their own viewpoint and experiences, limiting the capacity of programs to reflect the diversity of the jazz world or even of the interests of their students. Under-funded programs, or programs not located in areas that feature many opportunities for jazz performance, may have trouble attracting qualified, diverse faculty. It is not my proposal that every jazz program should be a microcosm of the entire world of jazz; as in every discipline, pockets of specialization are necessary and useful, especially in advanced degree programs. I maintain, though, that the average undergraduate jazz student benefits greatly from being exposed to a great variety of possibilities of what it can mean to be a jazz musician.

This diversity of faculty is borne of one of the most successful core elements of the Banff workshop curriculum — the absence of a central, universal message of what a jazz musician is and what one must do in order to become one. In this way, Dave’s vision for a program reflects his own career as an artist. His collective work conveys a coherent message not through limitation or convention, but through a diversity of approaches reflecting a personal creative evolution. The lack of a dogmatic message in the Banff curriculum allows the faculty to teach to their own strengths, which in combination with a diverse and creative faculty provides an excellent learning experience for the students. As a teacher at Banff, I was free to teach my piano students the things I am best at teaching and care about most passionately, and felt comfortable doing this knowing that they were receiving quite different and equally salient messages the previous and following weeks from the eminent pianists Marilyn Crispell and Uri Caine.

I was pleased and surprised when many Banff workshop participants reacted as enthusiastically to my interest in and perspectives on jazz education as they did to my teaching itself. I think there is a growing sense that jazz education has great possibilities, and that in many cases these possibilities are not being fully realized. It can be frustrating to work in a field with such hugely variant images of itself and no consensus on what should be taught or even what is teachable. In my view, though, being involved in such relatively early stages in the development of a field is a valuable opportunity. In the history of the conservatory, jazz education is a newcomer, its dominant tropes and systems still being formed. I urge all those involved in jazz education, as students, faculty, clinicians, administrators, or trustees, to take this development seriously and to search deeply for the most enriching experience that can be provided for all involved. As participants in this development, we should remember that we are not only laying the groundwork for the possibilities of jazz education, but also, to a significant degree, possibilities of the future of jazz itself.

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