Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Monday, November 30, 2015

The University of the Streets Fallacy

Does anybody really ever learn jazz in the streets?

This is a claim made by older musicians when sermonizing to the "privileged" younger generation on how "they" had to learn jazz under much rougher conditions. They were not shielded by the cushy walls of the university classroom. These musical soldiers had to learn to swing on the rough and tough pedagogical pavements of the University of the Streets--so they say.

Let me first clarify that buskers do actually exist. These are musicians and artists who make their living performing on the streets. However, the musicians I'm speaking of aren't referring to anything as tangible. They're referencing some glorified set of conditions where only the bold and strong survived. Like those who say, "I was in Nam."

The truth is that the conditions under which players learned jazz in the 1940s is not much different from conditions under which players learn today--and I'm referring to musical conditions, not social ones. I can't even imagine the emotional wear and tear that living in Jim Crow America must have had on black folks, on and off the bandstand.

Now regarding merely learning to play, there are basically three things you have to do:  (1) You have to study--the gathering of information; (2) You have to listen to recordings and live performances of players with much more experience than yourself; and (3) You have to play with others, either playing sessions or in front of a live audience. The process through which musicians went about doing these things in the 1940s is not that much different than how musicians today go about it.

As far as studying or gathering information, this is done through studying with someone privately or in a master class setting, which is usually held in someone's apartment or rehearsal space, which is inside, I might add. The university setting isn't much different. Most of your training as it pertains to your instrument, is done in a one-on-one setting with a private instructor. And typically your private instructor will teach you knowledge gained from his or her own experiences, and not from this one Jazz Theory Doctrine that many claim that all jazz students learn from. Some of the more common assertions are: "They all sound like they studied jazz from the same book." Or "it's all the same stuff played on different instruments." And there is some ounce of truth to these assertions, but not all of it is due to musicians having learned in the university instead of the streets.

I can certainly understand why many feel that there's a lack of originality in today's musical climate. But I argue that it has anything to do with students having been taught in the university.

This might sound kind of bold, but I think many players subscribe to an aesthetic that I call artistic colonialism. This is a policy or practice of acquiring full or partial artistic control over another person's ideas or musical vision, sharing it with others, and exploiting it economically.

For instance: Many have no problems playing segments of other player's solos during their gigs as a badge of honor or rite of passage--often high five (ing) themselves for having done the deed. We've taking musical practices that ordinarily would be restricted to the practice room, and have now made them a part of our onstage performance. We've all practiced other people's solos. Guilty as charged. That's just a part of the learning process. This is understood. But like our understanding of Las Vegas, we also presume that "What happens in the practice room, stays in the practice room."  Something similar can be seen in reality TV shows, where we've taken very private moments from our personal lives, moments no one is ever supposed to see, and we now bare them to the world in front of a camera.
Musically speaking, people are not only stealing concepts of others but in some cases, they're playing entire solos, note for note. The group Mostly Other People Do the Killing went so far as covering the entire Kind of Blue album, even improvised solos. This sort of thing has a great novelty factor, but little artistic merit. And it proves the points that (1) artistic colonialism is alive and well, and (2) that we have become all too comfortable with filtering our art through this reality-show-type paradigm.

One of the reasons that the they-all-sound-the-same narrative is so pervasive is that many of our role models don't represent the custom of originality that has defined jazz. Much of it has to do with our rush to find jazz stars. We have a tendency to prop up under-developed players as the bearers of the torch whether they're ready or not. There was a time when many of the jazz star types of today who are revered as one of the cats, would have found a home as lead soloists in the Buddy Rich big band or the Maynard Ferguson band—similarly to players like Steve Marcus and Sal Nestico. These guys were not propped up as one of the cats—understandably so. Their musical concepts were built more on flash than vision. They sounded amazing on two choruses of “I Got Rhythm” changes or a 32 bar solo with backgrounds. But their music did not have the depth nor vision to hold one's interest over several recordings. And I'm not here to drag them through the mud. As I said earlier, they were amazing players. I heard them both while still in high school and was completely blown away.

Once I got to college, however, I discovered much younger contemporaries who were paving the way in New York--musicians like Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Branford Marsalis and Kenny Garrett. Their music seemed to be coming from a much deeper place. In fact, I'm not sure if any of them would have shined in the Buddy Rich or Woody Herman bands. Kenny Garrett actually played in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. And I feel many of the other soloists in that band shined much more than him in that setting. However, history has proven that Kenny was going after something a lot deeper than playing in a section offered.

I feel that we have to demand more out of our jazz stars. With success comes responsibility. Even if you're not trying to lead by deliberate persuasion, you are leading by example, just by your mere visibility. We can not continue attaching ourselves to someone else's musical vision and calling it progress. Otherwise, we become musical versions of knockoff bags. The label might say Prada, but it's really made in China.

And as far as learning jazz in the streets, the only thing the streets are good for is finding your way indoors. Unless you are a muralist, stop glorifying having honed your craft in the streets. The truth of the matter is this: If you are in fact in the streets, you're probably not learning to play. My guess is that you're doing everything but.

Throughout history, musicians have made the grave error of glorifying negative behavior, as though it has any positive effects on one's musical abilities. Charlie Parker was not great because he was addicted to heroin; he was great despite being a heroin addict. That was his true genius.

In closing, let me leave you with this: People learn to play in two places and two places only--the practice room and the bandstand. Like having eggs and pancakes for breakfast, some things will never change.

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