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Will the budget ax hurt

jazz education's swing?

                                                                         Photo by Joan Gaylord


The repercussions of a decade of economic austerity could echo through the jazz world for the next generation. Public schools that have reliably provided at least a rudimentary musical education have been especially hard hit by the economy, potentially leaving us with a shortage of well-trained young musicians.

"I am seeing students arrive proficient only in the basic instruments," said Chris Washburne, director of the jazz performance program at Columbia University. "Finding a well-trained trombone player, for example, is darn near impossible."

"Delighted to hear it isn’t just us," said Carl Allen, director of the jazz studies program at Juilliard. "We're certainly seeing the same problem."

During a recent panel discussion about the future of jazz studies at Columbia, Washburne said he was witnessing a shortage of musicians applying to college programs with solid foundations in anything other than the most popular instruments, typically piano or trumpet. While no one has suggested a lack of talent or interest among young musicians, many educators said they are dealing with the consequences of stringent school budgets that have left music programs in tatters and too many young musicians unprepared. 

"The sad irony is that the urban schools have all but embraced a return to 1950 factory-like schooling and sold out to standardized testing and killed the arts," says Dr. Jere Hochman, a school superintendent and past president of the Minority Student Achievement Network, a coalition of multi-racial school districts committed to closing the academic achievement gap.

"Suburban schools get very little state funding and local taxpayers see their taxes going out of the roof.  So, public school funding takes a significant hit and the low hanging fruit has already been cut. What's left?  The arts!"

As a result, many school districts have gutted their art and music departments, eliminating what has been a reliable preparatory program for most young musicians. Those families who can afford to do so provide private music lessons, said Hochman, a solution that is creating a "musical achievement gap." 

College jazz programs have been forced to adapt. One example has been the supplemental auditions for trombone players that Juilliard has held for the last three years. Allen said these have been necessary because "it is so tough finding them at the level at which we need them to be." 

"This has served me well," said Aaron Johnson, a PhD candidate at Columbia who said he gets calls to sit in with younger, college ensembles. "I have played in the bands of at least four college-level programs because there were not enough trombone players."

Sean Jones, a Mack Ave. recording artist and professor of jazz studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, says he sees a different facet of the problem. A private Catholic college, Duquesne draws its students largely from the suburban high schools. While Jones is certain there are talented young musicians, he doesn’t see them pursuing careers in jazz performance. The tendency among students from the more affluent families, he said, is to pursue the business side of music rather than performance.

"There's a stigma that they won’t make any money," said Jones.

College programs have not always been the pathway to professional careers, of course, and the history of jazz is woven with tales of resilience. With this current dilemma, some report glimmers of hope.

"I also see more community-based programs nurturing the young musicians again, older musicians helping the younger musicians along," said Allen. "This is very important to carry on the aural tradition of this music. This is a ‘social music’ and we must stress the importance of how it's passed down."

Encouraging, of course, but the return to a tradition brings with it a caveat and an opportunity to improve upon some of the old ways. As Johnson observed, the college programs have helped open doors that had been stubbornly held shut before.

"I have been made aware that the college system, being somewhat institutionalized and formal, has the effect of creating access to jazz for women, that the informal bandstand networks have not historically done very well," said Johnson.

The final outcome remains to be written. Years of coping with a harsh economy could reshape the music or merely become a footnote in its history. Reflecting upon the current challenges, Gary Bartz spoke with the perspective of one whose career has spanned decades. Though Bartz is a Juilliard graduate, he said he isn’t concerned.

"Coltrane didn’t go to college," Bartz said. "Many of the greats didn’t. Remember, universities can train musicians but they can’t create an artist."

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