Closing speech at the IASJ Jazz Meeting, 1 July 2023
Honorary Doctor Aaron Goldberg
Echoing Dr. Dana Hall: ‘education is a process by which apparent contradictions are resolved’.
Here are four apparent contradictions.
Contradiction 1: How can improvisation (as Anders Jormin helpfully defined it: the art of the unforeseen, the unexpected) be taught?
Contradiction 2: How can jazz simultaneously value tradition and innovation?
Contradiction 3: How can jazz be both a ‘Black American Art Form’ (Wynton Marsalis, Amiri Baraka) and an ‘International Gift to Humanity’ (Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie)?
Contradiction 4: How do we 'practice freedom’?
The four resolutions
Resolution 1: Oral and aural pedagogy is simply the only method that works to enable mastery of our improvisational language. All other methods shortchange our students. Duke and Trane and Miles and Herbie didn't go to jazz school. They learned by 1) listening, 2) imitating the masters that came before them, and 3) playing. This is the exact, same way that we learned our native languages as kids, listening to our parents talk. Human brains evolved to enable us to learn to speak a language freely, long before anyone ever attended a day of school. Jazz Schools therefore need to teach what works, what takes advantage of this innate mechanism; not what makes for easy paper handouts in a classroom, or what classical music departments model for us. To insist that jazz pedagogy must be analogous to classical European pedagogy is indeed a form of racist cultural hegemony, and we, who know better, must have the courage to push back firmly against this. One because it is an outdated outgrowth of colonialism. But most importantly, because it simply doesn't work: it cheats students of their only chance to progress toward mastery.
Of course, as Dana Hall said, this doesn't mean that the right answer is to abandon all canonical materials: standards, in-depth study of the great icons, benchmark musical criteria. It simply means that the core values taught must be our values: groove, ‘melodicism’, conversation, listening etc., and taught via our (African and Afro-American) oral and aural traditions.
Resolution 2: As Dave Liebman taught us this past week so eloquently, both on the bandstand and the microphone, there is no tension between the need to do a deep study of the tradition and the need to develop your own personal unique voice. The study of the jazz tradition is the study of unique voices. Jazz is a tradition of innovation. When we do a deep dive into the eminent example of the masters, we learn to trace the influence of those who came before, and we learn to recognize their brilliant innovations. Only after such a study are we equipped to attempt to become such innovators ourselves. We must always try to guide our students down the only path that enables a valuable contribution to this music: that is the balanced path between ‘respect for the masters’ and the ‘pursuit of the new’. Like most other artistic genres, this is the essential nature of our tradition: it is a tradition of innovation.
Resolution 3: To comprehend the brilliance of these visionary masters of this music whom we love so much (Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock) we need to wrestle with the growth of their creative American Black subculture, which only later became a global phenomenon. We must try to understand their lives as Black Americans, living in a nation that devalued their humanity on a daily basis. Without teaching their harsh sociopolitical context, including the window to artistic fulfillment that our heroes pried open with their bare hands, one cannot comprehend their timeless genius! The Blues is the emotional pulse of Jazz and the pinnacle of African-American spiritual expression, of catharsis and sustenance, and of the triumph over oppression and hardship.
Teaching jazz divorced from its Black American context is therefore carving out its heart. Swing and groove are the rhythmic backbone of jazz and we can dance to them nonstop, all the way back through Harlem to New Orleans and the Caribbean and finally to West Africa. Teaching jazz divorced from the horrific Black American context––that witnessed human beings brought as slaves from Africa to the New World and then subjected to two more centuries of further injustice including Jim Crow, but which eventually enabled a triumphant syncretic fusion of European and African elements that continues to ignite this music we love today: is like cutting off its legs...or if you will: deflating its booty. But on the contrary, by teaching ‘jazz as black music’ we not only create cultural community but aspire to become an extended family: an international and multi-racial jazz family. No matter where we live, simply by virtue of being jazz musicians our cultural roots are therefore Black American. This should not be a new idea: after all the first human beings emerged from Africa. Our common ancestors, our great-great-great grandparents, are all African. We jazz musicians worldwide have the honor to be musical descendants of the valiant African-American savants that invented this gift. Their legacy of artistic self-expression in turn helps us to discover ourselves! No matter what we look like and where on the planet we live.
Resolution 4: Finally, and most basically: jazz teaches us how to live: with empathy, freedom and responsibility, as Anders Jormin emphasized. Just as we practice taking solos, to prepare for the moment when we are tested on the bandstand, all core life values must be practiced. We are not given a script, there is no sheet music for living: we make up life every day as we go along. Jazz shows us how a democracy should function, with shifting heads of state, to create the world that we want, and hopefully, along the path, discover beauty together. Jazz teaches us to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, experiencing the profundity of love and friendship, as our individual egos dissolve and the whole of a band becomes more than the sum of the parts.
We learn to anticipate, think and hear as one. Some students who met here will play together for the rest of their lives. Jazz is a pinnacle of humanism, and thus turns us into activists: after experiencing unity with the other, how can we sit by and watch as our brothers are killed in cold-blood, in Minneapolis or Paris or Ramallah? Because our societies view such individuals as expendable second-class citizens? If we receive a proper jazz education, we know that our heroes Coltrane and Bird and Bud were viewed in exactly the same way as George Floyd and Nahel. We thus cannot sit quietly: jazz teaches us to value both freedom and each other: it teaches us to value each other's freedom.
Thanks to Dave Liebman, Wouter Turkenburg, Jussi Kannaste, Jukkis Uotila, all the teachers and happy students!
Honorary Doctor Sibelius Academy