The History of Jazz Education: A Critical Reassessment

By Prouty, Kenneth E. | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, April 2005 | Go to article overview

The History of Jazz Education: A Critical Reassessment


Prouty, Kenneth E., Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


Most narratives of the history of jazz education seem to reinforce the perceptions of a fundamental distinction between academic and non-academic practices. This essay explores the development of a historical identity for the field of jazz education, and how this historical narrative speaks to the ways in which the field has emerged as a unique cultural system within higher musical education itself. The narrative of history, to this end, serves a distinct purpose, in which such an identity becomes not only one segment of a historical document, but also an instrument in the power-laden relationships which characterize musical study in higher education.

Rethinking the History of Jazz Education

The relationship between jazz educators and those within the professional jazz community has been, at certain times, a troubling one. In particular, academic jazz programs have often been accused of being too far removed from the traditions of jazz--as these traditions developed through both performance and informal learning situations. In reflecting upon his own experiences as a student in jazz education programs, Keith Javors advances the view that jazz education represents, in some sense, a clash of musical cultures, that of academia and what he terms the "indigenous" jazz community. He writes that "[The] concern for jazz performance programs developed through a colliding of experiences in what I increasingly believe can exemplify two disparate value systems related to jazz performance: that encompassed within professional practice and that encompassed within academia." (1)

The historical construction of jazz education as represented by documented histories of the field presents a fundamentally diachronic narrative of its development, with the most significant components of this historical construction taking the form of landmark events at educational institutions over the course of the last half century or so. In this discussion and critique of the history of jazz education, this mode of historical-narrative understanding will be referred to as an "institutional narrative," in which a series of institutionally grounded events, agreed upon by the field as a whole as having a certain significance, are connected in such a way that one seems to flow logically into the next. Such thematic tropes seem to reflect the same orientation toward history that pervades the musicological construction of Western art music history, as well as the history of jazz, which has drawn largely from the same evolutionary historical modes. As the history of Western art music is usually presented as a sequence of prominent composers, with the temporal and stylistic space between them labeled as "transitional," so too has the history of jazz relied heavily upon the recognition of major performers as temporal and stylistic mileposts. The major difference between the prevailing narratives of stylistic history and that of jazz education itself is that great composers/performers are replaced by great schools and certain individuals within them.

The most commonly accepted version of the history of jazz education is articulated in a 1994 article appearing in the Jazz Educators Journal written by Daniel Murphy, (2) detailing the field's growth from its "pre-history" in the 1920s and 1930s, to the establishment of the first recognized (at least within this context) jazz education programs in the late 1940s (North Texas State University and the Berklee School of Music are notable examples), (3) and into the 1960s and 1970s, when jazz education underwent a period of pronounced growth. The article produces a narrative in which one important institutional development is followed by another, which then leads to yet another, up to the present. Historical periods are generally defined by the establishment of programs at specific schools.

Murphy's essay has become, in a sense, an official version of the history of jazz education. …

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