Popular Music and Jazz in the American Junior College Music Curriculum during the Swing Era (1935-1945)

By Krikun, Andrew | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Popular Music and Jazz in the American Junior College Music Curriculum during the Swing Era (1935-1945)


Krikun, Andrew, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


Introduction

Using popular music and jazz in formal music education is controversial for music educators and to some extent, the greater popular music community. Many musical styles historically categorized as "popular," such as jazz, blues, country, musical theater, rhythm and blues, gospel, rock, and hip hop were created in the United States. But American educational institutions have been slow to accept these indigenous musical practices as worthy of study in the higher education music curriculum. Nonetheless, as the twentieth century progressed, a small number of college music programs began to add popular music to the curriculum. In this article, I will present preliminary research on how junior colleges included popular music and jazz in their curriculum during the Swing Era, spanning from 1935-1945.

American Popular Music in Higher Education

In an address to the MENC Society for Research in Music Education in 2000, Jere Humphreys observed, "We American music educators have been trying to bend the American public's musical knowledge, tastes, and practices to our collective will since before our nation became a nation. Beginning in colonial days and extending to the present day, music educators and others have been trying to tell Americans what kind of music they should perform, listen to, and even appreciate." (1) The "kind of music" that Humphreys mentions is Western European art music, as it is known in the academy, or classical music, as it is more commonly known by the general public.

Although the music curriculum began to diversify during the second half of the twentieth century, Western European art music still provides the foundation for academic musical studies in higher education. In his ethnographic study of Midwestern university schools of music, Heartland Excursions, ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl concludes, "... the 'music' in schools of music always means, exclusively or overwhelmingly, Western classical music (also called 'art music,' 'canonic music,' 'cultivated music,' 'serious music,' and even--wryly--'real music' and 'normal music')." (2) Reviewing the course catalogs of college and university music programs in 1998, Sammie Ann Wicks arrives at a similar conclusion. She writes, "The rigid 'classical-music-only' orientation has dominated American universities' music department curricula for so long, in fact, that this cultural style is now considered universal and is assumed to be the model for all others. We do not have Theory of Music in the Elite Western-European Tradition in the curriculum, we have 'Music Theory;' not 'Appreciation ofMusic in the Elite Western-European Tradition, but 'Music Appreciation.'" (3)

In an address to his American colleagues at MENC, British musicologist Christopher Small comments on the lack of value placed on indigenous American musical styles in all areas of music education. He writes, "to this outsider it seems strange that in the very heartland of this powerful and endlessly varied musical culture he should find that those who are charged with developing the musicality of young people should place so little value on it, and should cling instead, with a tenacity that looks a little like desperation, to the great works of the European past." (4)

These scholars are informed by the contemporary concepts of multiculturalism, which arose during the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 1960s. Its apogee can be seen in the pronouncements of the Tanglewood Declaration in 1968, when a group of music educators agreed that "Music of all periods, styles, forms, and cultures belongs in the curriculum. The musical repertory should be expanded to involve music of our time in its rich variety, including currently popular teenage music and avant-garde music, American folk music, and the music of other cultures." (5)

It is unclear whether the authors of this statement were addressing the entire spectrum of formal music education including college and university music programs, but nevertheless these sentiments had a significant effect in the years following the declaration. …

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