Academic journal article Journal of Historical Research in Music Education

Jazz Education at the Westlake College of Music, 1945-61

Academic journal article Journal of Historical Research in Music Education

Jazz Education at the Westlake College of Music, 1945-61

Article excerpt

The history of jazz education is a seriously underrepresented topic in jazz histories. While reams of literature dedicated to jazz pedagogy exist, these do not satisfy the interest of the jazz historian. Conversely, while jazz history has undergone many evolutions and interpretations over the last century, the history of jazz education has almost entirely eluded incorporation into its canon, an indication of the historical (and present) disconnect between jazz educators, jazz historians, and jazz communities. (1) Likewise, while snippets of individual artists' education in jazz are found in countless biographical, autobiographical, and historical works, few offer sustained critiques of these institutions in relation to entire jazz movements. In contrast to these works, and in an attempt to further carve out a space for jazz education histories in the jazz history canon, I want to explore one of the most important educational institutions for the study of jazz in the post-World War II era: the Westlake College of Music in Hollywood, California. (2)

Established in 1945, Westlake was the first academic institution in the country, after the Schillinger House in Boston ([1945-1954], later becoming Berklee School of Music [1954-1970] and, even later, Berklee College of Music [1970-present]), to offer a college diploma that included curriculum in jazz. (3) It became the prototype for jazz education at other schools in the area such as Los Angeles City College and grew to rival Berklee and North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) as the most important jazz education center in the nation. To date, however, the story of Westlake has gone largely untold save for brief biographical moments in larger jazz and jazz education histories. (4) While exploring the accomplishments of its alumni alone would justify further inquiry, here I want to provide a deeper understanding of Westlake in terms of its mission, its aura, its reputation, and its representations within the jazz world of Southern California and to position the school as a vital cultural institution within both the West Coast jazz movement and the history of jazz.

Textbook Play: Jazz Education in Los Angeles before Westlake

Prior to World War II, jazz education at American colleges was extremely limited. While jazz history courses had previously been offered at elite institutions such as the New School of Social Research in New York City as early as 1941, and while many notable jazz artists such as Erskine Hawkins and Jimmy Lunceford served as directors for university jazz bands well before the war, neither they nor the vast majority of professional jazz artists in America received any formal training in the music. In this nascent period of jazz education, educators were more often musicians passing on information to one another without the academy (jazz historians included) as a mediator. As the former Downbeat magazine editor Charles Suber has noted, "Recordings were the first jazz textbooks." (5)

As America emerged from the war, however, jazz came to represent a distinctly American cultural product, which, it was argued, buttressed American cultural superiority and should therefore be analyzed, qualified, and disseminated worldwide. The U.S. State Department-sponsored tours of American jazz artists to the Middle East, Asia, and Africa during the 1950s to promote American democracy and capitalism is a prime example of the newfound utility of jazz as an instrument of soft power diplomacy. According to this new intelligentsia, jazz, like any abstract art, "was synonymous with democracy" and on "'our side' in the Cold War struggle." (6)

This sensibility accompanied a parallel aesthetic--among jazz enthusiasts in particular--which held that jazz necessitated installation into the American academy to legitimize the efforts of the U.S. government. Marshall Stearns was perhaps the most important of these ideologues and one of the first to make real inroads in creating a space for jazz in academia. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.