From Aesthetics to Praxialism: Tracing the Evolution of David Elliott's Writings on Jazz Education from 1983 to 1995

By West, Chad | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, April 2015 | Go to article overview

From Aesthetics to Praxialism: Tracing the Evolution of David Elliott's Writings on Jazz Education from 1983 to 1995


West, Chad, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


Many associate David Elliott with his praxial music education philosophy, but careful examination of his early writings on jazz education reveal that his beliefs were once very much rooted in aesthetics similar to those of Susanne Langer, Leonard Meyer, and Bennett Reimer. Bennett Reimer is widely recognized as having provided the profession with a cogent, understandable, and relatable philosophy of music education, which united the profession unlike any previously. Reimer's book, A Philosophy of Music Education, first published in 1970, changed measurably with each edition--one in 1989 and the last in 2003--but his underlying premise remained consistent: music education is a form of aesthetic education whereby we know ourselves more fully through experiencing the feelings that music can evoke. (1) Reimer's notion of music education as aesthetic education was challenged in the 1980s when music education philosophers such as David Elliott, Reimer's former doctoral student at Case Western Reserve, began questioning whether the fundamental value of music and, by extension, music education might lie in something other than the education of feeling. Elliott and others suggested that music is a diverse human practice that is experienced in ways that extend beyond Western European notions of aesthetic experience and musical works. Music's value, Elliott contended, lies not in contemplating but in doing.

Purpose and Research Questions

Originally rooted in aesthetics, David Elliott's thoughts about jazz education have changed considerably from his 1983 dissertation through his 1995 landmark book, Music Matters, which outlined his praxial music education philosophy. This is not surprising; reflective practitioners continually refine their arguments and develop different positions over time. Tracing the development of those arguments and positions often reveals myriad paths, detours, and U-turns and reminds us that who we are today is a product of time, reflection, and evolution. The purpose of this article is to extrapolate the apparent evolution of David Elliott's thoughts about jazz education by examining his writings on the topic from 1983 through 1995. The research questions are: (a) What were the paths that led Elliott to his thoughts about jazz education in Music Matters? (b) What previously held positions were abandoned, and with what were they replaced as his philosophy evolved?

Broadening Aesthetics to Accommodate Jazz Education

For his doctoral dissertation, Elliott surveyed Canadian music educators about the status of post-secondary jazz education in Canada. (2) From that data, he formulated a philosophical position for jazz education. Elliott, in 1983, wished to situate jazz within aesthetics but acknowledged that aesthetics, as it had traditionally been presented, was inadequate and in need of expansion: "By refining and expanding the current philosophical foundations of music education we intend to build a theoretical position on the nature and value of jazz education that will facilitate the full realization of its potential and its place in aesthetic education." (3)

Elliott began his philosophical argument by describing how his position on jazz is "fundamentally congruent with Susanne Langer's theory of art, which together with Leonard Meyer's position on musical meaning and affect, forms the foundation of Bennett Reimer's concept of music education." (4) Elliott wrote that jazz offers what (presumably) all music offers--objective forms of subjective life. However, the affective nature of jazz is located in the unique representation of the structural elements of music (i.e., rhythm, melody, harmony, and form), and thus makes up what we perceive as jazz "style." Understanding, experiencing, and engaging with these objective conditions allows one to have an aesthetic experience of jazz.

Elliott then described how this line of reasoning is accurate only to the extent that it deals with the syntactical aspects of the art and contended that it does not account for the "spiritual essence" of jazz. …

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