Teacher Responses to Cautions About Teaching Negative Biographical Details in Jazz History Courses

May 1, 2020

During the five years since my article, “Accentuate the Negative? On Teaching Biographical Details in Jazz History,” first appeared in the online format of College Music Symposium, the website’s counter has tallied 6,649 views. Apparently, my observations have been quite widely read. The predominance of tragic stories in introductory jazz history books concerned me. I had urged teachers to be mindful of the effects that musicians’ medical histories could have on student perceptions of the great musicians and the emotions that students perceived in the music. In the years since, I have received feedback about my observations from colleagues who teach jazz history and jazz appreciation courses. Some reflections came to me directly, and some have come to me second hand from teachers who had forwarded the article to others and then told me what those contacts thought. As the responses raise serious issues and exemplify common oversights, I thought it was time to summarize a few trends in those responses and my reactions to them.

see: Accentuate the Negative? On Teaching Biographical Details in Jazz History

When teachers and book authors are reciting gossip about the private lives of musicians, they might be unwittingly attempting to compete with the sensationalism attached to outing the private lives of show business figures that is routinely done by “TMZ” and “Entertainment Tonight.” I am troubled because the sad stories about jazz musicians that are told in classroom presentations and jazz history textbooks have nothing to do with the joy of creation that I personally know to be the primary thrust of so many performances. So why recite them? I wondered why teachers could not just allow students to listen to the music and come to their own conclusions about whatever emotion or meaning they perceive, without being influenced by stories about the players’ private lives.

A key issue in the textbooks cited in “Accentuate the Negative…” was substance abuse. As noted, heroin addiction of near-epidemic proportions existed among modern jazz musicians in the 1940s and 1950s. Numerous musicians imitated Charlie Parker’s actions despite the addicted saxophonist’s admonitions to stay away from the drug. It became fashionable to use heroin. During the bebop era, some young musicians were satisfying their curiosity about heroin. They drew an illusory correlation between drug use by their idol and the artistry of the idol. Unfortunately, through experimentation and acquiescing to peer pressure, some of these musicians accidentally became addicted. They bought the myth that great suffering leads to great art, and addiction was one route to take. But the tragedy of such situations has nothing to do with the music. In fact, the dazzling virtuosity that was prized more during the bebop era than in any other jazz era contradicts any deleterious effects of heroin on the musician’s health. This, in turn, negates the relevance of reciting sad stories of addiction when introducing young listeners to the great sounds. In fact, I cited the results of a study, in which I participated, that investigated responses of a few hundred students in jazz history and appreciation classes at several colleges. It clearly showed that sad stories about the musicians biased students' respect for the musicians and influenced their perceptions of the music.

Listed below are some of the trends that I have noticed among the responses by teachers who have read “Accentuate the Negative…”

  1. Several teachers remarked that they were surprised to think that sad stories would affect their students’ perceptions of the music or the stature of the musicians who had tragic lives. Some had assumed that their students would make the necessary distinctions between private lives and public accomplishments. I think that these teachers may be naïve about human nature, and they have not gotten to know the less sophisticated among their students. Keep in mind that most jazz history courses are offered as music appreciation classes for a general education requirement, not as upper level classes for musicians who personally know what it takes to make jazz. The lack of sophistication among many students taking the course, who may be enrolled for easy arts credit, needs to be considered when teachers decide how much insight to expect from class members. One teacher recalled having routinely recited drug addiction accounts until he found “he was a junkie” to be the answer from one student on an exam question requesting “the most important thing to remember” about Charlie Parker.
  1. Several protested that they feel compelled to tell dramatic stories to engage student interest, especially for marginally motivated students. However, these teachers might be neglecting to highlight the dramatic aspects within the music itself. Tension and relaxation can be experienced readily as chords change. Drama exists, quite obviously, within the playing of the instruments in the rhythm section. (Art Blakey’s press rolls are orchestral!) Excitement is unmistakable when a bassist and drummer together lock into a hard-driving groove.

It should be easy to help students recognize that many of the most effective solo lines develop quite dramatically as they unfold. What is more dramatic than the opening cadenza of “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong or the solo break in “Night in Tunisia” by Charlie Parker? What is more sensational than the final moments of Duke Ellington’s 1940 recording of “Harlem Air Shaft” in which the internal conflict of so many different lines makes it sound as though the piece is going to explode? 

These teachers may be neglecting other ways to engage student interest, such as allowing students to respond through the creation of poetry, dance, sculpture, and short stories inspired by their impressions of jazz recordings. Arranging scavenger hunts is another strategy. For example, once students know the sound made by Harmon-muted trumpet, they could be sent to identify it in other jazz recordings, acid jazz, television background music, and movie scores. Once students learn to recognize the 12-bar blues form, they could be sent to find its occurrence in pop music and in classic rock repertoire.

  1. Several teachers argued that revealing personal biographical information helps students understand an otherwise unfathomable creativity. One teacher wrote that he believes that creating art must involve transcending suffering and, for that reason, details of sad lives must be presented in jazz history texts and lectures. But in response, we might recall that a number of jazz giants were not known to have experienced great suffering, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, Earl Hines, Benny Carter, McCoy Tyner, Tony Williams, Stanley Clarke, Wes Montgomery, Paul Bley, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul.
  1. Some teachers revised their presentations and textbook choices to delete information on unsavory private lives. They followed the article’s admonition to be more mindful of the effects that their presentations and textbooks could have on students because unsavory stories often blemish the reputations of jazz giants. These teachers had not been sufficiently mindful of the implications for their lecture contents and textbook choice. The only introductory texts in my survey that did not present sad stories about the medical histories of the great musicians were those of Mark Gridley, Jack Wheaton, and John Szwed.

As the first three trends listed above do not justify teaching salacious details of musicians’ private lives, this author urges teachers and authors to reassess their reasons for doing so and to make appropriate revisions to their presentations and/or texts.

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