Letter to the Editor from Gridley, Mark

  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18177/sym.2011.51.sr.767
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26513057

Dear Editor of College Music Symposium:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reply to Brian Harker's article: "In Defense of Context in Jazz History: A Response to Mark Gridley" (CMS 48, pp. 157-159), which referred to my article in the previous issue, "Misconceptions in Linking Free Jazz with the Civil Rights Movement: Some Dangers in Teaching Socio-political Context in Jazz History" (CMS 47, pp. 139-155). I hope that the following observations return us to the content of my original article. My website www.jazzstyles.net contains the original article (www.jazzstyles.net/illusory.html) and related articles that were cited in it, including studies on the effects that journalists have on perception of emotion by jazz listeners (www.jazzstyles.net/priming.html), how varied listener perception is (www.jazzstyles.net/Emotion.html), and how perception of emotion depends on the personality of the listener (www.jazzstyles.net/Anger.html). These may assist in the reader's perspective.

Letting Students Form Their Own Impressions

The issue of telling students about socio-political forces that occurred concurrent to developments in jazz styles is germane to teaching jazz appreciation for several reasons. (1) A large body of research shows that students perceive emotion in the music in a wide variety of different ways when left alone with the music, if they are not told what it is supposed to mean, not told about conditions of the musicians' lives, and not told about the situations of its creators. (For summaries of the evidence, see www.jazzstyles.net/Emotion.html and www.jazzstyles.net/priming.html.) (2) By introducing concurrent extra-musical factors into our teaching of jazz appreciation to non-musicians we may be unfairly distracting our students from the music itself and limiting the imagination of novice listeners. (3) Usually, jazz musicians have developed new styles primarily in response to their own individual creativity, and they have drawn from methods and materials of previous jazz styles, classical music, popular music and ethnic music, not from the politics of their era. (4) When presented with information about socio-political context at the same time as first exposed to jazz styles, some students are inclined to mistakenly infer cause-and-effect links between political events and the origination of the styles.

The main theme of my article was that several writers had mistakenly linked two contexts that were unrelated and then had influenced jazz appreciation teachers and students to adopt their ideas. Apparently they had done this because (a) the description of jazz improvisations that lacked preset chord progressions had occasionally gone under the designation of "free-form" or "free jazz," and (b) attempts by American citizens to obtain their civil rights had occasionally gone under the designation "freedom riders" and "the freedom movement." The confusion stemmed from (c) the failure of some commentators to notice that that the word "free" had almost entirely different meanings in these two different contexts. (d) The conflation was further reinforced by the fact that both movements were prominent during the 1960s. In other words, freedom seeking in civil rights was linked to concurrent freedom seeking in jazz improvisation. In regard to commentators who do link political freedom with musical freedom we are reminded just how powerful language can be in catalyzing illusory correlations.

A secondary theme of my article was that a few outspoken listeners, some of whom were journalists, imposed their personal perceptions of emotion in some avant-garde jazz onto their readers as though their perceptions were facts about the motives of the men who made the music. Deepening the confusion of those commentators was that (a) they were inclined to link political turmoil with the origination of jazz styles, and (b) some of the avant-garde jazz from that period, which was perceived as angry by those listeners, also had dispensed with preset chord progressions. Therefore, when they further erred by (c) classifying free-form jazz with avant-garde jazz as a whole, they also (d) cast avant-garde jazz as an expression of political turmoil, and they ultimately (e) linked the origination of free jazz with musicians' personal response to political turmoil. Among the numerous goals of my article were to identify the conflation and untangle the origins for that conflation.

Does Any Era Have a Dominant Mood?

Harker's version of the zeitgeist theory for explaining how musical styles emerge bears reconsideration. Harker challenged the relevance of my writing that Ornette Coleman, the most visible innovator in free jazz, was not politically motivated. After reciting stock dogma that imposed era-specific philosophical interest onto concurrent styles of art music, Harker wrote several questionable statements. (1) "It doesn't matter that Schubert was not an activist; his music was a mirror of his time, eloquently bearing witness to concerns on the minds of every Western European of his day." (italics added) (CMS 48, p. 158) In making this statement Harker was committing a sweeping generalization. Additionally, he speculated that, even though Coleman was not political, his music was attractive precisely because (2) "...all at once his music seemed to speak for its time." I had addressed this problem prior to the article at hand: "It is unlikely that any music can truly represent the 'feeling of the times unless it has lyrics, and most 'times' have so many different feelings that to characterize a period of history by a single cluster of feelings is bound to be both imprecise and inaccurate." (Jazz Styles, Prentice-Hall, 1978, p. 336) In this regard, Harker contended that (3) Coleman's music around 1960 "gave voice to the political concerns in the black community."  Elsewhere, regarding musical vocabularies, Harker contended that (4) avant-garde saxophonist Marion Brown's sources grew "out of the urgent concerns of his generation." If, these contentions are true, we might be puzzled by three facts: Sales of albums containing free jazz were miniscule. The musicians who specialized in free jazz experienced great difficulty in finding gigs. The audience for free jazz was mostly white.

Harker also contended, (5) "The broad outlines of a style. . . are shaped by ideas in society." However, in observing reactions of jazz appreciators, I have noticed that listeners are usually struck by the freshness and ingenuity of the musical thinkers, not necessarily by any link to "ideas in society." For example, consider the great improvisations recorded by Lester Young during the 1930s. What ideas in society shaped them? Can there be a plausible answer proven with anything other than speculation? 

Relating sociopolitical struggles to jazz preferences of the 1960s in America in his book Jazz: An American Journey Harker wrote "As the civil rights movement advanced...the music exploded in a metaphorical cry of impatience and frustration, producing yet another species in the evolution of jazz styles: free jazz." (p. 225) ". . . free jazz reflected the tumult in society." (p. 248) Despite a natural tendency to be swayed by the drama in such reporting we might ask two questions. (1) Was this era entirely tumultuous? (2) Did the era produce equally tumultuous jazz that mirrored the political arena? Certainly there was socio-political turmoil during the 1960s. Yet Harker and others, before and after him, have assigned it more weight than is warranted in its influence on music. The overemphasis overlooks the fact that, despite high visibility in the media, only a tiny percentage of Americans were involved in protest marches or freedom rides, burning their draft cards or neighborhoods.

In accounts of the 1960s, other social historians, not just musicologists such as Harker, have also placed disproportionate attention on the activities of a small percentage of the population. The truth is that most people were going about their everyday business of living, loving, studying, and working. In fact, most of the non-jazz popular music at that time, as during most times, was about romance or unrequited love, not about the ". . . impatience and frustration with the resistance to justice" that Harker reported. In fact, romance was the topic in many of Schubert's songs, too, not protests about Metternich's reactionary policies in Austria. Similarly, the most popular styles of jazz during the 1960s were not tumultuous, whether free-form, or otherwise. They were bossa nova and Dixieland. Even established jazz giants Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie recorded bossa novas. Among the most popular jazz musicians during the 1960s were the Dukes of Dixieland, Al Hirt, and Pete Fountain. Almost every major city had a few good Dixieland jazz bands. Among the most popular jazz recordings were Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova "Girl from Ipanema," performed by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, Paul Desmond's light and lyrical "Take Five" performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and a Dixieland version of Jerry Bock's "Hello Dolly" performed by Louis Armstrong. Eddie Harris' jazz rendition of Ernest Gold's theme for the movie "Exodus" and John Coltrane's jazz recording of the "My Favorite Things" theme, from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Broadway show The Sound of Music, were found on the turntables of far more listeners than anything as tumultuous as Coltrane's Ascension album or Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz album, which were generally viewed as the albums most representative of free-form approaches. Among the most popular recordings in the hard bop style by African American jazz musicians at that time were groove-oriented recordings of Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder," Nat Adderley's "Jive Samba," Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," Eddie Harris' "Listen Here," and Ramsey Lewis' cover version of Billy Page's "In Crowd." In other words, is there really, as Harker says, an "uncanny unity among politics, science, philosophy, and the arts during any given period" (CMS 48, page 157, lines 31-32), especially during the 1960s in America?

Political Influences Have Been Exaggerated

Bebop and free jazz originators have gathered far more from music itself than from the non-musical world around them. My article examined the imbalance in reporting on sources of inspiration for them. Certainly, as Harker stated, ". . . jazz did not evolve in a vacuum." (CMS 48, p. 159)  However, though links between extra-musical factors and the origination of some jazz styles can be conceived, such links are remote from the actual notes that are played and new methods that are devised. Postulating about such links not only can distract listeners from focusing on the music itself, but it also can be misleading, as in popular accounts about the origins of bebop and free jazz that I cited. In other words, overemphasis on socio-political context for innovation phases of jazz history has diminished students' perspective on the musical sources of new styles and the individual creativity of the originators. The miscasting of free jazz methods provided an example for an in-depth illustration of the media's exaggeration of socio-political contributions. My article provided testimonials by innovators who pointedly disavowed Black militancy as inspiration for their music. The article also tallied examples showing that (a) the methods had been around long before the civil rights movement heated up, and that (b) such methods had been used by jazz musicians of both races. These examples suggested that the origination of the methods might not have been inspired by civil rights struggles.

The exaggeration of socio-political influences has been true not only for accounts of such free jazz giants as Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler but also for accounts of such bebop innovators as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I referenced confusion about bebop's origins in footnote 54 on pages 152 and 153 of my article, where I documented essential musical sources used by Parker and Gillespie and identified fallacious arguments for socio-political sources that had been made by journalists LeRoi Jones and Dave Banks.

Attaining a Critical Mass

Harker and other writers have contended that the zeitgeist of the 1960s political arena helped free-form musical approaches catch on among a number of avant-garde jazz musicians. However, two good reasons support an alternate explanation for free-form approaches to evolve at the time that they did. Both of them stem from the fact that interest in new sounds and new musical approaches has characterized top creators throughout jazz history.

(1) It may have been no coincidence that at the same time Coleman was offering his version of free-form approaches (1958-1959), George Russell, Miles Davis, and their colleagues were also loosening the bonds of frequent chord changes by basing improvisations on modal harmonic structures, in which a single harmony lasted for a substantial duration. For example, my article had quoted the eminent pianist-bandleader Paul Bley: "There had been a great deal of thought as to how to break the bondage of chord structures over meter." (CMS 47, p. 144)

(2) Coleman appeared on the jazz scene as a genius offering a fresh, new sound precisely at the time when jazz musicians were searching for an approach that broke the bondage of frequent chord changes and steady meter. In other words, Coleman consummated a musical striving that had been percolating throughout the 1950s.The key to his influence may have been the particular package that Ornette Coleman offered for this.

The critical question then is this: Did the concurrent struggles for civil rights influence the interest in Coleman's methods by established innovators; or, for purely musical reasons, could it be natural for the most open-minded creators on the scene to be intrigued by what Coleman had to offer? Would these creators need the impetus of any concurrent politics? Among the established innovators who showed serious interest in Coleman's music were Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, and Leonard Bernstein.

Harker, Jenkins, and Gioia Contend Cause-and-Effect Relations

My article contained musician testimonials and a list of early recordings of free-form approaches to jazz that cast doubt on a commonly held belief that the approach was initially inspired by political struggles. I identified five different books, two of which were old, three of which were recent, all of which espoused that belief. In his recent Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia, Todd Jenkins had written "As is usually the case in times of cultural upheaval, the nation's artists reacted in personal yet pertinent ways. One consequent result was the frenetic, artistic musical form known as 'free jazz.'" (CMS 47, p. 151) In his recent The History of Jazz, Ted Gioia had written, "It is impossible to comprehend the free jazz movement of these same years without understanding how it fed on this powerful cultural shift in American society." (CMS 47, p. 140) In his recent Jazz: An American Journey, Brian Harker had written "As the civil rights movement advanced and white southern reactionaries dug in. . . the music exploded in a metaphorical cry of impatience and frustration, producing yet another species in the evolution of jazz styles: free jazz" (CMS 47, p. 140), and the cover blurb on Harker's text say that the book ". . . emphasizes. . . historical cause-and-effect."

In his "In Defense of Context: A Response to Mark Gridley," Harker stated "Gridley's main argument is that 'the civil rights movement. . . did not originate free jazz' in a linear, one-to-one, cause-and-effect relationship. But this proposal is a straw man; no one (that I know of) is making this bald claim." (CMS 48, p. 141) Yet Harker, Jenkins, and Gioia all made that claim. Recall Harker's words "producing yet another species in the evolution of jazz," and note that the word "producing" shares semantic space with the words "creating," "originating," and "causing." On page iix of his book's Preface, Harker had written that, "This book presents the history of jazz in narrative form, emphasizing chronology, cause and effect..." On page v he had written, "...the drive by American blacks for political freedom in the early sixties found its counterpart in free jazz..." As well, these claims were also made by journalists LeRoi Jones and Frank Kofsky, whose writings my article examined in more detail than Harker's. In other words, my proposal is not a straw man.

Harker downplayed his bald statement of "producing another species in the evolution of jazz" by emphasizing instead that the link between socio-political context and the methods of free jazz is indirect and merely that the work of avant-garde musicians unconsciously "reflected" the turmoil of the times in which they lived, as though they could not help but be swept up in the political atmosphere of their extra-musical lives (appealing to Harker's application of the zeitgeist concept).  He was reiterating what he had written in his book (p. 253), from which I excerpted to my article (CMS 47, p.150), ". . . this music seemed a faithful reflection of the militant drive for freedom in society."

I realize that though both words do suggest a linkage, there is a difference between "reflected" and "produced."  The former implies developments that run parallel and are correlational; the latter argues for a sequential and causal relationship. I understand that Harker may have been thinking in terms of zeitgeist, in which causality is not linear and not one-to-one. This may have driven part of his objection to my including him with other writers who mistakenly viewed free jazz as a result of political struggles to gain social freedoms. Yet no matter how remote he contends the connection is, Harker's stance contradicts two facts: (a) the originators of free jazz pointedly disavowed political motives, and (b) such musical explorations had been increasing anyway.

While I understand Harker's position and appreciate that it is a popular stance to take, my original article and the present response to Harker's reaction point out that the position is not sufficiently supported with evidence. In fact there is considerable evidence against it. Harker may wish that he had never written the word "producing," and he may wish that his book's Preface and cover blurb had never described his approach to jazz history as "historical cause-and-effect." Nevertheless, he clearly linked developments in the music to concurrent developments in politics that were unrelated. To extricate himself via his "In Defense of Context" article, Harker wrote "Notice that I did not say that individual musicians created free jazz consciously and deliberately to protest racial injustice, as Gridley repeatedly implies." (CMS 48, p. 158) In response to this remark, we might ask two questions. Does this mean that individual musicians responded to racial injustice unconsciously through their music? Does this mean that individual musicians responded musically to racial injustice unintentionally? Even if "Yes" is the answer to both questions, Harker is still linking politics and music, regardless whether he uses the word "reflected" or the word "producing." Even if we accept Harker's contention that "...we do not need to claim that one phenomenon 'influenced' another in order to acknowledge that both reflected the same constellation of ideas in the evolution of knowledge," (CMS 48, p. 157) he is still linking political context to the evolution of (and increasing interest in) musical methods by which jazz players improvised without reference to pre-arranged chord progressions. LeRoi Jones, Frank Kofsky, Todd Jenkins, Ted Gioa, and Brian Harker overlook the fact that just because the politics and the music were linked in time does not mean that both reflected the same constellation of ideas nor were linked causally. This is the illusory correlation that my article identified.

Were there exceptions? Yes, there were. In fact, in my article I did mention ". . . a few styles within free jazz were perceived by some journalists (LeRoi Jones and Frank Kofsky, for instance) and some musicians (Archie Shepp, for instance), as sounding sufficiently angry to provide a new mode of expressing anger over social injustice." (CMS 47, p. 141)

Marching to a Different Drummer

Harker viewed it a "strange assumption" that I believed "progressive artists can choose to work independently of the biggest ideas saturating their culture" (CMS 48, p. 158). However, music styles throughout history are loaded with examples of progressive artists working independently. Is not working against the spirit of the times what helps make artists progressive, if indeed any era can accurately be pegged with one particular spirit? Is this assumption really that strange?

Trusting the Creators More than the Commentators?

Harker wrote that, "Gridley is not interested in the perceptions of outsiders. For him the gold standard of evidence is first-person testimony from the artist himself...this odd prejudice is reversed in the case of critics." (CMS 48, p. 158) Contrary to Harker's contention, I am interested in perceptions of outsiders (see my book chapter "Perception of Emotion in Jazz Improvisation" available at www.jazzstyles.net/Emotion.html). But I was concerned when I found students and their teachers giving as much or more credence to outsider inferences about motives for jazz styles as they were giving to testimonials of the musicians themselves. Is it such an "odd prejudice" that anyone would place greater value on the testimony of the actual creators than on the interpretations of commentators? Of course, as Harker cautioned, we must view remarks of musicians critically because the creators may not realize everything that influenced their work, or even be unwilling at times to acknowledge sources that they deliberately incorporated. But isn't it reasonable to think that the inventors of a new style can be expected to know more about what they are doing than the commentators know?

Harker wrote that ". . . a player like [Marion] Brown cannot escape tapping into the social currents of his time, and if enough listeners hear those currents in his playing they are just as 'right' about his music as he is." (CMS 48, p. 159) If by Harker's word "hear" he means "perceive," are we to understand that, if found to agree in sufficient numbers, perceivers are as accurate at identifying the improvisers' intentions as the improvisers themselves? A considerable body of research demonstrates the opposite. (See www.jazzstyles.net/Emotion.html.)

Misinterpreting Gridley's Early History of Free Jazz

Regarding the Music History section of my article, which documents early examples of free form methods, Harker wrote

"Gridley gives a timeline dating back to 1949 listing the free experiments of mostly white players. Never mind that these musicians had no direct influence on Ornette Coleman, who, Gridley points out, started experimenting with free elements as early as 1948. But even if they did, Gridley's timeline would still suggest the opposite of what he intends. Far from marking the non-civil rights beginnings of the free jazz movement, the timeline indicates that there was no 'movement' (only isolated experiments) until the intensifying civil rights struggles highlighted avant-garde activity, now lodged firmly in the community of black players." (Italics added, CMS 48, p. 158)

In making this statement, Harker presumed, without offering evidence, that concurrent events in American history somehow "highlighted" approaches to jazz improvisation, which is precisely the type of faulty thinking that my article addressed: an illusory correlation. Just because they coincide in time does not show that they are causally related.

Additionally, Harker apparently overlooked key words in that passage and drew incorrect conclusions. In introducing recordings in the Music History section of my article, I had written that the items presented "the early history of jazz recordings that document the practice of improvising that is free of preset chord changes." (italics added) (CMS 47, p. 142) Though Harker termed the list a "timeline," I could just as easily have presented the recordings in a non-chronological order and made the same point. I was just doing what I had done in the rest of my article: (a) identifying the originators of free jazz and (b) demonstrating that they were not political. The final sentence of that section stated my purpose, "... none of the first ten years' worth of free jazz recordings by the originators was inspired by the civil rights movement, even that made by the mixed race bands of Chico Hamilton and Ornette Coleman..." (italics added) (CMS 47, p. 142) I had not provided the list of early recordings to suggest any influence that they had or did not have on Ornette Coleman. In fact, Coleman himself was included in my list of early examples. Therefore, the following interjection by Harker is not relevant: "Never mind that these musicians had no direct influence on Ornette Coleman." (CMS 48, p. 158)

I also mention that some writers, including Harker, had failed to distinguish free jazz from the larger category of avant-garde jazz as a whole, which is important because several approaches in avant-garde jazz during the 1960s were not free-form. (CMS 47, p. 146) This is important because some avant-garde jazz that was not free-form sounded tumultuous, and some free-form jazz did not sound tumultuous. To clarify the situation we must answer several crucial questions. Was there some free jazz that sounded tumultuous? Yes, there was. Could it reflect intense conflicts occurring concurrently in society? Yes, it could. Might it reflect a new collection of sound qualities and densities that a few musicians wanted to investigate? Yes, it could. Is it possible that investigating new sound qualities and densities did not reflect concurrent sociopolitical events? Yes, the investigations might have merely reflected taking new approaches for the sake of new approaches. Despite this, however, might some observers and some musicians have considered tumultuous-sounding jazz to be a good soundtrack for the civil unrest? Yes, and that is exactly what I had written. (CMS 47, p. 141, lines 10-11) My article demonstrated that the originators were not politically motivated. Certainly there were adopters who were political, and I had written as much. I distinguished between originators and adopters of free jazz approaches. I had written that (1) free jazz appealed philosophically to some musicians, who adopted it partly because they held a philosophy that included freedom-striving in several spheres of life, not just music (CMS 47, p. 142-143). I had also written that (2) free jazz had been appropriated by some journalists and by some musicians for expressing their own political views: "Wanting the musicians as allies, a few journalists misperceived musical motivations and linked their favorite sounds with the civil rights freedom movement, thereby including players whose music did not have a political agenda." (CMS 47, p. 151)

Not Only Musical Influences Can Be Demonstrated

Harker wrote about me, that ". . . he seems to think that only musical influences can be reliably demonstrated." (CMS 48, p. 158) However, I actually wrote "... free jazz appealed philosophically to some musicians who sought freedom from pre-existing structures of many sorts, both musical and social." (italics added) (CMS 47, p. 141) By writing this, I allowed philosophical appeals to be demonstrable, too, as could be evidenced by the testimonials of selected musicians.

Taking Seriously the Interpretations of Outside Observers

I had written, "Taking commentators seriously is another persistent problem among uncritical authors and readers." (italics added) (CMS 47, p. 148) However, in his concern that I was not being equally skeptical of musicians' testimonials, Harker missed my singling out for suspicion Archie Shepp, a jazz musician whose testimonials regarding jazz of the 1960s have received considerable publicity. (CMS 47, p. 148) Harker viewed as "an odd prejudice" my position that "... taking commentators seriously is a persistent problem..." (CMS 48, p. 158) Yet when Harker wrote the "taking commentators seriously" quote, he took it out of context and deleted the key words "among uncritical authors and readers." Moreover, in that same paragraph, I had also written: "Many of us fail to become suspicious that the most vocal commentators are personalizing the music, rather than reporting on the artist's intentions. . . Such tendencies are particularly troublesome for teaching jazz history when instructors do not realize that most students are not sufficiently sophisticated to notice when journalists are personalizing the music." (CMS 47, p. 148) In that statement I was referring not only to such non-musician commentators as LeRoi Jones and Frank Kofsky, but also to the musician-commentator Archie Shepp.

Oversights and Muddy Thinking

Harker states that I had described his thinking as “sloppy.” I did not write that word. In the discussion (CMS 47, p.150) I had written, "The implication of cause-and-effect is muddied by the aptness for symbolism that is offered by the tumultuous character of some free jazz" (italics added). Apparently taking a cue from LeRoi Jones and Frank Kofsky, Brian Harker missed the distinction between aptness and inspiration when he wrote "... free jazz reflected the tumult in society. . . this music seemed a faithful reflection of the militant drive for freedom in society." (CMS 47, p. 150)

I went on to say, "Saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, among the most important innovators of free jazz, denied such motivations and were annoyed that their music was being described in this way." (CMS 47, p. 150) In the preceding paragraph, I had pointed out that "Some writers apparently failed to notice that some jazz that was free of preset form did not sound turbulent. Some of Ornette Coleman's free improvisation from 1958 to 1965 is melodic and swinging (for instance, "Congeniality" on his The Shape of Jazz to Come and "Dee Dee" on his At the Golden Circle, Vol. 1)." (CMS 47, p. 150)

Realities of Teaching Undergraduate Jazz Appreciation Courses

Harker tries to defend the practice of teaching sociopolitical context when teaching jazz history. Yet he seems to overlook practical considerations in teaching the types of students who enroll today in most jazz history courses. Harker noted that I object to "... context-oriented jazz history textbooks...together with the culturally-based pedagogies that they are designed to support." (CMS 48, p. 157) Like Harker, I also wish to call attention to context. My focus, however, is on the context in which most jazz history courses are taught today: the humanities elective that often fulfills general education requirements for the arts and substitutes for the traditional single-semester course in music appreciation. Most students in these courses are not music majors, and recent surveys indicate that fewer than half of these students have some musical background. The courses have no prerequisites, and rarely are the courses themselves a prerequisite for any subsequent studies in jazz history.

Students in Jazz History Lack Musical Background

Instructors have reported to me that it is not unusual for students in their jazz history courses to be unable to identify instrument timbres on jazz recordings, including not only such fine distinctions as soprano sax vs. tenor sax and flute vs. clarinet, but also such major distinctions as differences between trumpet and saxophone. Few have any familiarity with the concept of chord changes, and some teachers have told me that even knowing the distinctions between melody and harmony are often lacking. (I have had a number of students ask me to tell them what a chord is.) The instruments and musical functions of the jazz drum set are unfamiliar as well. The typical jazz history course constitutes the students' first exposure to most jazz styles. For these reasons I advocate a perceptual learning approach to teaching jazz appreciation. Semesters are too short to do justice for much else. Such an approach aims to fulfill the goals of the traditional music appreciation courses in teaching how to listen and how get the most out of the music. This approach helps non-musicians notice the various contributions made by the standard roles of different members in the jazz combo, and it helps them learn to follow the unfolding of the improvised lines by the great jazz soloists.

Requiring Unprepared Students to Ponder Unknowables

Regarding my cautions about context-oriented, culture-based pedagogies for this course, Harker stated "I believe he is wrong on this issue. Not only does connecting music and culture make perfectly good historical sense, but also, exposing students to these connections, in my experience, seems to do them a lot of good."  Harker's position overlooks two facts. (1) When jazz fans and scholars indulge in such controversies, they already have intimate familiarity with the actual sounds of jazz, and they have studied the differences between the styles. Most students in these classes have never even heard bebop before taking the class. (2) Scholars and fans might also have more extensive knowledge of certain aspects of American history that students do not have. Therefore, Harker's position raises a serious practical question: If teachers consider the lack of musical background in the majority of students enrolled in today's jazz history courses and the almost-total lack of exposure to jazz styles, is it fair to force students to ponder such unknowables as unconscious influences on the improvisations and speculative links with concurrent American history?

Providing Students with a Frame of Reference

Certainly, as Harker states, "... helping students make these fine distinctions is what college is for." (CMS 48, p. 149) I agree. Surely, college instructors should seek to expand students' inclinations to go outside themselves and ponder ambiguities. Yet aren't instructors also responsible for ensuring that students have sufficiently familiarized themselves with the basics of a field before delving into controversies and philosophical speculations in that field? Isn't an instructor's first responsibility to provide a thorough frame of reference before requiring students to think critically about issues raised by a field's commentators? Perhaps if an instructor were granted the luxury of a three-semester sequence in jazz history, the first semester could be devoted to learning the sounds of the instruments and how musicians create their improvisations, the second could address the musical origins of the styles, and then the third could indulge in speculations on such unprovable dynamics that Harker suggested, as to how "... a player like [Marion] Brown cannot escape tapping into the social currents of his time..." (CMS 48, p. 159) and the "circumstantial evidence" that Harker says we must trust to reveal the effects of culture on jazz styles. But since such a luxury is unlikely, triage may be the best we can do. My default position has been to stick to the music.

Tendencies to Erroneously Link Adjacent Observations

The impetus for my article was a senior thesis sent to me from another college. In the Ken Burns JAZZ television series and other sources, the student had been exposed to free jazz at the same time as she had been exposed to the civil rights struggles. Therefore, she had concluded that the struggle for political freedoms had caused the emergence of a jazz approach in which the improvisers were struggling to be free of pre-set chord changes and meter. As tempting as such a connection may be, Burns had not said this. Burns had merely presented both at the same time. Running with this glaring example and knowing how common such reasoning is among college students, I aimed my article at instructors who might accidentally be inviting such illusory correlations whenever they present concurrent American history while introducing jazz innovations, as well as instructors who remain unaware of the early history of free jazz and its nonpolitical motivations.

Many students are quite concrete in their thinking styles. They seek to create a plausible story in order to make sense of disparate observations where no story is warranted. Many students tend to take speculations as truth, rather than understanding them as mere speculations. One of my article's goals was to urge instructors to keep such tendencies in mind, and not to invite illusory correlations by presenting extra-musical factors at the same time as they present the music.

Thank you.


Mark C. Gridley

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Last modified on Wednesday, 06/03/2019

Mark C. Gridley

Mark C. Gridley, Ph.D., is a professional jazz musician, and the author of America's most widely used introduction to jazz: Jazz Styles. His research about perception, taste, and creativity in music and art appears in numerous scientific journals. He received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association of America and is listed in Marquis Who's Who in America.

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