Context is Everything

Context is everything. It seems like a fairly obvious statement, but think about it in terms of learning something- in this case learning about jazz and in particular jazz history. Last semester I was co-teaching a jazz history course which was required for jazz performance students (though there were also a couple of musicology students who were taking it as an elective), and it was interesting to me to see how these students dealt with the idea that they had to learn more than just performance.

I should perhaps explain a bit about my background in order to put this into, well, context. Both of my parents were music lovers, and I grew up with all sorts of music from classical to folk music from all over, to jazz to pop music from every part of the twentieth century and prog. rock (just for good measure). My father is the one that got me into jazz by playing big band swing records- both of my parents were accomplished ballroom dancers and swing music can cover a lot of the types of dances that you do in a ballroom. So long before I even thought about playing jazz it was part of my soundscape. These sounds were reinforced by watching old films from the 1930s to 1950s where I would get to see some of the contexts in which this music was used (although now I realised that it was heavily choreographed in more than one sense!). Me, being the ever curious child I was, I always wanted to know about things, about the stories behind the music that I heard, about the players and where they came from. This felt natural to me. Speed forward a decade or so and going and doing my degree in jazz performance, my year mates in the same course didn’t have the same love of history as I did, but they did have big ears as jazz musicians/fans/researchers would say (listening widely) and (for the most part) they seemed to understand why history was important to learning how to perform jazz, and they were always interested in hearing new (to us) sounds and learning about players we hadn’t encountered before. Fast-forward again to the current time and my experience teaching jazz history and now I’m on the other side of the fence.

So, back to my tale about context and learning. These students were not at all like me or my year mates- I’m reliably informed that it was we that are more the exception than the rule- for the most part they hadn’t explored even back as far as the bebop greats (there were some who had never heard of Charlie Parker- and those that had didn’t really know what he was about) and they had a very limited sense about what jazz was or could be. This in itself was a challenge to overcome, and it was compounded by the fact that since this was a required course most of them just felt this was something to get through, another box to tick, rather than something that they could use in the ‘more interesting’ parts of the course (solo and ensemble work).

So there they are sitting in a classroom with me at the front attempting to engage with them and get them enjoying this music they’d either only heard about vaguely before, or hadn’t heard at all (not to mention trying to get them to understand the cultural and social context of the music too- but that’s a tale for another time!), and here’s where the context comes in. They’re learning about this for the first time in a classroom in the middle of the day, so the music that I’m playing them falls under the mental tag of ‘stuff I have to learn to pass this course’ rather than ‘new music!!!!’. To me this is actually incredibly sad: they were primarily looking at the wide variety of music that I was playing them as material they needed to pass the course rather than interesting music, that was different to what they thought of as jazz. If you’d been a fly on the wall you could even see this without anyone having to say a word: I’d play a piece of music, and I’m up the front bopping around (I like to move when I’m listening to music, even if it’s just clicking my fingers or tapping my feet), and they’re looking incredibly bored (for the most part- there were a few who always looked interested, but when it’s less than a quarter of the already small class…), messing with their smart phones or other devices, or doodling on paper. They weren’t actively listening- they couldn’t pick up on the amazing things that were happening in the recording because they had classed this as ‘necessary, but not interesting’. Sigh.

So here’s the crux of the issue: the music that I had primarily heard for the first time outside of the classroom and was so enjoyable to me was a chore for them because they were hearing for the first time in the classroom or it was part of the required listening list (and don’t get me started on the lack of people doing the listening!). What the answer to this conundrum is, I’m not sure- there’s no way that you can make students understand why history is so relevant and important to performing jazz today, that’s something that you can tell them and teach them, but in the end it’s something that they have to learn for themselves. Part of the answer is having big ears, but again, unless you’re like me who comes from a musical home, it can take a while to figure it all out and realise that you can gain great benefits from listening to all sorts of jazz, and all sorts of music outside of jazz. Part of it is to drop your expectations about what you expect to learn in a jazz performance degree, and drop your presumptions that you ‘know’ what jazz is, but again, this is something that takes time to figure out.

To sum up this post I’d like to offer some advice to anyone who wants to learn about jazz, or any other type of music.

  • Listen to everything! Not sure where to start? Go to Youtube and Spotify. Or if you prefer CDs (like I do- I love liner notes!) find some compilations to start off with just to get an idea of artists and bands and the different sounds form different periods. Don’t be afraid of feeling uncomfortable about some recordings: some of them are way out! Don’t reject them out of hand, though, some things take time and experience to really get a grasp of. Conversely don’t feel like you ‘know enough to understand the music’- your visceral responses are more important to your enjoyment than any amount of knowledge.
  • Once you have some basis of artists and bands start to look for specific CDs (or if you’re going digital, tracks).
  • Really start listening. There are two ways of listening passive- which is what we do most of the time; the music’s on in the background and we sing along, but we’re doing other things- and active, which is where you really concentrate on what’s going on. Not sure if you’re listening actively have a read of this page: it’s the best description I’ve come across about active listening!
  • By now you should be getting familiar with some of the names in the genre. Now’s the time to start reading about them. Why reading? Well this is where you can learn all about the background to the recordings you’ve been listening to- getting into the social, cultural and musical contexts. Importantly this is where you discover about how many different takes are floating out there, both official and bootleg, and how to tell which is which. As you’ll know from reading this blog there are some amazing stories behind the music. Again, the Internet is a good place to start. These days Wikipedia is fairly accurate for musicians and composers biographies, and there are some good articles about specific works and albums that you can explore. Don’t forget music history books either, there are many very good ones that are written for the tertiary institution market- for both general education and music specific courses. The ones that I used most in my class were:

Deveaux, Scott and Gary Giddins, Jazz, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.

Gridley, Mark, Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Porter, Lewis and Michael Ullman, Jazz: From its Origins to the Present, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993.

I also used Shipton, Alyn. A New History of Jazz, New York: Continuum, 2009, for my own preparation. It’s a great book, but it’s very detailed and could be overwhelming for novices in jazz, you might want to save it until you really want to get into great detail about the history.

  • Finally, whether you’re learning on your own or you’re having to take a jazz history course because it’s required for your degree, don’t forget that this is meant to be fun, so enjoy learning about all these different musicians, bands and composers and the fascinating stories that make up jazz (and more broadly music) history.




One comment

  1. This is indeed quite a challenge, how to make the students “see” that understanding Jazz history will make listening to the music much more enjoyable. I don’t know about actually playing it as I am not a musician.

    I got into Jazz not too long ago and first listened mainly to contemporary releases recommended in magazines.

    By reading a book about a German Jazz tumpet player, I got to understand that there is much more and I started systematically (I am Swiss at the end…) to go through the Jazz eras. Obviously not in all detail, but enough to get the context you are talking about.

    And it has made listening to Jazz so much more enjoyable for me. At least until now as I am looking into John Zorn’s work and can’t really find joy listening to his stuff…

    Anyway, good luck with the teaching!

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