Friday, January 7, 2011

The Labor of Jazz

I'm in the process of researching for and writing an article on jazz in Montreal for my school newspaper, the McGill Daily.  I think I'm going to relate jazz education at McGill to professional jazz in Montreal.  The article is due in a week or so, but I figured I'd tease out my ideas here before a final draft. 

Over winter break, I was asked to write an article on jazz in Montreal for my school newspaper, the McGill Daily.  I gladly agreed, but without a clear idea of what I would write about.  It's true that I've seen a lot of jazz here in Montreal over the last four years, especially last semester.  I had some ideas about jazz in Montreal, but I wondered: is there a Montreal jazz, just like there might be a New York jazz, or a Chicago jazz?  After some consideration, I scrapped that question.  It was too big, beyond my ken.

The article is due in a week or so, and to prepare, I have been conducting some interviews to better grasp the subject of jazz in Montreal.  I interviewed two working jazz musicians in Montreal--Marie-Fatima Rudolf and Josh Rager (who also has a jazz blog).  I didn't know before I asked to talk with them, but both graduated from the Schulich School of Music at McGill.  In addition to playing gigs in the city, they also teach--Marie-Fatima at the McGill Conservatory and Josh at Schulich.

That they teach reminded me of a passage I read on pianist George Colligan's blog.  George teaches in the jazz department at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and here's what he wrote a few weeks ago:

"I have to admit that I personally have issues with my own involvement in Jazz Education at the university level. My ethical dilemma deals with these kinds of issues: how can I teach students in a pre-professional environment, knowing that their chances for a career in music seem to be dwindling? Especially when part of my reason for teaching full time is because the freelance jazz musician's plight of living gig-to-precarious-gig does not present any stability for a family?"

The interviews led me to wonder what jazz education means as it relates to the jazz workforce--if the two are even separable.  I don't think it was ever easy to become a jazz musician, but it might be getting harder now.  I know most musicians--in jazz or not--have the same problems.  In an interview with Gordon Foote, the dean of McGill Music, he told me that there are several classical musicians who work full-time in Montreal, but who still have to supplement their incomes through teaching at McGill.  (Classical music and jazz have a lot in common in this regard.)

But jazz used to be a vernacular language, and although the first degree-granting jazz program in the United States was initiated in 1947 at the University of North Texas, most jazz musicians were not learning their craft, honing their style, in school.  I don't think jazz education could institutionalize or ossify jazz, but it does change the way musicians pass on what they've learned.

In a way, though, the huge shift towards jazz education in the last 30 or so years makes a lot of sense.  Jazz is an academic affair, after all.  In the next paragraph of George Colligan's blog entry, he writes:

"Part of how I deal with the dilemma is honesty. I constantly tell my students that if you really want to be a musician, you have to work hard, but you need to really, really want to be a musician above anything else. And that is because you are essentially making a choice between finding something you love doing and being rewarded by creative achievements, or finding a job that will pay you well although you might hate your life for 40 hours a week."

When I was in my senior year of high school, I was thinking seriously about going to art school--for illustration or graphic design--because I had talent, and I thought it would be a shame to leave it undeveloped.  I went to interview with a recruiter from the Maryland Institute College of Art, to show my portfolio.  She was impressed with my work, but I told her I didn't feel strongly about going to art school.  I didn't say why.  And she told me that even if I didn't go to art school, I would still be--could still be--an artist. 

I found that thought reassuring, but I still think there's a big difference between the artist she was saying I could be, and the artist I might have become had I gone to art school--perhaps the difference between a dilettante and a professional.  (There's something about dilettantes that makes me squeamish.)

Instead of going to art school, I went to McGill, where I study political science and Arabic--partly out of practicality, and partly out of interest.  For those who study jazz at McGill, they're learning to develop their styles, their compositional skills, but they might not be learning how to get a job.  I've been wondering when you can actually be called a jazz musician.  Is it when you get paid for your first gig?  Is it if you play jazz well?  Because ultimately, I think, "jazz musician" is a job title.

I'm for looking at artists as workers--musician, writer, painter, sculptor: occupation.  It helps to de-romanticize them, but leaves enough mystery.  Everyone has to eat.  Josh Rager, the pianist I interviewed, told me that your dreams change as you get older.  You might be content--thrilled--with 1200 dollars a month from gigs when you're 25.  But when you're 32, and you have a wife and a baby, that 1200 dollars a month isn't going to be enough.  So what do you do?  There are many possibilities.  But you probably don't want to abandon what you love.  So you teach.


  1. Yes! This is the crux of the problem. When I was at the Mill a few weeks ago, I had a conversation with another kid who looked my age. He had gone to school for music, like me, and even though he went to a conversatory and I went to a little liberal arts college that only offered a BA in music, neither of us received any direction in how to use our skills in the larger world and get gigs. I think there are schools that do teach their students this necessary skill, but I think for the most part, music is seen as something that must always be supplemented by teaching. You hear it all the time, "A degree in music? What are you going to do? Teach?" I think a certain small population have that unique blend of drive, charisma, timing, and luck that places them in a place of steady and professional musicianship-- I know a few of those guys here (and yes, they are guys, not ladies, which is a point in and of itself). But it's only a few. Maybe that says something about the values of Western society. Maybe it just means that true talent only comes intermittently among the population. Maybe it means neither of these things.

    I was going to say some more succinct things that sounded really intelligent, but I've lost them for now.

    In other words, great points. Also, you might find of interest the history and contentions in growing academic fields that have popped up in the last 30 years that are plagued with similar issues. Critical race studies, cultural studies, American studies, women's studies (my Master's field)--- there's the question of losing their unique position pre-institutionalization, the question (in some fields) or whether or not being a degree-granting field makes the field lose its activist's luster, and the question of viability in the workplace.

    You have made a wise choice in how you spend your education dollars. Even though I love music and value and cherish my undergrad years, I know that it would have been wise to be more practical. I think you are in the perfect place, honestly, able to study, but also able to soak in a jazz scene, interview performers and network, and really be involved in a way that keeps the art alive.

  2. Thanks very much for this thoughtful response. I think you're right about that certain small population. It's something I didn't mention in my entry, but talent and a willingness to work hard and endure rejection, and the luck to be in the right place at the right time--I think that that shows how there really are no formulas.

    Regarding the academic fields, a took a seminar last semester on feminist legal theory and post-colonial theory, and although I was quite confused by the information most of the time (Gayatri Spivak really threw me off), I was also confused by what stance I should take in class. I decided to take a critical approach, because we were in a classroom after all, but I see what you mean about these disciplines not wanting to lose their activist luster.