Black Music Matters: Jazz and the Transformation of Music Studies

. March 31, 2019.
Cover art Courtesy of Rowman and LIttlefield Publishers
Cover art Courtesy of Rowman and LIttlefield Publishers

Music education is long overdue for a change, according to Ed Sarath, Department of Jazz Professor of Music at the University of Michigan. Not only is it not preparing students for a fulfilling career in music, its approach to learning and skill development needs to be fundamentally revamped.

In Black Music Matters, Sarath proposes that the long dominant path paved by a European Classical perspective stifles artistic and personal success and perpetuates an ethnocentric worldview that marginalizes important musical traditions and peoples alike. By focusing on education, instead on Black Music manifested in the jazz tradition, Sarath believes, we can create musicians with near limitless capability for artistic and personal fulfillment and, in the process, build a framework for greater understanding of the world around us.

Most musicians, today, are trained in what Sarath terms “interpretive performance” in the European classical tradition. This consists of rehearsal of a previously composed piece of music to achieve mastery of the piece so that it can be performed. New compositions enter the world every day and performers move from composer to composer, amassing a collection of works they’ve learned.

Sarath envisions a “contemporary improviser composer performer,” with training centered on musical creation, not interpretation. This musician’s aim is not to know how to play the most songs, but to foster individual artistic expression. The composer performer is driven to varied traditions of music to enliven their experience and to expand the scope of their expression. Instead of placing a form of music at the center, separating creator from interpreter, for the artistic expressionist, all forms of music are viable exploratory routes. According to Sarath, jazz is the spark of life that will create this kind of musician.

Jazz elements

Two crucial elements of jazz make it the most viable seed to germinate into musical exploration.

First, it is the United States’ primary musical form. Why point our ears across the ocean, when we have our own incredibly rich musical tradition here at home? Sarath makes a compelling point — one can hardly expect to understand another’s musical tradition if they don’t understand their own. As Americans, jazz is the genesis of the music we love, the music our parents loved, and the music that surrounds our everyday lives. But the musical genre is relegated to elective study, education’s equivalent of the science fiction shelf at your local bookstore.

Secondly, jazz is not only a style, but a process of music making. Its impetus is creation, not interpretation. Yes, it involves the same rigorous training and practice as classical music, but at the end of the day, jazz urges its players to develop and express a distinctive artistic voice. It insists, through improvisation, that artists take their experiences, emotions, and influences and turn them into music. This gives musicians the tools to more fully experience any form of music that they attempt, be it European classical music or bluegrass.

Emphasizing culture

By making jazz the core of music education, we can also begin to overturn a system that marginalizes other cultures. In a system of study that posits white European composers as the gatekeepers of musical knowledge, all other music becomes something secondary.

The Eurocentric model fosters a perspective that tokenizes all other forms of music, no matter how deep and intricate. Black American musical forms are treated as much as a curiosity as Balinese gamelan, despite the former’s immeasurable impact on our own cultural landscape. Racial bias is inherent in a system that weaves Bach into the framework of a musician’s style, but only offers Coltrane as an adornment. Jazz’s emphases on musical expansion and self-empowerment is disregarded in favor of repetitious interpretation of others work.

Black Music Matters devotes considerable research and attention to the incredible spiritual, cultural, and emotional expansiveness that black music offers those who study and perform it. Jazz teaches us how to channel the world into our personal experience. Sarath’s work further makes it clear that black music has the potential to inform society beyond just its music culture, if we acknowledge its importance, then lean in and listen.

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