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Teaching jazz as a learning experience

It looks like the whole goodbye to teaching thing may have been premature. I was out of the country and away from easy internet access for most of the summer (thus no blogging). While I was away I got an email asking if I’d be interested in teaching the songwriting class again in the spring (maybe we can repeat the cycle a few times and I’ll be able to teach swan song writing). But the retrospective on almost a decade of teaching felt like a good idea—valuable for me if not for anyone else. I said a fond farewell to songwriting and gave my two cents worth on classical music in the college curriculum. The last thing I’d like to mull over is my most challenging and dissonant teaching experience, the five semesters starting in 2001 that I taught Introduction to Jazz. It would be easy to just complain about the students—almost as easy as it was for them to complain about me, since I’m not the most animated and fluent of lecturers and so not the ideal professor for a large survey class like that. I’ll try not to get too grumpy, though, and instead write about my efforts to make it into something more academic than “music appreciation,” and the interesting but ambiguous results.

It was a big surprise—a nice one—when I was asked to teach the class. It came with a special obligation, though, a personal debt to the music that changed my life and made me have to become a musician, and to the jazz musicians I’ve known for their amazing warmth and generosity. The only way I could see to do the subject justice was to make it a serious, challenging class. At the time I started teaching it the course had a long-standing reputation as one of Duke’s easiest, and I’m afraid it was the reputation instead of the music that attracted many of the students. Even without that history I probably went in with too little experience and too many big ideas for anybody’s good, but at first there was an especially stark contrast between my enthusiasm for the subject and the students’ interest level.

The class could be frustrating but the material was always a pleasure.

I was lucky that resources for networked access to digital media were becoming available, so instead of using a wimpy CD anthology I could put together my own required listening list and give the class easy access. I had to write a lot of listening guides, but that turned out to be a great way to immerse myself in the music. There are some fantastic old films of jazz musicians playing, too, and I worked them in as best I could. A while ago I wrote a little about my all-time favorite, Armstrong’s “Dinah,” which illuminates all sorts of musical details and relationships and at the same time shows how completely and joyfully the music animated the man and vice-versa. Though I had the students buy a book (Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz), I tried to make the listening list rather than a textbook the primary material of the course. In practice this meant that the students’ constant ongoing assignment was to listen to music, and as much as I could I organized lectures, quizzes and tests around the assigned listening. If nothing else this was my way of making it clear that it was, first and foremost, a listening-to-music class, not a reading-about-music class.

I’ve never taught a course in which it was harder for me to tell what reasonable expectations were. The first problem anyone teaching a music class to non-musicians has to face is how deep into the music to go. What I really wanted was for the students to end up hearing at least a little like jazz musicians, which meant, for instance, feeling the form of the music as it played, and hearing the musicians feeling the form. I didn’t really think I’d get that many students to reach that point, but I did expect them to have an easier time with the quizzes, in which they were supposed to name one of the assigned listening pieces when I played an excerpt (standard practice in music appreciation classes). To some extent (but how much?) this was because they ignored my advice not to put off listening until right before the quiz. Listening to great jazz has to be one of the least onerous of college assignments, but developing an ear for the music is a hopeless thing to cram. There were always some diligent students who listened and listened and still found it very hard to hear the difference between, say, Sonny Rollins on “Pent Up House,” John Coltrane on “Oleo,” or Cannonball Adderley on “So What.” I did my best to make it possible for those kids to do well in the course—often they’d signed up hoping to get over a feeling of musical inadequacy, and I hated the thought that I was rubbing it in. But it wasn’t only with musical issues that I had a hard time gauging what to expect, it was the same with basic academic skills and workload. It was especially hard to know what to make of the revenue athletes, whose papers were as distinctive as their physiques but in the opposite way. They weren’t the only ones turning in poor quality work, though. I ended up feeling like I was was asking too much and asking too little—I didn’t want to teach a class for kids who wanted some extra sleep, but didn’t want to give work that a lot of the students would resent and do poorly on.

Coming up with good assignments for a class like this is difficult enough (for me it is, at least) even under ideal circumstances. I guess the usual thing to do would be a term paper, but my experience has turned me against term papers in entry-level survey classes. Students at Duke (and most other colleges, I imagine) can easily pull together 5 or 8 pages of vague generalizations and clichés into the academic equivalent of Wonder Bread—a triumph of form over content, with very little digestion required to get from one end to the other. I hate reading papers like that, and I’d rather not give students the impression that that kind of writing has any value. Since I wanted the course to be music-driven, I decided to try to design more structured projects based on critical, analytical responses to recordings.

In the most successful of these projects I had the students compare Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” to a number of blues and blues-form pieces they’d studied. It’s funny how the idea came up. The song is on a “rock for kids” anthology my daughter liked to listen to in the car. It took I don’t know how many times through the tape before I registered that it’s in 12-bar blues form with a rickity-tickity version of a jazz swing feel (this shows how little attention I’d paid to early rock and roll). It is so not a blues though. The obvious problem is the theme of 24 hour fun fun fun but what’s more telling is the absence of the loose musical dialog that’s essential to every kind of blues I know of. Unlike a typical blues lyric, “Rock Around the Clock” leaves no space after each line for a response. The spontaneous interplay that jazz rhythm sections of that era were developing, another manifestation of the African American penchant for musical dialog, is also absent in Haley’s recording. Comparison with “Rock Around the Clock” highlights the musical sociality of the blues, something that contributes tangibly to the music’s communicative power and broad appeal and to the improvisatory richness of jazz as well. I didn’t fully appreciate the nature and importance of dialog and interplay in jazz until I taught this class, and I think it’s a hard thing to convey without presenting a clear alternative—one of many reasons not to habitually divide music classes up by genre.

As a way to compare black and white music without falling back on cliches about rhythm and “soul,” I thought the project worked well. The students who rose to the challenge wrote unusually thoughtful essays, sometimes touching perceptively on the music they knew best. Students who didn’t do as well typically had a little bit to say about everything. It seemed to me that settling on an interpretation and selecting the most relevant facts to support it should have come more naturally to more of the class. I complicated things, though, by packing too much into the assignment—by slipping in the part about modernism, for example. I may also have been expecting too much in terms of musical experience and intuition. And with such a small and arbitrary selection of music I don’t think I should have highlighted the issue of white appropriation of black music as much as I did. In spite of that, the emphasis on listening closely and responding to what they heard kept most of the class from writing broad-brush treatments of the underlying racial issues—something that comes all too easily to Duke undergraduates.

The project I assigned at the end of ever semester was similar in structure but different in tone, since it involved more controversial music and readings with some rhetorical bite—a review in which Stanley Crouch blasts Miles Davis for selling out in the late 60s (an epic controversy in the jazz world) and excerpts from Miles’s autobiography. After reading both texts, the students listened to some of the music Crouch objects to. To wrap it up they had to write two short essays—one with their own conclusions about whether the music supported Crouch’s claim of sellout, and the other with their opinion of his review. Crouch’s review is brilliantly written and persuasive, but it doesn’t take a highly trained ear to hear the discrepancy between what he’s claiming and what’s happening in the some of the music that he dismisses. Though he characterizes it in more metaphorical terms as well, Crouch repeatedly invokes the literal, commercial sense of “sellout.” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” the first track included in the project, is a rambling 15-minute-long free improvisation with nothing you could call a hook. The other track, “Thinkin’ One Thing and Doin’ Another,” is roughly 7 minutes of acerbic avant-guarde abstraction. Miles recorded a lot of very polished, commercial music in his last few decades, so Crouch isn’t even close to dead wrong, but he ignores the more challenging music in order to make the most damning case—not a hallmark of fine criticism.

(A while back I was admiring Alex Ross for dwelling on the innate qualities of the music he writes about instead of ranking it. Crouch has a tendency to do the opposite—he writes about Miles, in this case, in order to put the man in his place. He does the same thing with Ellington, though it’s deification instead of demonization. In both cases the music and musicians seem to be less important than the box he wants to put them in. He’s always worth reading but he’s at his best when he sets the pigeonholing aside, as in this more recent essay on Miles.)

My feeling is that students at an elite university should be able to write a clear and concise analysis of what Crouch means by “sellout” and how well the charge is born out by the music, paying some attention to this simple and obvious question: Does the music sound like it was written to sell? I always got some excellent papers but it took an awful lot of guidance to get more than superficial answers from most of the class. Much of the guidance was meant to bring out the strongest counter-arguments to Crouch, and it looks uncomfortably like I’m leading them by the nose to the “right answer,” but if that was my goal I didn’t do a very good job of it. The split in opinion between sellout and not was pretty even, with a number of different justifications given for each one. I made it a point not to penalize students who didn’t have the musical intuition or experience to come up with a good premise—a good essay based on a faulty premise could still get an A. But since the deck was stacked the arguments for sellout tended to be the weaker ones. Some insightful cases for sellout were made, but mostly they came down to a feeling that the two fusion tracks sounded a lot different than earlier Miles and used rock instruments, so Crouch must be right. And despite the heavy hinting, as when I had them sketch “the balance between commercial and artistic concerns” in the music of James Brown, Sly Stone, Ornette Coleman, and Karlheinz Stockhausen (cited by Miles as influencing On The Corner), quite a few students making a case against sellout didn’t mention the glaring lack of mass appeal in “Thinkin’.” I still find that surprising.

In earlier versions of this project the final essay question was more open-ended—I asked them to respond to Crouch’s critique, using the two assigned tracks as their primary evidence, and suggested several approaches they could take. In that form, most of the students would make a few vague comments about the music and then devote their attention to the more provocative parts of both the texts, finally taking one side or the other. Opinion heavily favored Crouch as I remember, but either way it was mostly a matter of which point of view resonated, not what was gleaned from the music. What seemed to make the biggest difference was giving them a template topic sentence, which not only focussed them on the music but also encouraged them to skip the vacuous preambles and cut to the chase: “If Davis [was/was not] a sellout, I [would/would not] expect to hear ________ in the music, and I [do/do not] hear that.” I assume that part of the problem was the unfamiliarity of building an argument on features of a musical recording, but I suspect that the magnetic pull of opinionated rhetoric and it’s power to shape the way the students heard the music were also factors.

Not all of the differences between the first and last set of papers I got for this project were due to changes I made to the instructions—I may have let myself be too influenced by the jarring experience of the first semester. One thing that is clear to me in hindsight is that I was trying to give seminar assignments to a lecture/survey class. A lot of the guidance I had to build in was in place of the more incremental process and the feedback that would be part of a seminar. Writing about all this I got curious enough to look around Duke’s University Writing Program web site. I should have consulted with them when I was teaching the course. Things that were on my mind—treating the writing process as a reasoning process, careful, critical consideration of sources and of ones own biases and conclusions—seem to be integral to the UWP’s program. Looking over the UWP web site, and the web syllabus of a Writing 20 section on oral culture and literacy in the american south I still wonder about the emphasis on a longer papers. For a writing course to include a 15 page research paper and a 5 page term paper along with a number of shorter assignments makes sense, I suppose. The 5 page paper in that case is the culmination of a semester’s worth of work. But what about the 6 or so page paper that stands on its own in another class? Papers like that are necessary for academia to reproduce itself, but how much inherent value do they have beyond that? There were students in Intro to Jazz who could of done justice to such an assignment, but it seemed to me there were also quite a few who couldn’t.

It would make all the difference if genuine interest could be made a course prerequisite (better yet, and even more far-fetched, an admissions requirement). It was depressing to see so many students who looked at Intro to Jazz as just a few more hoops to jump through—that of all subjects. As in every class I’ve taught at Duke, there were wonderfully enthusiastic and engaged students, and if I was a more inspiring lecturer I’m sure more would have risen to the occasion. College students shouldn’t need to be cajoled into engagement, though, certainly not at a place like Duke. My reservations about longish, open-ended essay assignments may come down to the simple fact that the more they have to write the clearer it becomes when they’re just going through the motions and filling up the pages they’ve been asked to fill. All the more so if they had to sift through a body of literature to find and frame the issue or research topic, something that presumes genuine engagement. If the reality of a particular class is a lot of students who are motivated by requirements and grades, it seems better to give shorter, more constrained assignments and expect in return clear thinking and effective writing.

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