So I asked my 8th graders yesterday what it takes to be a good jazz musician. Here is what they said:
Experience. Motivation. Imagination. Commitment. Confidence. Collaboration. Creativity. Courage. Patience. Passion. Perseverance. Resilience. Rhythm. A need to express yourself. Knowledge of tones. Inspiration from things around you. A jazzy vibe. Not caring what others think. Be in touch with your feelings and express them. Be chill. Keep on trying.
(The last was Monk’s advice to a college band he was hired to critique!)
Nice list. And most of it applies to what it takes to do anything well.
I then asked:
“How much of the above has to do with race? With gender? With sexual orientation? With religion? With economic status?”
And their correct answer was, “None.” While also acknowledging that in the world as it is, some of those things can block you from opportunity.
Naturally, I had a point to the class and it was this. Up until now, I had been accenting that jazz and its thousand branches came from the root of the African-American experience and that in the first 50 years, its creators and innovators and master musicians were black. There were some notable white contributors in the early days—Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller—but jazz largely was the domain of African-American males, with women contributing as singers—Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald—and occasionally piano players—Lil Hardin, Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott.
But the question on the table is who plays jazz nowadays? Who is qualified and why?
So I had the kids shut their eyes while I played a Youtube video and just listen, trying to imagine what the person looked like who was playing. And then played clips of these pianists: Take ten minutes and check them out:
1. Sugar Chile Robinson playing boogie-woogie. He was 6 years old when he recorded.
2. Hazel Scott playing two pianos at once. She was a woman from Trinidad.
3. Michel Petrucciani, a French pianist with a rare bone disease who was 3 feet tall.
4. Hiromi, a Japanese woman.
5. Joey Alexander, a 12-year old boy (at the time of the recording) from Indonesia.
So here were incredible musicians not limited by age, gender, physical disabilities or ethnic background. Their qualifications were precisely the qualities the kids listed at the beginning—plus thousands of hours of hard work and practice.
I hope my students leave with the appropriate gratitude to the African-American creators combined with the sense that the door is wide-open to anyone to play jazz regardless of race, gender, religion, etc. I guess that’s my mission statement. There is something in the blood and ancestry of folks from the African diaspora that is unique and extraordinary—just as there is in Indonesians or Indians or Irish. The folks from those cultures deserve praise and gratitude and to be born and raised in an authentic culture often gives you a step-up when it comes to particular art forms, especially dance and music. At the same time, those cultures are simply accenting a human potential that lives inside all of us and it today’s world, with African-Americans singing opera, Anglo-Americans playing gamelan and taiko drums, Japanese folks playing bluegrass, Latinos studying kung-fu, Chinese studying capoeira, etc., there simply is no limit to the ways people can learn to express themselves in particular styles regardless of ethnic background and upbringing. Do I hear an Amen?!
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