An Education in Jazz
I always try to stay in San Francisco for at least an extra week after I work there. I get to visit old school chums and family and catch up on the local news, which the rest of the nation finds fairly unimportant. I grew up in this fine city during a tumultuous time, socio-politically speaking. There was the Summer of Love in Golden Gate Park, a seemingly endless procession of anti-war demonstrations that turned San Francisco State College (now University) into a militarized zone, the start of Ronald Wilson Reagan’s political career as Governor of California, the possibly not-coincidental decline of the state’s education system, the tenure of Joseph Lawrence Alioto as Mayor of San Francisco (reputed to have been related to members of San Francisco’s mafia because of his family’s fish-mongering business), the rise of the Black Panthers as a neighborhood development organization in Oakland, the kidnapping of Patricia Campbell Hearst, the birth of Keystone Korner, etc., etc.
In my wanderings around the city during the days after Jazz Camp West, I was disheartened to hear how so many people like the Haight-Ashbury district more, now that the look and feel of the Summer of Love has been incorporated into a thriving tourist attraction industry that supports it. But I was crushed to hear that the Sword of Damecles now hangs above the temples of the City College of San Francisco.
The reasons given by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges are that the institution doesn’t have an effective administration and doesn’t make enough money to support its programs. At first glance, I applaud an institution of higher education that has managed to keep administration costs down (ostensibly to facilitate a healthy teacher/student ratio) vis-à-vis a reduction in size. But the choices made by CCSF seem to have been to the detriment of its programs, including cutting 700 classes from this year’s roster. But why worry about a two-year community college in a metropolitan area that hosts at least 90 institutions of higher education, and well over 100 if you include extension campuses?
Possibly nostalgia. I used to attend the concerts presented by the music ensembles of City College while I was in junior high school (as well as a few at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music). The jazz band, led by trumpeter David Hardiman, Sr. (his son leads it now), was the first place I saw the charts of Oliver Nelson and Gil Evans and the concert band was a concertizing group led by ex-NY Phil trumpeter Joe Alessi, the father of trombonist Joseph Alessi, Jr. (who teaches at Juilliard) and jazz-trumpeter extraordinaire Ralph Alessi. One of my fondest memories was of tuba virtuoso Floyd Cooley playing the piccolo obbligato from “The Stars and Stripes” as an encore at one of CCSF’s performances. This was during a time when a college education was considered important enough that it was guaranteed. If one couldn’t afford to go to a university, one could earn an associate’s degree from City College for free. While the institution wasn’t prestigious, it was sound and one could extract a quality education there if one wanted to.
I’ve noticed something about two-year colleges over the years that I’ve performed and taught clinics, master classes, and the like at them: while the standards for achievement in these small institutions aren’t as stellar as at a conservatory, the teachers are dedicated and the students are motivated. Granted, the talent pool for music students is limited, but the creativity displayed by the professors in order to help them make good music is fervent and often heroic. I’ve seen band directors bring in their own arrangements of Ornette Coleman pieces to play and include modal and pitch-set analyses of them for those who need to know. The amount of information offered can be voluminous and the student-teacher relationship is often the best. But CCSF’s music program isn’t small at all; it currently employs 28 faculty members (Michael Shahani, Wilma C. Pang, Madeline Mueller, Gerald A. Mueller, James L. McFadden, Charles J. McCarthy, Rebeca Mauleón-Santana, R. Wood Massi, Benedict M. Lim, Joshua T Law, Pamela M Kamatani, Charles M. Hudspeth, Judy Hubbell, David A. Hardiman, Jr., Tod N. Fleming, Lawrence Ferrara, Brian S. Fergus, Richard C. Fenner, Franz J. Enciso, Helen Dilworth, Kwaku Daddy, Lap-Yan Chui, Lennis Jay Carlson, John W. Calloway, Robert P. Bozina, Anthony Blea, Harry Bernstein, and Mary A. Argenti). The college actually has the largest student population in the country, so the failure of this one could be catastrophic.
Sadly, it comes down to a matter of style, I think. The two-year college is an institution where “oddball” education thrives and San Francisco, a city with clothing-optional zones, is a traditionally oddball town. (And jazz education, a recurrent subject of these monographs, has been an oddball field of study for almost a century.) The teachers and administration of CCSF aren’t the type to get along well with the largely right-leaning organizations that are giving the big bucks to higher education. I know this sounds out of step with the San Francisco blues, but a company that I think is part of the undoing of what used to be an effective educational system, Jossey-Bass, makes its home there; a wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you will. They espouse a traditional dog-eat-dog business world model to run educational institutions, even though this has proven to only hurt the outcomes of American higher education. This is because education is an art, while business is usually just business.
And art is part of culture, which is not something that relies on profits or a paradigm of perpetual “improvement” to survive. Culture is expression of the masses, not what an elite sells to the masses by lowering academic standards until it is believed that TSP is good to eat. While jazz may have been invented by the music industry, its successful marketing relied on its identity as an American cultural artifact and, while advances in technology have made recordings sound almost as good (and, indeed, more perfect) than live musical performance, what it sells is not culture. It is a temporal facsimile, a photograph in time. I learned this as a nascent “adolescent” while talking to students at San Francisco’s City College. (I might have both early and late onset adolescence, which might be perfect for an improvising musician!) SFCC, and institutions like it, are the places where culture is examined and expressed, not codified and commoditized. I hope we don’t see it close.