More on Including and Excluding the Listening Class

Last week’s blog was a great example of reflexivity in the editorial process. I had originally used a non-word, disincluded, to describe listener participation in certain Eurocentric American performance traditions, which NMB’s editorial staff questioned my use of, since it is not technically a word. In my rush to get back to setting up my equipment at work, I acquiesced to replacing the non-word with a real one: “excluded,” but, missed the part of the phone conversation where the entry’s title would be changed from “Yet Another Night On The Town” (or something like that) to “Including vs. Excluding the Listener.” To be clear, I’m not complaining about the decision, which was a great improvement on the title I had tossed out. But I think the replacement word isn’t what I meant, that I probably should have taken Father Williams’ “bill-and-the-bones” approach and argued about how to describe negation of inclusion.

While not included in Webster, “disinclude” is a term used in common speech that has a slightly differing semiotic shading from “exclude.” The latter suggests a condition where something is prevented from occurring while the former suggests that something is expected to occur. So, in my thinking, the exclusion of audience participation means that measures have been taken to keep it from happening, but its disinclusion merely means that it was never taken up for consideration. In the time I’ve spent attending orchestra concerts and the like, I’ve never seen any set of rules banning audiences from applauding a passage of a violin concerto they might find particularly spectacular (although I have seen programmatic requests that applause be held until the end of a multi-movement piece), so the idea that audience participation is traditionally forbidden at orchestra concerts is not what I intended to convey, but rather that it’s not considered as essential to the music’s performance. But the new title has also shifted the blog’s direction from the intended discussion of how the jam session might be becoming supplanted by the academic institution as the principle proving ground of jazz pedagogy towards one about the necessity of audience participation in American music.

I see such a discussion as touching on the heart and soul of what American music is about. Thinking of Antonin Dvořák’s edict on what should be the basis for American music: slave songs, African-American spirituals, and Native American melodies, one sees the inclusion of audience participation, even if Dvořák never saw this salient feature as pertinent. When these musics were performed—whether in the field, the church, or the tribe—the audience was actively part of the music making. We might think of everyone as performing simultaneously, like at a Southern gospel service, but a round-robin approach was also employed, like in the Native American (peyote) Church. Like their ancestor, the ring shout, jam sessions have soloists featured against a group of accompanists, so both approaches occur at the same time. Ideally, a jam session is comprised of musicians who come to play, whether or not they actually do so, and the sense of communal music making is in full swing. Because the audience includes (sometimes exclusively) musicians who are there to play, there exists a potential for immediate critical and creative input that is absent from more Eurocentric musical traditions. Audience members might talk to a performer to offer support or suggest a musical direction to take. An audience member might become inspired and begin to play before it’s his or her turn even get up and replace one of the performers who are playing. There is a lot of laughing, sometimes yelling, and, occasionally, fights break out. And while this might sound like the audience isn’t listening to the music being played, rest assured that this isn’t the case. The focus of the jam session is the peer-to-peer interaction of best-effort music making between relatively inexperienced and more experienced performers.

Jam sessions exist primarily to service the imaginations of the musicians who attend them. This might be something that some people might find questionable or even improper, but consider that the social playing field that gave rise to the jam session was one that traditionally saw the culture of the jam session as comprised of less-than-human beings, as incapable of playing music of worth. The opportunities for artistic development and expression that these musicians were offered were none, they had to make their opportunities. Those who played professionally were often playing for dance bands that performed for audiences they would never know or associate with outside of the job. Society was segregated. Jam sessions were a place where these pros could demonstrate their playing skills without having to entertain an, at best, tacitly hostile audience. It was also a place where new artists could demonstrate their burgeoning skills so that they might become employed by these groups.

There’s a story about how tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins was playing at a jam session in Kansas City and became engaged in a cutting contest with the then relatively unknown Lester Young. The session went on so long that Hawkins nearly missed his next engagement with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. When Hawkins left Henderson to pursue a solo career, Henderson called for and hired Lester Young sight unseen. Young didn’t last in Henderson’s prestigious group because his sound was too “sweet” for Henderson (but not for Count Basie). But Young’s ability to hold Hawkins captive at a jam session opened the doors for a career that left an indelible mark on American music. At another session in the same city, a young alto saxophonist experimented with sets of alternate chord changes during his solo. The drummer, Jo Jones of the Count Basie Orchestra, couldn’t stand what he heard and is said to have taken one of his cymbals and thrown it at the feet of the soloist, a certain Charles Parker, Jr., to dissuade him from continuing, proof that the adage “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” has some merit. These tales were told by people who attended these sessions. Recordings that were available at the time weren’t very long. A 78-rpm record only held around 3 minutes of music on each of its sides, so extended solos could only be heard at live concerts or jam sessions.

One can see how jam sessions could attract a non-musician audience in the same way that powwows attract non-Indian audiences who are appreciatively curious about an art flourishing primarily outside of mainstream culture. The inclusion of musicians at varying stages of artistic development is what makes the jam session a learning environment that existed—if one includes the root ring shout and Native American circle dance as part of the ancestry of American music—outside of the Eurocentric American academic community for several centuries. (Even if only considering the jam session culture of jazz music the period is one-hundred years old—the first recording of a jazz band was in 1917 and the first written use of the word was in 1912.) And although some American academic institutions offered a smattering of jazz concerts as part of their humanities programs since 1932 (1928 in Germany), it wasn’t until 1941 that the New School for Social Research offered courses in jazz history and 1947 that a degree in jazz performance was offered at the University of North Texas. (The Berklee College of Music, founded in 1945 as the Schillinger House of Music in Boston, didn’t grant a degree until 1966.) It wasn’t until the first jazz-focused summer camps were founded by Stan Kenton (in affiliation with Ken Morris, founder of the National Stage Band Camps) in 1959 that anything like an academic institution-style learning environment included the jam session as part of its curriculum. I’ll be teaching three courses in bass playing at Jazz CampWest this summer and am very interested in how jam sessions are treated there.

Now that jazz-studies programs are nearly ubiquitous in American academic institutions, my discussion of jam sessions includes a concern that institutional-based jazz-studies programs have the potential for disincluding the relatively experienced performer from their learning environment. This is part of a shift in how education is viewed and carried out in recent years. The idea is that expertise in a given field is unessential to teaching any part of that field. I wish I were exaggerating this, or that I could say that I’m merely paraphrasing someone’s interpretation of the situation, but I took a course in “effective” higher education that stressed this not only in the classroom, but in the course’s written hand-outs and published study materials. It is worth noting that non-performance-based courses offered in these programs can be and are often taught by instructors who are not jazz musicians and sometimes not musicians at all. While it is possible that one can teach a college level course in algebra without being a mathematician, I think I would not want to study composition from someone who doesn’t compose. It’s like letting bartenders with degrees in phys-ed who like collecting records run jam sessions. While they might know what they like, they probably don’t know much about playing music. There might be an overlap of interest between this bartender and the musicians who, after spending years studying and practicing, came in to show their best, but there’s no real affinity because they come to music with different goals and tools.

I would (and always have) studied improvisation with the best improvisers I could find. I also think this would hold true for anyone engaged in studying the plastic arts, but the current trend in education for making larger classes taught for less money disagrees. So, revisiting my last thought from last week, I think that this trend will ensure the necessity of the jam session as a proving ground and learning environment for emerging talent.

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2 thoughts on “More on Including and Excluding the Listening Class

  1. Andrew Strauss

    Ratzo, you are completely justified in your fears. Academic institutions have gutted what’s left of the European performance tradition, and I’m afraid they’re about to do the same to American music. I don’t know if I was clear enough in my previous comments about the institutionalization of music, but there is a real danger here: once oral traditions are severed, they cannot be brought back. You’re left with a sterile museum culture instead of a living, breathing art form.

  2. Ratzo B Harris

    My apologies to any Lewis Carroll fans who might have grokked my “bill and the bones” reference. I should have put this link (as well as others) into the entry. If I had, I probably would have more accurately referenced it as “bones-and-the-beak.” Again, my apologies.


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