The College Jazz Guitar Major: Pros and Cons      July 2007                       HOME
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As we wrap up another school year, this is the time when many younger guitar players are finalizing plans for formal music study in the fall.  As I think back to my own experience of going through this process, I remember that in the 80's, jazz studies programs had barely made an entrance into formal college music programs.  More often than not, if you could study jazz guitar at all, the jazz band (usually there was only one) and jazz courses were considered part-time or electives to the 'real' course of study, which was classical music or music education.  Often, study of jazz was not allowed any credits.  Clearly, at that time and in many academic circles, jazz was frowned upon or granted tacit acceptance, as one might toward a disreputable family member. Elitist faculty members saw jazz as inferior to 'serious' music. 


We have come some distance since then, and jazz programs (and jazz guitar as a major) have slowly but surely climbed the ladder of respectability and acceptance in many colleges and universities. There are today many more options for full-time jazz guitar study in academic institutions.  More resources are being invested in jazz programs than ever before:  scholarships; clinics; more full-time faculty; guest artist performances; and better performance opportunities for the students.  With the passage of time, jazz has gained greater acceptance as a legitimate art form; (the slow journey towards this acceptance is in itself ironic since jazz music is actually one of the few original American art forms).  It is this newfound legitimacy, combined with evolving trends in musical interests in the U.S., that has resulted in jazz actually relocating and finding a home in institutions of higher learning.  Rather than being a music of the streets and passed on orally, as it started out in the early 1900's, it is now often based in college programs where it is formally studied, researched, written about, debated, and practiced.


Is all this good for jazz as an art form and for jazz guitar as an instrument of study? As we might answer for any evolutionary path.....Yes and No.   It was inevitable that blues, ragtime, dixieland, and jazz music would be formally documented and studied in higher education, since these artistic styles are important cultural parts of our country's history and development. There is now a commitment to preserve these art forms, which is of course a positive thing. There are innumerable doctoral studies and graduate programs in ethnomusicolgy, jazz studies, and  performance, and one can study from artistic, historical, or cultural perspectives. Our identity as Americans and our history of racial struggles have broadened through study of this music.  Many new and productive players are born from these programs.  All postive developments.


The cons?  Along with all the above, we risk producing a type of player that is far removed from the "ear" (and heart!) player of those that performed 50 to 80 years ago.  The player of today stands a greater risk of having learned the music through an intellectual academic process:  "you practice these scales.....perform exercises for these for a one song on a formal recital......memorize these chords....take this ear training test....", etc.  In an earlier period of this music's history, the songs were memorized because the player loved both the music and the instrument, and wanted to express him/herself. Improvisation was based on what was heard, and most importantly, was based on the melody itself (rather than basing improvisation on what scales we 'know' will fit over a given chord).    Such players soon exhibited a personal style since they were playing for different reasons and in a different way.  The risk today is that many of the 'mass-produced' college players sound alike and have missed the 'something' that moves one in the direction of expressing a unique personal style.


This has become an ongoing discussion between myself and some of my colleagues in the New England area, as we process where we came from in the early days of formalized 'jazz training' and where we are heading in our jazz guitar playing (and teaching).


If you are looking into formal, academic jazz guitar study, here are some thoughts to be cognizant of:


What is the background and interest of the instructor you would be working with?  Can you take a 'sample' lesson before commiting to the program?  A guitar professor who is steeped in traditional bebop jazz guitar will have different expectations of the student than an instructor schooled in a broader more eclectic, more 'modern' vein.


What kind of ear-training (aural skills) emphasis does the school have and how is it carried out?  This may be the one most important aspect of learning and playing jazz.*  Playing jazz - if we value its historical performance

approach - is based on playing by ear.  Therefore, serious practitioners need to study the music in a fashion which promotes "ear to hand skills".  In this approach, any idea we hear in our head first can then be translated to the guitar.  Sight-singing, study of intervals (and where they are on the guitar), memorization of melodies, singing the solos of the masters, are all approaches that should be included in a serious jazz guitar program.


Does the location of the school afford opportunities to do real playingoutside the school?  The more 'real life' you can make the whole experience, the more your playing will advance.


Does the school promise performance opportunities and multiple combos/ensembles?


For those desiring a career in jazz guitar, there are tough, and exciting, decisions ahead.

     *For a related topic....visit the Perfect Pitch (and ear training) discussions on this website:
        PART  1      PART  2