A friend passed along the recent New York Times article from Sept. 6, 2020 by Giovanni Russonello entitled, “Is Jazz Capable of Meeting This Moment?” In the article, they talk to historian Robin D.G. Kelley about teaching jazz in the University. He says, “They were not willing to tolerate an Archie Shepp or a Max Roach, a Sun Ra or a Cecil Taylor…They kicked them out and said, let’s open the doors to ‘professionals.'”
The context of the article is that jazz has largely moved from a musical idiom developed by black people to a music that is now practiced in the academy by predominantly white musicians. That part of the article is an accurate description about the state of affairs. My question is: how would including Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor in the curriculum have helped us to attract and retain more black musicians in the academy.
My suspicion is that the reason that we don’t have more black musicians in the academy has to do with other factors of systematic racism in our society more than it has to do with not including Sun Ra in the curriculum.
I happen to like both Sun Ra (if you’ve never watched Space is the Place, do yourself a favor and look it up on YouTube) and Cecil Taylor, but I have no idea how to teach them. I’m not sure that they are teachable musics. In one of those lovely recorded conversations between John Cage and Morton Feldman, they talk about how important Varese was for them precisely because he wasn’t “teachable.” That is, you couldn’t analyze his music in the way that you can break a Bach fugue into its component parts.*
*[Whether or not breaking a thing into its component parts and talking about how they combine to form the ontic whole is actually really saying anything about it or not is for another discussion.]
I remember one time in a graduate theory class, I jokingly said to the professor, “Why don’t we ever learn about French music in theory class?” He sardonically replied, “If you didn’t know yet, we don’t teach French music in music theory class. We only teach German and Italian music.” He was making a point about the narrow scope of traditional music theory, but it’s largely true. You might cover some Rameau. You might cover Debussy in a specific way. That is, you might talk about how he constructs sonorities, but you don’t “analyze” it the same way you would pull apart Beethoven or Schubert.
That’s because there are certain musics that don’t fit neatly into quantifiable categories. Sun Ra is one. Cecil Taylor is another. How Max Roach made it in that sentence is baffling. I certainly don’t know of any school that doesn’t make a place for him. He went to MSM himself and worked with some great theoretical minds like Dizzy and Mingus.
Finally, there is this bizarre paragraph slighting Wynton Marsalis. I know Mr. Marsalis has a long history of controversial statements and interviews, but see if you can parse this:
“But even the music made by the ace students in academic programs nowadays rarely upholds the qualities Mr. Marsalis meant to protect: the swing rhythm at the music’s core; a clear commitment to the blues; focus on lyricism.”
I mean, you can try to explain its farraginous nonsense, but every time I try to decode it, all I read is, “I, Giovanni Russonello, have not been in an academic music program in a long time and have no idea of the realities of what occurs there.”
So in the end, we wind up with another article that is probably on the right track with what it wants to say, but the author has so little knowledge of the subject area that it winds up not really making the points it wants to make.