New Visions For New Times

The following is the text of a Keynote Address for the Opening Session of the International Association for Jazz Education's 2008 Convention in Toronto, Canada

I have to thank Mary Jo Papich, Chuck Owen, Bill McFarland and the other leaders of this great conference not just for inviting me to give a talk, but also for inviting someone like me to the podium. I did not go to music school. My musical dreams played a sometimes-confusing soundtrack in my head while I was studying other things. My first paid gigs came while I was in divinity school at the University of Chicago. Not that I wasn’t schooled in music. When I was young, I would sit with my father at the piano and turn pages while he conducted Homecoming, Christmas and spring concerts at a small high school in Rockford, Ill. He led choirs, bands and worked as a church musician his whole life. There was music all around – and the mechanics of teaching music. Every June, he took me to the school music room — which was also his office — and had me sort the music folders for the next year while he did grades to close out the year. The big yellow cinderblock room was quiet, but the smell of valve oil and erasers and the scrape and bang of the folding chairs held the echoes of music for me. My dad could have enlisted students for the job, but he wanted my company and he wanted me to absorb some of his world, which demanded hard work and dedication and a commitment to passing on high standards to young people. I feel that commitment among you. And I thank you for helping to make the young people you encounter — as my father helped make me — more humane, and at least able to translate our native human savagery into music.

I was asked to speak about the future of our music. But to do that, I'll have to speak about our present.

We all know that Jazz demands a cultivation of the mind. I am not the first or the only one to think of it is a kind of intellectualism – it is our prize and our challenge. Of course, we all know when music's too much in the head, and we define our greatest players by the way they are able to communicate directly from their emotional selves. To ask students to do so is to invite them to refine their aesthetic faculty and open themselves to a firsthand transcending/transfiguring experience of life’s richness. This is not primarily a capitalist venture.

There is a wonderful essay in the current Jazz Times written by Bill Strickland from the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild in Pittsburgh. He describes how jazz improvisation can open minds and shake us out of the ordinary. He writes, “Artists and audiences alike…have moments of revelation and insight, epiphanies that seem to stop time, when we remember…what we really want our lives to be. The pressures and distractions of our everyday concerns quickly overtake us (however). We lose touch with these moments and spend our days sleepwalking, thinking about to-do lists; mistakenly assuming that [the to-do lists] are the same thing as life itself. We need to look in the mirror once in a while and remind ourselves that our life is happening now man! I am convinced that you cannot hope to live a great life; a life that achieves your fullest potential, until you wake up to the fact that life is intangible, immediate and precious. Jazz, my kind of Jazz, won’t let you forget that; it won’t let you settle for a life built on conventional definitions of success. Jazz for me is a state of mind in which I’m reconnected, with conviction and clarity, to the things that matter most to me. Jazz teaches you how to sing the song of your life . . .” (JazzTimes, Feb/'08)

Right on Bill! If that's what you are telling them week after week in Pittsburgh you've got some lucky kids on your hands!

We all know the mentor/players of the past whose bands created and affected generations of great musicians and teachers. The Universities of Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Buddy Rich, Betty Carter, Maynard Ferguson, and so many others we revere all helped shape the present. But now we — you! — are the primary teachers. Some people bemoan the loss of the old context without acknowledging the great opportunity before us – to embrace our own time and to make the most of it. We have access to great gifts from the past, and we are charged with passing them on through our own hands.

We have to figure how to transmit this great past so that it empowers students — not to relive another generation’s past — but to articulate what it means for the students, themselves, to be alive, now. Not wishing they’d been born decades ago, when giants walked the earth. Worshipping the past is a trap that causes chronic pain among our people. We must be wary as teachers and performers of seeming to yearn too much for what’s gone. It makes audiences and our students devalue their present experiences and regret — rather than celebrate and challenge — the moment they were born into. If jazz is to be truly relevant to the future we must stop defining ourselves to such an extraordinary degree by our glorious past. The Buddha says, “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him and become Buddha yourself.”

What is interesting and ironic, of course, is the possibility that some of your students will fail to develop a historical/musical spine as they develop into artists. It is a natural gift if the young to run to the future open-handed. But — especially in today’s culture of immediate gratification — that often means cutting corners, overlooking vital information and failing to digest fully our deep and intricate heritage. It can mean students not doing their homework — in music, in history and in their own personal development. Nothing’s easier and more seductive than the quick fix. Encourage your students through your personal example. Practice playing your own horn. Steep yourself in the nobility of our traditions. Transcend yourself and you will radiate transformation and growth to your students.

And then there is the rare challenge of having a student become an artist who is judged to have left too much of the past behind because his or her vision is truly deep, broad and new. That too is part of our heritage. That’s the swing era cats telling Bird he’s gone too far, right? They don’t want to hear it. That’s critics telling Trane he’s left jazz behind. That’s Max Roach punching Ornette at The Five Spot. We should all have such a student! There is always minor friction between scenes and minor, capillary-level developments in the growing body of jazz work. But to have someone truly new come along and challenge accepted ideas with a singular approach would be a blessing now, wouldn't it? Honestly, though, how do you think we'd react if music like that walked into the room and started playing? Do you think what’s left of jazz radio would include it on play lists? Do they include Ornette even now? And yet our music — and, indeed our own milieu — cries out for artists who address the challenge this age. It is an age of great distortion, of fear, of aggression — of nation on nation, of techno sphere on biosphere — of rocking expectations. And at the same time it is an age of ancient strife; of replaying strife. And there is great beauty, too. What does this age sound like?

Perhaps this conference will help us suss that out. Perhaps not. Since another big challenge to our genre’s survival is that of sonic homogeneity – especially among those who go to academic music schools – in a certain way, this conference itself increases the possibility that teachers will go home and place a uniform pedagogical stencil in front of their students –something that leads to more players approaching the music from a similar standpoint. But jazz music is not about uniformity, is it? It’s creative in unique and sometimes obscure ways, right? I encourage you to think as much like creators – with individual viewpoints and rationales – as possible. It is a paradox of communication that we speak, write and play most effectively when we do so from our own deeply individual perspectives. It is the precision of our detail work – which love affair? which city street? which childhood memory? what color dress? – that most moves our audiences. Encourage your students to tailor their work to the sound of their own lives and to the towns, regions and people you know and share. In recognizing and capturing the specifics of a situation, we come to own it, to cherish it and to be able to give it away. It is another way of transcending our ordinary-life limitations. Keep this in mind and the pedagogical tools you fine-tune here will encourage individuation and not further uniformity.

There is something else to address; something more that is touching on all I have said so far. There is a fear weighing heavy on our community of losing what audience jazz has remaining in the marketplace – and what a marketplace!

But what if we define success in a different way? I think that if we can let go of our fear and define success not in terms of record sales, audience numbers, and other bottom-line obsessions, but in terms of what is already great about jazz, then we will have given something truly important to those who follow us. For me, the definition of a successful jazz musician — the musician I want to be, and the kind of musician I revere most—is one who communicates his or her specific intellectual, spiritual and emotional life through articulate, passionate, immediate music. That’s a jazz musician. Who wouldn’t want to hear that? That’s Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Maria Schneider, Terence Blanchard. That’s Chick and Bobby McFerrin doing duets. It is where we find joy. If we define success in terms of what is already essential to our medium, then we will set the stage for successful players day in and day out – successful whether or not they make their living from playing. They will be successful because they will be fully developed people – articulate composers of their own lives.

Young people desire and deserve a noble calling in life. Jazz mirrors and reminds us of the fact that we are ALIVE! I advise you set the glorious and elaborate table of artistic endeavor. Working artists like me can do our work, provide what artistic inspiration we can, and do our best to give when we have the opportunity. But you are the on-site leaders of the next generation. No one is saying that your job is to create geniuses — that is an impossible task. But it is your calling at least to give a deep experience of humanity and music to students, and to seed the clouds.

And so, I invite you to push your people to apprehend more than just music, more than just the history of Jazz, more than scales and transcriptions. Be an example of someone who is striving to transcend your own life – to see around the corners or your self and your context. And then transmit your example as an emotionally and musically articulate human being to your students. Ask yourself, "Am I touching my own soul? Is it breathing?" Push your students to apprehend the greater milieu of art through an appreciation of dance/great books/your students' own developing god opinions. Encourage them to consider their own upstart/outside angles of marketplace innovation. (I must say the evaporation and collapse of an archaic business model can only present opportunities to people of imagination and daring. And who has more imagination and daring than jazz people?) Challenge your students with questions about how their work can change/heal the culture. Ask them how the work they do as artists might teach us all to communicate peace to one another.

After all, what we really need – what we really seek as people – is a revolution of consciousness. It is what great music fosters best. It is the only music worth striving for. There is inspiration and rebuke in art at this level. Who hasn't listened to Keith, Brecker or Dave Liebman or the VSOP Quintet and not felt at the same time thrilled and a little ashamed? We feel inspiration because it is always uplifting to hear open hearts that are married to virtuosic techniques. We feel rebuke in the open question, “And why have you not yet measured up to you own potential, dear listener?”

Of the eloquent non-jazz artists who really understood this paradox, perhaps none put it better than a Czech/Swiss poet from the turn of the last century. Just about a hundred years ago, Rainer Maria Rilke was in Paris, writing and serving as protégé to the sculptor Auguste Rodin. As a part of his training in “seeing”, he went to an exhibition of ancient Greek statues. Many of the figures he confronted had been buried for centuries. Many were missing parts. One in particular, an archaic torso of the god Apollo, drew Rilke into its orbit and struck him with beauty. The statue was missing its limbs and head. It was scraped and scratched from hundreds of years in the dirt. And yet there was a clear and abiding majesty in this sculpture; an artistic majesty that was so powerful and alive that Rilke realized that he wasn’t so much “seeing” as he was “being seen”. He wrote:

Archaïscher Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

Would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.


Translation by Stephen Mitchell, ©1995

© Kurt Elling, 2008