It’s Deeper Than The Notes
by Todd Stoll
This is my final column as your JEN President, and while I am not inclined to reminisce about the past two years, I will miss these monthly missives. I find it that funny now, given I actually tried to get out of writing these. I asked for all sorts of data regarding the number of clicks and opens, and even tried to convert to a bi-monthly or quarterly schedule. I really didn’t want to do this. That said, I’m grateful for the opportunity and probably have more of these in me, so stay tuned. I’ll be publishing somewhere!
As I write this (and not worrying about the well-being of my white children), I hear police and news helicopters circling my Harlem apartment as people take to the streets. Our nation is in a state of chaos, and frankly, discussing music education, jazz education, ones upcoming livestream, and new online challenges feels petty, insignificant, and tone deaf. We are a broken, hurt, and rightfully angry nation. One that, prior to this last brutal act of injustice, was on the cusp of the worst social, economic, and political turmoil of more than a century. With all of that in mind, I do not apologize to those of you who may be offended by my words – this is too important a moment for us to ignore. We must act. And whatever actions you choose, whether it’s protesting, voting, marching, speaking out, checking our white friends and colleagues, speaking truth to power, taking the risk that someone may unfriend you, not hire you, not give you a donation, or fire you, all pale in comparison to losing your life.
I have used this pulpit to raise a few issues I believe are of importance to our community and the music education community in general. You’ve read my views on the ongoing hustle, the dearth of early jazz, self-aggrandizing in the name of competition, excellence in the classroom, quality literature, and a column we published twice about the lack of diversity in our community. That last topic is something I have felt strongly about for more than 25 years, and to be perfectly honest, the lack of response from the JEN community was deafening. I generally receive several responses to any given column, both supportive and opposing, but in response to those two diversity columns? Nearly zero. There were a few private messages from colleagues of color, but that was it. It was a microcosm of what we have seen in our country for generations — people of privilege staying silent in the face of the reality of systemic oppression and racism. And, my friends, the jazz education community is just as complicit as the rest of America.
I have stated this implicitly in my previous columns, and now we need to fully embrace this basic truth — jazz education has the power to be a force for racial understanding, healing, and justice. To succeed, we must be cognizant of the way we program, teach, and lead our respective programs, thinking deeply and honestly about how we can confront these issues with the content we teach.
When done in a manner that exposes our students to the excellence of black artists, the achievements of black elders, the triumphs of the ancestors, and the sheer statements of artistic profundity made over a century, our students can be led down a path of enlightenment. It’s not just about technique-scales, arpeggios, ii-V licks, play-along’s, transcriptions, or your new improv method. It’s deeper than notes. This music that comes from the literal blood of a marginalized and oppressed people can educate all of us spiritually, culturally, socially, and in so many other ways that make us human. It demands to be taught better, more deeply, more thoughtfully, more consciously, and with so much more care and attention that we can’t help but become a movement towards justice, equality, and the end of oppression. We need to teach as if our students’ lives are at stake, because frankly, they are.
Let’s face it, the beginnings of institutionalized jazz education were not about black music. Some of our largest and most lauded jazz institutions still do little to engage black students, black faculty, black audiences, and black music. It’s actually tragic. I know white liberal educators who actively work against black music and its larger meanings. There are high school and collegiate jazz programs right now whose jazz music libraries consist predominantly of white-composed and -arranged music. Their bands’ current folders contain charts by only white composers (Trust me, your students send me pictures of this all the time, especially around all-state season). Our business is corrupt, racist, and part of the systemic nature of this problem. How we train teachers and recruit students, program concerts, and the entire pedagogy, is playing into the continued devaluation of black contributions and black achievement, and the perpetuation of a racist viewpoint. Some institutions go out of their way to ignore or even denigrate the music of black elders like Louis Armstrong, not understanding that his music was the highest form of protest of its kind. What he represents — black excellence, black expression, freedom, and dignity in the face of inhumanity — is larger than a style, current trend, or slogan. If you can’t understand that this is so much larger and more profound than the ii-V’s you have taught for 30 years, that this music is deeper than notes, you are part of the system that supports racism.
Some things we all might consider:
- Your programming is your integrity-do you only perform the music of white composers and arrangers? How does your programming support black composers and arrangers?
- Who make up your guest artists and clinicians? Do you only have white clinicians and guest artists?
- When you present workshops or appear as a clinician-who do you reference? Is it only white artists – Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Don Ellis? Do you have references for black performers? Do you denigrate older black artists due to style considerations? Your words-even briefly-can have a profound effect on young people.
- In rehearsals, do you only address the technical aspects of your student’s performance? Try discussing the artists, history, and culture surrounding the creation of the works.
- In your classroom, address cultural prerogatives around the creation, performance, and subsequent triumph of this music. Reference books, recordings, and discuss black artists, the times during which they lived, and their struggles against oppression.
- Create a mechanism by which you recruit, retain, support, and engage black students, black faculty, black audiences, and your local black community. Offer to play for the local Urban League, NAACP chapter, or other black community organizations. And, not just during Black History Month!
Please note, these are all taken from personal experiences I have had with colleagues-and many that I love and respect-but this is an important inflection moment in our nation, and one that we cannot let pass-we have the responsibility to do better!
I close with the words of Duke Ellington, one of the most eloquent and prolific creative black voices in our nation’s history.
A pastor invited Duke Ellington to speak at a Lincoln’s Birthday service at his Los Angeles church on February, 9, 1941. The subject of Duke’s sermon was “We, Too, Sing America,” a riff on the renowned poem “I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes and an epilogue to Duke’s “Weary Blues” from 1926. Ellington’s remarks were reprinted in the California Eagle on February 13, 1941 as the speech of the week.
As America was not yet in the war in Europe, and the attack on Pearl Harbor was still 10 months away, the reference to “an eye overseas…” is most likely related to the current moment they were in — Europe was in turmoil and the drums of war were sounding.
I believe these words ring especially true in this moment.
We [Negroes] play more than a minority role, in singing “America.” Although numerically but 10 per cent of the mammoth chorus that today, with an eye overseas, sings “America” with fervor and thanksgiving, I say our 10 per cent is the very heart of the chorus: the sopranos, so to speak, carrying the melody, the rhythm section of the band, the violins, pointing the way.
I contend that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day in America, when the first unhappy slave was landed on its shores.
There, in our tortured induction into this “land of liberty,” we built its most graceful civilization. Its wealth, its flowering fields and handsome homes, its pretty traditions; its guarded leisure and its music, were all our creations.
We stirred in our shackles and our unrest awakened Justice in the hearts of a courageous few, and we recreated in America the desire for true democracy, freedom for all, the brotherhood of man, principles on which the country had been founded.
We were freed and as before, we fought America’s wars, provided for her labor, gave her music, kept alive her flickering conscience, prodded her on toward the yet unachieved goal, democracy – until we became more than a part of America! We – this kicking, yelling, touchy, sensitive, scrupulously-demanding minority – are the personification of the ideal begun by the Pilgrims, almost 350 years ago.
It is our voice that sang “America” when America grew too lazy, satisfied and confident to sing … before the dark threats and fire-lined clouds of destruction frightened it into a thin, panicky quaver.
We are more than a few isolated instances of courage, valor, achievement. We’re the injection, the shot in the arm, that has kept America and its forgotten principles alive in the fat and corrupt years intervening between our divine conception and our near tragic present.
It’s deeper than notes. And it’s time to do better. Thank you for reading over these past two years. It is a great pleasure for me and the entire JEN Board to leave you all in the capable hands of our next President, Sean Jones. May we all surround him with our support as we work though these uncertain times and use our voices to enact positive change.