Conservatory Must Abandon Euro-Centric Practices

Will Rubenstein, Opinions Editor

With so much going on this semester, many outside the Jazz Studies department have probably missed the explosion of renowned jazz musicians on campus over the last month and a half. After past semesters in which guest jazz performances were often few and far between, in this half-semester alone Oberlin has hosted artists such as Thundercat, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Liebman, Robert Glasper and Rufus Reid, culminating in Herbie Hancock’s concert at Finney on March 14. All this of course follows the May 2010 opening of the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, a $23 million facility providing a permanent home for a jazz department that had languished for decades in the dank, moldy confines of Hales Gymnasium.

Amid all this celebration of jazz, a lay audience might easily overlook some implications of both Oberlin’s and broader American society’s rush to embrace jazz as a great American art form. Lost in much of this discussion is the fact that many of the music’s greatest exponents, from past legends like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis to modern titans like Visiting Professor of Jazz Saxophone Gary Bartz, have treated the label “jazz” itself with a mix of quiet disregard and outright loathing. According to Bartz, “jazz” originally described the physical business of the New Orleans whorehouses from which the music first entered the public consciousness: “They would say, ‘I’m going down to the jazz house to get me some jazz,’ and that’s where the music was, so they’d say: ‘What kind of music are they playing?’ ‘Jazz music.’”

Such context hints at the history of marginalization jazz has faced, one closely tied to the broader history of the African-American people. Jazz “is the closest to Hell, or the Devil, in music,” legendary cornetist Herbert Clarke famously wrote in a 1921 letter to trumpeter Elden Benge. “It pollutes the art of music.” Oberlin is by no means exempt from this legacy — even after student activism forced the Conservatory to hire Dr. Wendell Logan as its first Jazz Studies professor in 1973, such sentiments were evident in instances like Dr. Logan’s cancellation of a planned performance by pianist McCoy Tyner after the Conservatory refused to let him use Finney Chapel’s best concert Steinway. Tyner, most famous for his role in the iconic John Coltrane Quartet of the 1960s, has been sponsored by Steinway for the past 35 years.

It’s nice to see the European classical music community reverse course and embrace jazz as an art form worth celebrating, but as many white Southern conservatives would do well to learn, undoing a legacy of prejudice takes more than just admitting you were sort-of-maybe-a-little-bit wrong and then moving on as if nothing happened. (It also takes more than the typically American solution of drowning embarrassing problems in a sea of millions from wealthy donors.) What it takes is an honest effort to find elements of hegemony in even the most innocuous-seeming cultural practices, and then create new paradigms as devoid as possible of oppression and inequality.

A more balanced approach would start by admitting that while European classical music has a rich heritage, it is nonetheless a European tradition. We often use labels like “ethnomusicology” and “world music” as placeholders for our ignorance of the musics of other cultures; excluding European classical music from such labels sends a signal that our culture is fundamentally European, and the contributions other peoples have made can be ignored with minimal consequence. By refusing to use the term “classical music” without a geographic modifier, hopefully we can begin to break Europe’s stranglehold on the popular notion of classical music in much the same way that we hope to break its cultural and intellectual domination of both America and the human race as a whole.

For the Conservatory, especially in the introductory music theory and history classes required of every Conservatory student, this means stepping back from the Euro-centrism that has marked its curricula from the beginning. In Theory I through IV, the rhythmic complexity that came to American music via Africa and the tonal innovations of key 20th-century jazz musicians are skimmed minimally after three-plus semesters spent exhausting everything that can be said about the development of traditional European music theory; this needs to change. In Music History 101, the development of African-American music is condensed into a day of instruction and four listening examples after months spent analyzing every notable European composer from Palestrina to Prokofiev; this needs to change. Professors of European classical performance sometimes discourage or outright forbid their students from performing in jazz ensembles or otherwise straying from a total commitment to European music; this needs to change most of all.

Obviously, a European or American conservatory that decided to cover the musics of the world as thoroughly as European classical music would be hopelessly swamped with new material about which it would have minimal understanding — just like a European or American liberal arts college that committed itself to study all human cultures as thoroughly as the “classics” of European/American history and literature. But since Dr. Logan first arrived at Oberlin 39 years ago, the Conservatory’s stance toward the African-American classical music known as jazz has shifted from obstinate rejection to grudging toleration, eventually coming around to a wholehearted and deep-pocketed acceptance that Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker are at least as essential to America’s cultural heritage as Bach or Beethoven, if not more so. It’s long past time for the Conservatory to put its academic focus and institutional practices where its mouth and $23 million of its money already are.