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What Is This Thing Called Soul

Conversations on Black Culture and Jazz Education


Damani Phillips

How does academic jazz education impact the Black cultural value of soulfulness and esthetic standards in contemporary jazz music? Through candid conversations with nine of the country’s most highly respected jazz practitioners and teachers, What Is This Thing Called Soul explores the potential consequences of forcing the Black musical style of jazz into an academic pedagogical system that is specifically designed to facilitate the practice and pedagogy of European classical music. This work tests the belief that the cultural, emotional and esthetic elements at the very core of jazz’s unique identity, along with the music’s overt connection to Black culture, are effectively being "lost in translation" in traversing the divide between academic and non-academic jazz spheres.

Each interviewee commands significant respect worldwide in the fields of jazz performance and jazz pedagogy. Noteworthy subjects include: Rufus Reid, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton and Wycliffe Gordon—along with the late jazz masters Marcus Belgrave and Phil Woods. Interviews are supplemented by original analysis of the nature and validity of these issues contributed by the author.

What Is This Thing Called Soul offers a candid and objective look into pressing issues of race, culture and ethnic value in relation to both jazz music and jazz education. Sensitivity, marginalization and even a fear of offending others has limited open discussion of how the soul of jazz music can be lost in technical boundaries. What Is This Thing Called Soul is the first attempt to directly address such culturally urgent issues in jazz music.

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Chapter 12. Conclusion: Adjusting Course




Adjusting Course

While the time invested in identifying pressing issues related to jazz music and its connection to culture, race, and the culturally-based esthetics that have gone unrecognized and/or unexplored for far too long is important; it is equally important to initiate discussion of potential solutions. The suggestions that follow are, by no means, a permanent or quick fix in reversing these trends. Yet, they do represent precious first steps in re-aligning academic jazz with the ethnically-informed principles and spirit from which the music emerged. In the process, the new generation of jazz musicians emerging from the academy will be able to consistently sample jazz culture that is as authentic as humanly possible and fold that understanding into their own musicianship; eventually enabling themselves to make an informed choice in determining the artistic direction and esthetic nature of their own musical voice. Before attempting to bring these changes to fruition, there must first be a universal acknowledgement that there is indeed a problem – and that the severity of that problem can no longer afford to go unaddressed.

The first step involves addressing issues in cultural diversity among academic jazz faculty. The lack of cultural and ethnic diversity amongst current faculty is having an obvious impact on the variety of ideas, cultural perspectives and methodologies presented in academic jazz culture. It is worth men←231 | 232→tioning here that the mere presence of ethnic minorities in academic programs would not, and...

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