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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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Foreword by Derrick Gardner



Derrick Gardner

An interviewer once asked Louis Armstrong if he could read music. Louis answered, “Not so much that it messes up my playing.” In my estimation, that answer is pure genius: it exposes a presumed superiority of the formal music tradition, and in a light-hearted way establishes both the pedagogical strategies and value systems of the jazz tradition.

The differences between traditional and academic teaching models for jazz is at the crux of Dr. Damani Phillips’ compelling and timely study, What Is This Thing Called Soul? Through a series of brilliant interviews with notable jazz musicians and educators, Phillips explores the pros and cons of both “street level” and academic strategies, and their effects on those teaching jazz, future practitioners of jazz, and even the future of this uniquely African-American art form itself. If “soul” is a thing you can feel (both its presence and its absence), but you can’t really put your finger on, how does it factor into our teaching and mentoring?

Universities have shied away from qualities you can’t measure, but Phillips’ book brings intangibles like “soulfulness” and “expressiveness” into a serious conversation about teaching, and opens musicians and students alike to some important considerations. If “soul” is the intangible quality that creates a connection between musician and non-musician, performer and audience,←vii | viii→ then every musician must consider the listener as an integral part of a performance. When you are presenting the melody of a song,...

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