For Jazz Musicians Looking For Mentors, Things Ain’t What They Used To Be

One of the great things about jazz is that it bridges generations. Because it relies on interactive improvisation and live performance, and thus can’t be completely taught in a classroom or with a book, aspiring younger musicians seek the direct guidance of older, wiser ones. And more experienced musicians have plenty of reasons to take fresh talent under their wings, like gaining new bandmates with fresh skill sets, or helping future torch-bearers to thrive.

Such mentorship has changed a lot in the last half century. Collegiate and even post-graduate jazz education has become a huge engine of talent cultivation. Meanwhile, performing opportunities have greatly diminished. So the previous model of mentorship, where promising musicians learn “on the job” by joining the bands of established musicians, is becoming less common. But as Nate Chinen’s recent New York Times article explains, plenty of “apprentices” are still “availing themselves of counsel” — they’re just taking different paths to it.

… Like so much else involving jazz’s training arc, the apprenticeship model has been formalized and made accessible for a fee.

It’s easy to find fault with that shift, as many have over the years. But the current situation isn’t quite so clear-cut. Apprenticeship lurks outside the academy, for those resourceful enough to find it. Many prominent jazz artists still make a point of featuring younger talent in their bands, and many of the best up-and-comers seek out their elders as a matter of course. At the same time jazz is better fostered in institutions than it was in the era when [Wynton] Marsalis dropped out of Juilliard. The result is a hybrid reality that has recently produced a wave of sophisticated young improvisers with well-formed ideas about composition, band cohesion and their relationship to an aesthetic continuum.

A key word here is “hybrid”: Young musicians are leveraging their conservatory training and connections into bandstand experience as well. Chinen singles out saxophonist Godwin Louis, 26. He studied under Ralph Peterson, 50, at Berklee College of Music. After his undergraduate education, Louis attended the select Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz master’s program, which was run at the time by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, now 50 years old. Louis has met a lot of members of his own band through these networks, and also plays in Peterson’s band. Through this and other examples, Chinen argues that the jazz community has adapted its need for mentorship to its current realities — especially for its top talent — a narrative which certainly ought to be heard.

One suggestion for a follow-up: I also think the consequences of this shift deserve to be spelled out. If the “apprenticeship model has been formalized and made accessible for a fee” — that is, tuition of attending school — have we made it more difficult or less appealing for less wealthy students to start careers in jazz? Will the mediated student-teacher relationship of college affect the ways that lessons and values are transmitted, or leave graduates without enough on-the-job experience? Or, more positively, does this also mean that more students have access to learn some aspects of music in less intimidating environments? These are more difficult questions, but the future of the jazz community depends on how they’re answered. [The New York Times: Jazz Apprentices Still Find Their Masters]

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