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  The State of Progressive Jazz Education  
  by Dustin Garlitz  

January 2005:

In New York City and Boston there are both two great jazz schools.  New York City’s Uptown-based Manhattan School of Music and the Downtown-located New School Jazz Program are ideal places to learn the music from history to present.  In Boston there is Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, both of which produce many a talented jazz musician (NEC has given us Cecil Taylor and Matthew Shipp, Berklee trained David S. Ware and George Garzone, among many others).  There are also many specialty schools across the nation.  For instance, if one wants to learn arranging in the style of Carla Bley, Rochester is their best bet.  University of North Texas has the top composition school.  The strength of the Jacksonville based University of North Florida’s program (where I attended a summer jazz camp in high school) is well known. It has given us trumpeter Terrence Blanchard, among many others.  On the West Coast there is Cal Arts (where tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane went to school) and Seattle’s Cornish Institute (the school that alto saxophonist Briggan Krauss attended).  Back on the East Coast, Wynton’s new Julliard Program at Lincoln Center in New York City is turning heads.  Ohio's Oberlin’s jazz school is known for their workshops with high profile artists.  All of these programs have progressive elements to them (though not to the extent of Bennington College in Vermont).

            In my case, jazz education was an entirely passive experience.  I was interested in playing avant-garde jazz from the 1960s, and there were very few classes that allowed me to do so.  I was also very influenced by New York City’s Vision Festival community of free improvisers in Downtown Manhattan, and I came to find there names and styles blacklisted in academia.  At my school, other free players in the past have had trouble with the curriculum, yet I struggled the most.  It is just very different to attend night clubs and buy albums which feature musicians playing a particular style, then not be allowed to mimic that style during training.  What surprised me even more was that my school had faculty members who were world-renowned for playing avant-garde music, yet in class their direction was straight-ahead.  I guess if you want to play both genres (free and inside) like artists such as Dave Douglas or James Carter, then jazz education is okay for you.  But if you are feverishly committed to playing only avant-garde music, then a college degree in jazz will not help.   My recommendation is to find a very capable private teacher (in the field of your choosing) and save yourself the tuition.  There are many successful players, such as pianist Myra Melford, who have done this and came out ahead of musicians who embarked on an expensive, unneeded 4 year educational program in jazz.