Music History as Part of a Jazz Curriculum

Music History. No two words seem to inspire more dread in music students than these. The battery of music history courses can often be among the most challenging and least rewarding in undergraduate and graduate curriculums alike. Among jazz students these courses are often more problematic because they require prolonged study of material only tacitly related to jazz topics. This is compounded by a general attitude among musicology professors that our music--jazz--does not deserve as close scrutiny as say, the morality plays of Hildegard Von Bingen, the motets of Monteverdi, or the topics of alternity in nineteenth century Europe. (This is changing among many younger musicologists, but this change of attitute is not in evidence in most curriculums.)
            Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of college musicology courses is the expectation that jazz musicians not only master the history and analysis of western music as described above, but also demonstrate an equal—preferably greater—grasp on jazz research topics as well. This seems like a huge double standard when compared with classical music students. This arrangement essentially doubles the musicological responsibilities of the jazz student.
            Why do we have to take classical history courses? Knowledge of Montiverdi or HVB will not help us play II-Vs better, they won't help us in our interpretation of Body and Soul or Cherokee, they aren't going to help our high notes. As a trombone professor once told me: "Music history can't teach you shit about playing in the upper register!" So why should we be required to know this material?
            Consider our counterparts in performance tracks: those who study strings, voice, piano or other classical musics exclusively. These students progress through traditional musicology courses alongside jazz students. If a musicology program is effective, it would be fair to say that a jazz student and a classical student who progress through the same musicological curriculum would have the same grasp of the topics covered. Upon completion of this program, both students should be able critically examine music from all periods covered in the course. (More likely they forget it all immediately after completion if the course, but that is a topic for a different time.)
            It is here where the advantage goes to the jazz student. Classical training does a great job preparing students to engage in the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler or Stravinsky. It does a poor job in teaching students how to engage in all music. For example, ask a classically trained student to discuss the evolution of opera and he or she will happily expound on Peri, Montiverdi, Gluck, and a host of other important operatic players. Now ask the same student on their thoughts regarding the birth of bebop or the evolution of R&B and Rock and Roll during the mid twentieth century, and he or she will be suddenly silent. Classical training does not prepare students to deal outside of the classical realm. (Many might take issue on this point as jazz and other popular musics are becoming taught more at universities, however these courses are typically electives, not requirements. Additionally I have my own personal reservations on the integrity of many of these courses when compared with the intensity of traditional musicology courses.) In short, the classical student has become limited by education.
            This is not true for the jazz student. The study of jazz gives the student a skill set with which to study all forms of popular music in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. (It could also be argued that this same skill set could be used to study all music. I mean come on, just because JS Bach drove a horse and buggy to work in the eighteenth century doesn’t mean we should when we have perfectly good Ferraries to zip around in. But that’s a conversation for a different time.) In addition, because of the pesky musicology degree requirements, the jazz student just as qualified to engage in the discussion and in many cases the performance of classical music.
            From this perspective we must ask ourselves, who is receiving the best education? In the modern music world there is no such thing as someone who only plays one kind of music, when that phone rings we want our students to be able to say yes to any performance or teaching opportunity regardless of what degree was earned. That being the case, it is the jazz degree and the seemingly endless arsenal of classical musicology courses that is the best at preparing the student for the real world.  We should not complain about our classical training, it prepares us for any professional or academic situation. We should be more concerned about our classical colleagues who proceed through the same degrees as us, pick up the same student loans as us, yet only receive half the education. It is from these students where the real outcry should be heard. So this fall as the next round of musicology survey courses begin, instead of moaning about how unfair it is to be a jazz student studying Bach Cantatas, we should ask ourselves; who is receiving the better education: the classical student, or the jazz student?