- School for Cool: The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity by Eitan Y. Wilf
A young, bespectacled Dizzy Gillespie stands at a chalkboard, writing out a syncopated, ascending sequence under the word “Be-Bop.” This evocative image on the cover of Eitan Wilf’s School for Cool captures exactly the desires that have animated so much of jazz education since the 1950s—for students and teachers. Who could be cooler than Gillespie? What could be more academic than a music theory lesson? And yet the combination of cool and school has never been an entirely comfortable one, as Wilf suggests in his subtitle, The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity. An anthropologist by training, Wilf attends closely to the everyday experiences of jazz students at the Berklee College of Music (and to a lesser degree at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music) in this well-written, highly readable ethnographic study, but he also draws larger conclusions about the sociomusical worlds those students and their teachers inhabit today.
Wilf’s book turns on the notion of hybridity in jazz education, at the point where vernacular, African Diasporic values and those of modernity’s rational institutions intersect. In a telling vignette, he describes the irony of a teacher at Berklee using a story to instruct a student about how different things were in the past, when jazz pedagogy was a matter of established masters teaching by telling stories. The recursive irony in this moment—as institutionalized storytelling critiques the evident lack of storytelling in the institution—comes to be the heart of Wilf’s analysis. The academicization of jazz requires a kind of constant refusal: practitioners’ critiques of the institution and celebrations of “the street” paradoxically serve to build and maintain the institution itself.
Wilf elaborates this theme in a series of examples. First, he sets the stage for a kind of inevitable institutionalization: chapter 2 traces two intersecting vectors, the rise of jazz in the academy and the “disappearance of vibrant extracurricular commercial jazz scenes” (52). There is a kind of relentlessness to the logic coupling the loss of the so-called street and the growth of jazz higher education that seems like it stands in as a simplified narration of a more complex state of affairs. Nevertheless, Wilf’s point is well taken: schools like Berklee provide professional training in jazz, but “jazz musician” is not obviously a job, much less a profession, in the contemporary moment. Chapter 3, “Think Tank Music,” looks at this paradox from the perspective of the institution and its leaders. Drawing on interviews with administrators and a reading of Berklee’s convocation, town hall meetings, and print materials, all interpreted from the perspective of performance studies, Wilf shows the institution’s ironic use of authenticating discourses from both the academy and the jazz vernacular.
Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 move to the sphere of formal pedagogy, looking at the points of interaction between students and teachers. Each chapter investigates a particular educational process. Chapter 4 deals with the translation of what Wilf [End Page 135] calls the “charismatic” pedagogy of past masters into the space of the rational institution. Chapter 5 looks at the intersections of music notation and recording technology in learning to improvise, describing what might reasonably be called “secondary orality” in the jazz classroom.1 Chapter 6 follows this discussion of improvisation pedagogy with a consideration of the paradoxical centrality of the much-disparaged chord-scale theory system to Berklee’s curriculum. Even in the process of teaching and learning, the theory students and teachers alike voice a sense of ambivalence about theoretical knowledge. Chapter 7 takes a phenomenological approach to thinking about the ways improvisation pedagogy in these settings imagines the habit-knowledge-bearing body of the performing musician as paradoxically the site of mastery and a fundamental impediment to it.
Wilf ends with a chapter oriented toward the less institutional, but no less...