Warriors for jazz

As one jazz venue after another closes, some colleges in America are betting heavily that the music genre still has a future.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Berklee College, Boston

Want to see the future of jazz? Stop by Berklee College of Music in Boston at lunchtime. Talented young musicians – from Japan, India, Israel, France, Sweden, Spain, and the United States, just to name a few countries – spill out onto the sidewalk, laughing, singing, and playing air guitar, saxophone, and drums.

Enthusiastic and energetic, they’re hoping for a career playing or producing the music they love. But is there a future for jazz?

While Berklee’s experienced teaching staff is committed to delivering a comprehensive jazz education to all enrolled at the college’s Boston and Valencia, Spain, campuses (as well as its growing international online student body), most signs point to diminished opportunities for a career after graduation. Jazz clubs and venues are closing at a rapid pace. Jazz-record sales are infinitesimal and dropping. The Grammy Awards for jazz have been moved out of the prime-time broadcast, relegated to an afternoon presentation that barely registers. What good is a degree if there’s no one listening?

At another venerable institution on the West Coast, several of jazz’s legendary old soldiers are not content to watch it fade away. Kenny Burrell, one of the great jazz guitarists of all time, whose discography began with Dizzy Gillespie in 1951, is fighting hard for the survival of his beloved art form. At 82, he is fundraising, bending ears, and twisting some well-connected arms to bolster America’s jazz curriculum, specifically the University of California at Los Angeles’s jazz-studies program, for which Mr. Burrell serves as founder and director. He persuaded the internationally renowned Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz to partner with UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music in 2012, hoping to foster the exchange of musicians and ideas.

International students are “going to benefit from coming to America and getting information right from the source [the birthplace of jazz].... So it’s a great two-way street, and it’s win-win all the way,” enthused Burrell at the ribbon cutting. He believes the key to learning jazz is learning from “primary sources” themselves – practicing masters of the form, not cloistered academics. So he brought in guest artists such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter of the great Miles Davis Quintet to teach and advise on all aspects of a life in jazz. (It should not escape notice that the younger of this twosome is Hancock, at age 74. The audience base for jazz tends to be older adults.)

With their shiny new facilities and star-studded teaching staffs in place, UCLA and Berklee are both betting heavily that jazz has a future. Jazz students and the world’s fans of America’s truly indigenous art form hope they’re right.

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