Jazz Musicianship

Jazz Musicianship: A Unique Curriculum of Original Design

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Copies of Jazz Musicianship Vol. 1 can be ordered here.

“I think that Jazz Musicianship is an incredibly thorough, very well done, approach to learning jazz from the bottom up, laying strong foundations for further explorations and understanding of the jazz idiom. I am very impressed.” — Marilyn Crispell


Course Abstract

The jazz tradition is incredibly rich, both in scope and in depth. We likewise have at our disposal an abundance of resources for studying the tradition, from style guides and printed collections of tunes to volumes of transcribed solos and recordings of masterful musicians. Amidst this treasure trove, it can be tempting to engage jazz more as an act of historical performance than of creative process. This temptation can be particularly strong in educational environments, where there is a need for a tangible curriculum and consistent criteria by which students’ progress can be assessed. Yet, if we do not balance the study of the tradition with the maturation of personal musical voices, we run the risk of anachronism: cultivating fluency with past styles and repertoire at the expense of genuine expression. (We are after all speaking of a music that holds individual creativity as a central virtue.)

My perception is that in general, we are less seasoned as educators at teaching jazz as creative process than we are at teaching the tradition. I have even heard some fine pedagogs declare with chagrin that creativity cannot be taught. Perhaps in the strictest sense this is true; but if creativity cannot be taught, it can certainly be cultivated. It can even be cultivated in the context of a thorough and rigorous music curriculum. The Grace Cushman Creative Musicianship Program offers an effective model for doing exactly that. Since 2001, I have been utilizing the philosophy and materials of the Cushman Musicianship in jazz instruction, developing Jazz Musicianship, a fully comprehensive pedagogical method.

So, what is the Grace Cushman Creative Musicianship Program and why does it provide a useful model for teaching and learning jazz? Grace Cushman developed her program in the 1940s and 50s as a means of teaching the materials of western music so as to foster personal understanding and creative expression. Reflecting this mission, the course has three key characteristics. The first is that it is organic.

So often in music theory we focus right away on those materials that can be found on the surface of a particular style or genre, describing their behavior and relationships with a long list of rules: this harmony tends to resolve to that harmony, these harmonies are associated with these scales, such and such a harmony can be voiced in such and such a way, except when…, except when…, except when…, etc. (This is of course a gross over simplification.) Though such an approach embodies a great deal of information about the mechanics of a particular style, it offers less in the way of general understanding, as the rules that are applicable in one musical context may well be null and void in another.

By contrast, Cushman’s program begins with core concepts (namely acoustics) and gradually expands outward, providing foundations that support exploration across a wide range of musical styles. The course is designed so that each new concept grows smoothly from material already covered, hence the organic quality of which I speak. Intervals are introduced as they occur in the harmonic series. The basic intervals of fifths, fourths, thirds, and sixths are combined to form major and minor triads in their different inversions. Triads are connected to explore harmonic relationships by third, fifth, and step. And so the process continues, each step building on the last, until the student has ventured into territory of considerable complexity.

Jazz Musicianship builds on this organic design, traveling paths from acoustics to the surface of the jazz language in all its diverse utterances (from the blues to the avant-garde). In addition to providing strong foundations for common practice materials, this approach helps students understand, in musical terms, how the jazz language has evolved in the past and recognize ways in which it may continue to grow in the future.

The second key characteristic of Cushman Musicianship is that it is activity based. Once discovered, materials are drilled in a variety of ways, involving singing, playing, listening, spelling, reading, writing, call and response, movement, and games. This kind of hands, ears, and minds on approach engenders deep fluency with materials, a worthy aspiration for any jazz musician.

The third key characteristic is that creative application is engaged on a regular basis at all levels of the learning process. Having discovered and drilled a particular concept, students are asked to truly make it their own by applying it in compositional and improvisational activities. The intention is for students to become increasingly accustomed to making personal decisions with musical materials. Hence, in the Jazz Musicianship curriculum, students are contacting and developing their own musical voices as an integrated part of the process of learning the musical language.

These three characteristics, organic design, activity based learning, and creative application of materials throughout the learning process, make this curriculum unique, to my experience, in the field of jazz education.