JAZZ EDUCATION IN CHINA: ITS RECENT DEVELOPMENT AND FUTURE
The following lecture was delivered in Mandarin Chinese on Wednesday, June 19th, 2019 during the fourth annual Jazz Week conference at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. Thank you to Leah Liu and Lv Yan for helping with the Chinese translation, and for offering constructive feedback.
Let me start by expressing my gratitude and appreciation for being here today. I want to thank President Yu. I also want to thank my old music compatriot Director Lv. Thank you for hosting and organizing this conference and for inviting me to speak. Thank you also to my former colleagues and friends here at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. It is wonderful to see so many familiar faces. Finally, thank you all for coming to my talk.
My name is Murray James Morrison. I am a jazz saxophonist and music educator. Originally from Canada, I studied jazz in the United States at three different universities—the University of North Texas, Rutgers University, and New York University—over an eight-year period. I have also invested several years of my life in jazz education in China and here at the Popular Music Academy of the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. From 2012 to 2015, I worked as a Foreign Expert at the Sichuan Conservatory. I was part of the curriculum development initiative spearheaded by President Yu in 2013, an initiative that brought courses like Improvisation and Popular Music Styles and Analysis to the conservatory for the first time. I was also involved in preliminary discussions back in 2015 regarding starting a jazz major on this campus. After a three-year hiatus, I am now back in China and will be continuing my work in jazz education at NYU Shanghai this fall.
My topic today is directly relevant to the Jazz Week conference here at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. The topic is jazz education in China. In this lecture, I will speak about the development of jazz education in China in recent years, make some predictions about how jazz education in China will change over the next few years, and offer suggestions for those of us in music education circles to help these predictions come to pass. This particular talk was inspired by ongoing efforts at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music to start a jazz major, efforts that I support and believe will benefit jazz education in China.
What is jazz education in China? First, it is the study of a specific kind of music, jazz. Jazz is a popular music art form that originated in the United States in the early 20th century. Most of jazz’s chief pioneers were the descendants of African-American slaves, who created and subsequently extended the music in exciting and unpredictable directions over a period of several decades. While jazz originated and developed in the United States, it is also a global music. Developments in mass media and transportation infrastructure in the first half of the 20th century allowed jazz to spread—through radio, physical recordings, and live performances—to countries throughout the world, including to China before the founding of the PRC.
This lecture deals primarily with a particular kind of jazz education—the kind of formal education taught in degree-granting institutions like this one. Jazz education is of course a broad topic. While jazz education occurs in music conservatories and universities, it also occurs in music clubs and on the bandstand, in private conversations, through informal apprenticeships, in jam sessions, in rehearsals, and in recording studios. The kind of jazz education that occurs in these places and situations can be hugely important to one’s musical development, as experienced musicians in this room can attest.
Jazz education also occurs at institutions that are not conservatories and universities: at private non-degree granting schools, like the JZ School in Shanghai and Golden Jazz in Zhuhai; at educational outreach organizations and performing venues, like the recently-opened Jazz At Lincoln Center in Shanghai; and at private training schools for children and adults found in cities throughout China.
There are also auxiliary organizations and businesses that support and carry out jazz education work through public performances, engagement, and outreach. These days people hear jazz music at clubs and music festivals, on mainstream television shows (singing competitions, for example), in movies, and in online advertising. Auxiliary organizations and businesses like these are essential for musicians, who rely in part on public performances to make a living. They also serve an important role in introducing jazz music to young people and the broader public. People can also learn about jazz music through books written or translated into Chinese, printed periodicals, websites, and WeChat public accounts.
In each of these facets of jazz education, there are important changes occurring that would need to be considered in a comprehensive discussion of the recent development of jazz education in China. Below, however, I want like to focus on recent changes in a particular facet of jazz education: in the formal, credentialed study of jazz carried out in China’s music conservatories. It is here in China’s music conservatories where jazz is regarded not only as a performing art for public consumption, but also as a subject that merits careful, sustained study; academic inquiry; and institutional support.
The development of jazz education in China is important for a number of reasons. China is a country of tremendous importance, a country whose cultural, economic, and political impact in the 21st-century world is already and will continue to be enormous. China is the largest country in the world by population. Currently China has the second-largest GDP of any country in the world, after the United States, the country where jazz music originated. The demographic and economic size of China has made the country a destination for many of the world’s premiere touring jazz artists, who come to China to perform in music festivals, theaters, and jazz clubs, and who often cooperate with nearby music conservatories during these trips. The demographic and economic size of China has also attracted large and visible American organizations associated with jazz music, like the Blue Note Jazz Club and Jazz at Lincoln Center, organizations that in recent years have established locations in China’s largest and most important urban centers.
China is a country of rapid and continuous change. The rate of change is staggering and can be observed in the sudden appearance and rapid development of numerous music genres, including jazz. Only a few decades ago, jazz music was not publicly performed in China or studied in Chinese schools. This is no longer the case. In recent years, high-profile ensembles dedicated to jazz education and outreach led by jazz legends—like a Thelonious Monk Institute ensemble led by pianist Herbie Hancock, and the Jazz and Lincoln Center Orchestra led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis—have performed multi-city Chinese tours and in venues like the Forbidden City Concert Hall, next to Tiananmen Square.
Rapid and continuous change are not exclusive to China, of course, and appear to be ubiquitous features of our modern world. This is true of jazz itself. Jazz music is a relatively young music genre, approximately one hundred years old. The first commercial jazz recording was released in 1917. Since that time, jazz music has undergone a rapid and continuous transformation that produced numerous distinct music sub-genres, including ragtime, stride, gypsy jazz, swing, bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, latin jazz, avant-garde, free jazz, jazz-rock, jazz-funk, smooth jazz, contemporary jazz, among other stylistic fusions of various kinds.
Jazz studies is also a young academic discipline. While jazz music attracted the attention of American and European critics and music scholars early in its history, jazz courses and college degrees did not appear until around the middle of the 20th century. Today, jazz education begins for many North American students in high school or earlier. Students in small towns in Canada can take private jazz saxophone lessons and perform in big bands as early as elementary school or junior high school, like I did. Many community colleges offer jazz courses—like private lessons and ensembles—and most cities of a million or more people have a university or conservatory offering a four-year Jazz Studies bachelor’s degree. In the United States, there has been a recognition that jazz, like classical music, is culturally significant and worth teaching, promoting, and preserving.
Institutional jazz education outside of North America is a younger phenomenon; in China it is younger still. Unlike the West, children in China did not grow with access to jazz music until quite recently. I grew up in the early 1980s in an oil town of fifty thousand people in a remote part of northwestern Canada. I grew up hearing jazz—and other kinds of jazz-influenced music—on the radio, on TV, in movies, on LPs, on tape cassettes, on CDs, and in school. This was not the experience of the average child growing up in the early 1980s in China, and was certainly not the experience of a Chinese boy growing up in a town of fifty thousand people. Today in China, one can hear jazz and jazz-influenced music on television and in movies. There are clubs and venues where one can hear jazz every night of the week. Anyone with an internet connection has access to the entire recorded history of jazz music on their cellphone.
Institutionalized jazz music in China has undergone similar rapid changes. Take this conservatory as an example. The Sichuan Conservatory of Music opened in 1959; this year it is celebrating its 80th-year anniversary. In 2001, the Sichuan Conservatory of Music opened the first Popular Music Academy in China here on this campus. When I officially joined the music conservatory in 2012, teachers were already beginning to introduce and teach jazz to their students. Many of these jazz teachers are still here, in this room, even. But a robust, comprehensive, independent, officially sanctioned four-year jazz music program did not exist, though much work has since been done, again by people in this very room, to prepare for its creation. Most of these changes have occurred since 2001, less than twenty years ago. So jazz education in Chengdu has grown quickly. There is lots of room for future growth. Consider that the Sichuan Conservatory of Music is the only school of its kind in Western China, which covers a very large geographic area and has a huge population.
What, then, is jazz education in China? Here are two answers to the question. Jazz education in China is the recent academic study of a recently created musical art form in a country that has only recently begun to study it. It is also a growing field that is rapidly developing in promising ways.
When we look at the academic trends we see many reasons for optimism. In the last decade there have been important developments at educational institutions all over China. Music conservatories in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Tianjin, and Shenyang now offer some degree of jazz instruction to their students. Some conservatories offer jazz courses. Some conservatories have jazz concentrations within larger music departments. Some conservatories are moving toward the creation of full-fledged standalone jazz majors. These changes are occurring at the same time as changes in other educational institutions in China. To cite two recent examples, this year NYU Shanghai hired their first full-time jazz and popular music teacher (me); and the JZ School, a private non-degree granting school, now offers a full-time jazz curriculum for adults.
These institutional changes are important for a number of reasons.
One, it means that a greater number of young adults will have opportunities to study jazz music in China in a post-secondary environment.
Two, institutional changes open up possibilities for longer lasting change. Institutions change slower than people do. A person can change his behaviors and opinions quickly. But institutions tend to form slowly and change slowly. The downside of this is that institutions can be difficult to change from within. The upside is that changes at a formal, legal, and institutional level—like the creation of a new jazz studies major—have the potential to effect lasting changes over a far longer time scale.
Three, institutional changes create hubs around which other activity can occur. Music conservatories and universities operate at a large-enough scale to form collaborations with music clubs, recording studios, music festivals, booking agencies, book publishers, etc. They can also serve as geographic hubs that support and train up musicians for jazz-related activities. In China, there are only a handful of post-secondary institutions that offer jazz education, and they are spread over a large geographic area. Large schools can reach many people.
Four, institutional changes can create platforms for national and international communication, scholarly collaboration, and cultural exchange. And that brings me to this event.
This very Jazz Week conference is an example of the recent development of jazz education in China. It has brought together musicians and music educators from China, the United States, Canada, and Australia. The conference contains performances, masterclasses, and lectures covering a wide range of topics: improvisation, jazz rhythm, jazz styles, jazz performance, jazz ensemble practice, jazz theory, jazz composition, and jazz education itself. Conferences like this are important for several reasons. They introduce students to new ideas and techniques. They allow faculty members to share and learn from other professional jazz musicians and educators, and provide opportunities for networking and discussion.
There are other encouraging signs. Since 2015, I have noticed a marked increase in the average performing level of young Chinese jazz musicians. Part of this is due to students’ experience with jazz within China: they have increased access to jazz music education, music recordings, and live jazz performances. Part of this is due to Chinese musicians studying abroad—often at schools in the United States or Europe—and bringing the new ideas and techniques they learn there back to China with them.
This has already had a pronounced effect on jazz music education in China. One can observe, for example, that the composition of jazz music faculties in China is changing. When I first starting teaching here in 2012, a majority of faculty members had not studied abroad; now, seven years later in 2019, the situation is reversed. Many young students today, including some students in this room, will go abroad to study jazz. Some will transfer and will complete undergraduate degrees abroad; other students will go on to complete advanced degrees, like artist diplomas, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees. This situation is so common that it can be observed in virtually every field; a rapidly created Chinese middle class now has the economic means to travel, study, and live outside of China. Most Chinese jazz musicians and educators who are studying abroad now will bring new musical ideas and techniques back to China within a few years. Young Chinese musicians and educators who have yet to go abroad will make up the next generation of jazz educators in China.
At this point I want to present some brief suggestions about what music educators can do to ensure the future development of jazz music education in China.
Our responsibility as educators is to ensure that every student that enters has a basic playing level that improves over the course of their study. This means, at a minimum, producing students who are capable of performing a range of jazz-related tasks, including having a decent sound on their instrument; playing and improvising on common jazz standards; being able to play with decent time; having at least a basic knowledge of jazz history and theory; and having sufficient technique to execute musical ideas on their instrument. Music is a high calling, and admitting a student to a conservatory or university is the very beginning of our responsibility to them as educators. We teachers should also continue to lead by example. Sometimes it can difficult for music educators to find time for music while also balancing work and family responsibilities. We must keep learning, practicing, and performing.
This is also true with respect to students. You only get these four years of undergraduate music education once in your life. Later on you will have many responsibilities that will make large demands on your time. So take advantage of these years to study and advance as young jazz musicians. Listen to your teachers and learn from your classmates. Be intellectually curious. Intentionally expose yourself to new ways of doing things. Practice your instrument every day. Play as much as possible. Again, later in life you will not have as much available time as you do now, so take advantage of it.
Support live music, here in Chengdu and elsewhere. Music is alive and kept alive through public performance. Play as much as you can, and listen to other public performances when you are not playing yourself. See special guests that pass through from other parts of China and abroad. Sometimes this can be difficult in Chengdu, a comparatively remote inland city far away from China’s coasts. When I was living here, I would lament that famous jazz musicians on tour would come to China and visit only Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, before leaving China for other Asian countries. Collaboration and cooperation means ensuring that cities like Chengdu remain part of the musical conversation.
Once again, I am very grateful for this conference, which is a positive example of the kind of international cultural exchange and collaboration I am talking about. Thank you for this invitation. I am staying in China, and plan to continue working toward improving and advancing jazz education. I hope there will be many opportunities in the future to carry on this conversation with you all. Thank you.