Jazz and Its Changing Apprenticeship Systems

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Tuesday July 24, 2012


Jazz Apprentices Still Find Their Masters
By: Nate Chinen

Thirty years ago a serious-minded trumpeter named Wynton Marsalis released his self-titled debut album, which seemed remarkable for a number of reasons ‘” not least his poise, as he had yet to turn 21. If the album was received less as an impressive jolt than as the fulfillment of a promise, there was ample reason for that: Mr. Marsalis had already skyrocketed to fame with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, widely regarded as jazz’s premier finishing school. What’s more, the rhythm section on ‘Wynton Marsalis’ (Columbia) consisted of the pianist Herbie Hancock, the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Tony Williams, who had served in a similar capacity with Miles Davis, back when they were young men of unnerving composure themselves.

All of which added a rich layer of subtext to Mr. Marsalis’s spectacular early career, underscoring jazz’s natural cycle of mentorship and apprenticeship. That guildlike process, by which young musicians absorb invaluable lessons from their elders, was then famously being upheld by bandleaders like Blakey, a volcano of a drummer, and Betty Carter, a spitfire of a singer. Informal but rigorous, and pragmatic to the core, experience with veterans like these was seen as an essential path to success.

That trajectory might seem a little less certain now. Beginning in the 1990s, a decade that saw the deaths of Blakey, Davis and Carter, jazz’s apprenticeship system has routinely been described as woefully diminished. That’s surely the case in market terms, given that so few jazz musicians can keep a working band on payroll in today’s climate. But it’s not as if there are fewer apprentices availing themselves of counsel.

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