[JPL] Ignorance of past greatness not limited to jazz

Mark Hayes mark.e.hayes at gmail.com
Thu Mar 15 08:50:26 EDT 2012

Good morning:

I've been teaching for over 20 years and programming music (on WDNA in
MIami) for only about five, but people's observations about the general
ignorance of the history of jazz -- or the past in general -- doesn't
surprise me.  With my own kids, I've made an effort to introduce them to
all kinds of music -- I program their little MP3 player with songs from
Baby Loves Jazz, but also Louis Armstrong and classic blues and plenty of
"old-timey music."

I've taught a cultural history course about America for the past five years
as well, and we've crafted a sequence of presentations on American popular
music.  Most young people today -- even if they study music for one band or
another -- listen to the popular music of the day, which means that their
general awareness goes back to about 2000.  So, for them, even artists like
NIrvana or Jay Z are relatively old school.  Duke Ellington is to them is
what Bert Williams would be to me -- so far in the past to be out of reach.
 To show them the ways in which, say, hip-hop is connected back to the
blues takes a ton of work -- from Jay Z to Public Enemy to DJ Kool Herc to
King Tubby to Toots and the Maytalls to mento and calypso and southern R&B
to boogie-woogie and the blues.  And what to do with the minstrel show,
which is right at the heart of 19th century popular music?  But your
average history textbook won't present that -- the racial dynamics alone
are daunting.  Most history classes are actually horrible for helping
anyone to really understand the past, as they rely too much on a safe,
prefabricated narrative instead of teaching young people to think like
historians and ask questions about the past.

An average school music program is really standardized around prefabricated
arrangements, much in the same way history courses are preprogrammed.  I
was lucky as a kid to play in a very good jazz ensemble with a real gigging
musician, and he had us listen to Count Basie and real old school jazz, so
we could hear what were were trying to sound like.  But, again, it's rare
to find a music teacher who can explain popular music -- much less jazz or
blues -- without sounding condescending.  In the end, this unfortunate lack
of knowledge of the culture and, really, knowledge of self, is why our work
as programmers is so important.

I never despair about young people today.  I've found that when you show
the the good stuff -- Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Muddy Waters
and all the rest -- they know it when they hear it.

All this is to say that I love the vitality of this mailing list -- I love
following these conversations.  I might not speak up much, but it's a great
pleasure to be associated with you all.  Keep the music alive -- one song
at a time!


*www.markehayes.net* <http://www.markehayes.net/>


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