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How do you teach jazz?

Jazz is an artform where the practitioner must be spontaneous, creative and free from the constraints inherent in many other forms. It is about individual expression in the moment, responding in real time to influences sometimes so subtle, that upon later examination it is arguable that they ever existed outside the performer’s mind.


How could you possibly teach such an activity? How would an institution look, feel or behave that purported to give qualifications in the performing of something that even the experts cannot define?


Of course there is great skill and much knowledge required before one can be so ‘free’ whilst creating a coherent work of art - and it is in these areas that schools traditionally concentrate. This is not only sensible but also essential and many fine jazz musicians have ‘been to school’. The danger lies in the regimentation of the delivery of this information creeping into the music itself, the very way a player approaches creating music becoming systematic, even the possibility that the joy of spontaneous expression is lost and replaced with a studious attention to detail. This may work in other endeavours… but it’s not jazz.


So we might conclude that to create a place where musicians attend to garner the skills and information they need, an institution, is in itself not a very ‘jazz’ thing to do.... 

The genesis of this genre was certainly outside any organisation and the greatest practitioners in jazz history almost all learnt without attending a course or receiving any qualification.


What every great jazz musician did do is spend a lot of time playing the music, with others… and listening to the music that came before them and surrounded them. The specific knowledge of harmony and rhythm, their virtuosity and the ability to call on these at will came from doing it, many, many times.


This worked very well in a world full of jazz clubs and jam sessions, in a culture where people took the time to sit for many hours discussing how they felt about music and in a world where one was not expected to deliver as a professional player until later in life. Over the last fifty years we have seen all of these parameters change and the birth of higher education institutions offering formalised courses to address the disappearance of this culture, to create a new paradigm under which this art form could continue to flourish.


At the James Morrison Academy of Music we understand that jazz is a performing art of the most personal kind, yet with deep traditions and a multitude of skills required to reach one’s potential. Our focus is on demonstrable results and we have developed a concept for learning that concentrates on the experience of the musician whilst making music, rather than the more traditional concept of theory based learning. This is not to say that theory is at all ignored but that it is used to explain the experience rather than to lead one to it - an important distinction that changes the game for music education.


Having used this technique for more than thirty years all over the world I can say that the results are stunning, creating a vibrant, energetic learning environment with students reaching their full potential in an atmosphere where both discipline and discovery go hand in hand.


In essence, this is a school not where one learns about music – but where one learns to make music.

Keep Swinging,


James Morrison AM

Head of School


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