Jazz Composition of the Future!

“Dude, I figured out what’s wrong with the Jazz Composition department at Berklee,” alto sax player/composer Callum MacKenzie recently said to me while the two of us walked to a midnight jam session at the 150 building. I’ve spent the past weekend back in Boston playing for guitarist Mark Kilianski’s senior jazz composition portfolio recital at Berklee, and playing music far out on the left side of what any purist might call “jazz.” Loud, obnoxious, difficult, and ultimately hilarious, the music just “has to have a lot of ballsack,” Mark emphasized during the rehearsals. Sweet.

“Maria Schneider is what they consider modern music,” Callum continued, as we walked down Petersborough to the Fens. “Maria Schneider is great, dude, but she’s just doing the same thing Gil Evans did.”

It’s in the very nature of music academia to be behind the current trends and styles of the day, and that sort of thing is prevalent even at a place that pretends to be hip and contemporary as Berklee. In fact, most undergraduate programs in Jazz Composition at any other school in the county besides Berklee are centered around orchestration, arranging and composition for swing-era big band. It’s like if a “straight” Composition program focusing exclusively on Baroque and Classical era music. There has, in fact, been jazz since 1970, and contrary to Wynton Marsalis’ dictums on style, a lot of it has been really good.

My desire to study Jazz Composition at the graduate level largely is derived from a potentially unhealthy obsession with learning and knowledge. The question is, of course, whether or not the next Ivory Tower I starting paying tuition to share’s that same sentiment. Part of learning is understanding where music has come from, but equally if not more important is understanding where it’s going. I’ll give Berklee credit, they’re better than most places (jazz for them stops around 1990 instead of 1960), but that’s not quite enough for me. I need to study music that’s never stopped and that has no stylistic or chronological restrictions.

It seems then rather strange that I would want to go on and study within an institution who’s entire job is to restrict oneself to the study of previously codefied systems in music, or knowledge in general. I haven’t quite reconciled my love of studying and my distaste for stagnant knowledge devoid of passion or context. That might come once I’m back there again, in the throes of study and manic composition. I hope.

Until then, however, its pretty obvious that the composition and performance of new and truly unique forms of whatever that music “jazz” has become can’t come from people too instilled in the old method of writing, like those in academia. I don’t pretend to be able to write or play “truly unique forms of jazz” by any stretch, but that’s what I’m shooting for, and that’s what I hope to get at sometime in my life. There’s so much left to do and so much left to study. “Music is enough for a lifetime,” Rachmaninoff wrote, “but a lifetime isn’t enough for Music.”

Especially when you’re stuck writing swing arrangements.

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1 Response to “Jazz Composition of the Future!”


  1. 1 J.R. September 8, 2010 at 1:30 am

    Thank you for bringing this out to the light. I am a jazz studies major and I have thought that my compositions were somewhat odd because they didn’t sound like traditional jazz. By far they are not avante-garde. I’m a pianist and my chords are complex and change quite oddly and frequently. Nonetheless, my melodies are tonal within the boundaries of my chord changes. If I am wrong then I would like someone to tell me or if I’m not there needs to be a program that nurtures creativity.


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Welcome to Adam Neely's blog/website. Check out his compositions, links, and information about lessons on the top bar, and enjoy the music!

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