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  • Jon Sheckler

Flock to Shepherd Part III: The University and the Streets

The University and The Street

The largest difference between the two eras of drummer-led ensembles is the disparity in the ed

ucation of the bandleaders. Until the late 1970’s, it was extremely rare for any jazz musician to hold a degree from any university. Among those interviewed for this study, only Max Roach had attended college and even in his case, Roach did not officially graduate. However, Tony Williams could be considered highly educated as he studied under Alan Dawson for years before working with Miles Davis at the age of 17. But none of the older generation leaders had even considered school before playing and all credited learning their craft on the stage rather than in the classroom, a method which was prominent in their bandleading. In comparison, none of the modern-day subjects interviewed lacked a bachelor's degree; Jamison Ross earned a master's degree and Tyshawn Sorey has even completed a Doctorate in Composition.

The effects of such disparities in education became readily clear when studying the differences between older generation leaders. The level of education coincided with the level of organization of the band. While bands led by Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and Art Blakey were musically flexible and loosely run. Max Roach ran a highly organized group that he dominated creatively. Though not formally educated similarly to Roach, Tony Williams was far more organized and creatively dominant than either Jones (Elvin or Philly Joe) or Blakey. Compositionally, the comparison between the two groups was stark. Williams composed all or most of the original works on his albums. Max Roach was a similarly overwhelming creative force. Even though Roach’s albums were mixes of standards and originals, Roach was the credited composer for nearly all original works. By comparison, Blakey only wrote a handful of pieces, most of which were solo drum pieces with chanting or other percussion and was never the majority composer on a Jazz Messengers’ album. Elvin Jones was a leader for 26 years before releasing an album where he was the plurality composer. Even in that case, the 1993 release Going Home features only four Elvin Jones compositions out of eight. Whereas modern leaders tightly control the sound of their groups through thoughtfulness and awareness, the past generation relied heavily on their intuition informed by their experience and unique gifts.

With the prevalence of college education, today’s bandleaders began their bandleading endeavors after meeting musicians at college. The core of the Brian Blade Fellowship formed at Loyola University, Mark Guiliana's bandmates have sprung from his time at William Paterson University, and most of Tyshawn Sorey’s Oblique began playing together at William Paterson as well. The networking aspect of college has long been known by musicians, but as bandleaders now begin their playing careers in colleges, these associations have become invaluable as most modern leaders began composing in their undergraduate programs where they evaluated the talent of their fellow students and even developed musicians who could perform their writing and understand their style.

While this would suggest education has an outsized impact on the organization of bandleaders, musicians who spanned both generations were not convinced that an expanded education was the source of the new emphasis on self-generating musicians. Many suggest that jazz had a culture that placed an importance on original music. Art Blakey eventually began to tell every new Messenger they were expected to bring in material. Even though the material wasn’t his own, Elvin Jones’ albums were filled with original material from others. However, schools could have been an accelerator of original composition, as Tyshawn Sorey explains:

"I think it depends on the institution. Some are set up really well for a composer to explore things, but it isn’t a given. . A lot of it is the individual but if a person is in the right environment . . . they can really grow but there aren’t a lot of those places out there."

All the subjects interviewed see original compositions as an extension of their individuality and part of the challenge posited to jazz musicians. “I think it's sort of like asking ‘well, what are you made of?’,” Brian Blade said, “‘What are you thinking about?’. . . It’s that learning and absorption. . . It’s funneling into you so that you can express your own ideas”. While acknowledging education plays a role in introducing new sounds to the individual, Blade also noted the role of experience, echoing several interviewees. “It all has an impact,” Blade continued, “Whatever piece of knowledge or experience you can gather along the way. For me, just having gone to New Orleans to study, to live there already, it changed and informed everything. . . Deep inside of it, I can acknowledge that experience of the Marigny."

In addition to access to formal education, the new generation of bandleaders became highly organized. Bandleaders were more involved in all aspects of their careers than past generations which also increased their focus and clarity of their ideas. Surprisingly, the increase in education has led to more creative focus rather than less. The emphasis on recording and time between projects has removed the periods of searching that marked the work of Tony Williams or Max Roach, and replaced them with deliberate, sometimes dramatic shifts in musical direction. In a single album cycle, Mark Guiliana shifted from a classic acoustic jazz quartet to an album of electronic music which also included drum machines. Tyshawn Sorey consciously tried to write and record something different with each album, leading him to record and tour in groups ranging from a duo of piano and drums to full orchestras. Jamison Ross was (as of October 2020) consciously writing music requiring differing recording techniques for his next project, hoping to achieve a large-scale studio production. While the earlier generations of bandleaders were open to any piece or genre of music, none had the similar striking transformation from album to album. For all the composers who played with the Jazz Messengers, Art Blakey kept the same instrumental frontline (saxophone, trumpet, trombone) for most of his career. Even a leader as musically open as Elvin Jones didn’t take the sharp creative turns that today’s leaders did.

The influx of jazz studies majors across the nation is hard to ignore. During the 1970’s, there were only a handful of universities that offered full-fledged jazz studies programs in the country, Berklee College of Music being the most prominent. No conservatory in New York offered a jazz studies degree until 1986 when the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Arts opened. Currently, an estimated 760 students are enrolled in a jazz studies degree program, a tenfold increase from Dave Liebman’s estimations. Without the club scene to support the growing number of musicians, performances became more specialized. This and the increased complexity of compositions led to a lack of shared repertoire, hindering the ability of a musician to “sit-in” and the ability of a bandleader to draw from the music of other musicians.


On November 15th, 2017 at 10:30pm, the Jazz Standard in New York City turned its lights back on. The Brian Blade Fellowship had just left the stage after playing an encore that was enthusiastically requested by the audience. As people paid their bills and grabbed their coats, Brian Blade became stuck between his instrument and a line of people who wished to shake his hand and express deep pleasure with the music he presented. The album reviews of the new Fellowship release, Body and Shadow, did not dwell on the instrument of the leader, but spent time praising the compositions. Six weeks earlier, Tyshawn Sorey received the MacArthur Genius Grant, the only musician chosen for the honor that year. In the previous September, Mark Guiliana released Jersey, which was praised as “a surprising but reassuring work of art” with reviewers referencing the leader’s artistic acumen. Six months after the Fellowship’s performance at the Jazz Standard, Jamison Ross released All for One, where reviewers singled out his voice and compositions rather than focusing on his playing.

While a college education may be the most obvious difference between the past and current generation, it is hardly the only element of the modern jazz scene that has freed the drummer from the back of the band. Yet to be studied is how the demise of the music business has changed the responsibilities of the band leader or how the lack of “gatekeepers” in the music business has allowed those who were once considered outliers to be thrust into the mainstream of the jazz scene.

The impact of the new generation remains to be seen. The modern jazz scene is no longer built for franchises such as The Jazz Messengers or Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine. The complexity of modern original music makes band personnel more stagnant and highly specific. Gone are the days of Pat Labarbera learning Elvin Jones’ complete set in the kitchen of the Village Vanguard, or Javon Jackson sitting in on a Jazz Messengers rehearsal, and of bandleaders asking new sidemen to bring in original music for the next day's recording session. Not only were these men legends in the eyes of their sidemen, leaders like Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and Art Blakey were beloved by their musicians who were humbled and grateful for the opportunities these leaders gave to them83. Multiple musicians plainly stated they owed their careers to these bandleaders. Only time will tell if the new generation of drumming bandleaders will achieve a similar aura.

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