The Problem with “Jazz Theory”

Theory is not just a tool with which to analyze an object, but also an activity that produces its own cultures in the process of being learned and practiced. In this way, the tools we choose to employ are not neutral, but orient us in certain specific directions.

Since at least 2007, I’ve been brimming with thoughts, questions, and grievances about my experience in “jazz school”, without having the language or perspective to understand what I was actually upset about. In the process of writing my dissertation, I was finally able to make some of those points concrete. But most of the sharpest critiques didn’t end up fitting well within the overall project, and had to be cut.

Recently, I had a perfect opportunity to revisit some of this work for the “Theorizing African American Music” conference in Cleveland. Through preparing to adapt my writing for this particular conference, I moved away from thinking about jazz pedagogy in higher education generally, and toward a more specific focus on “chord-scale” theory, the still dominant mode around which mainstream jazz curricula are structured. To claim that chord-scale theory is dominant is to say two things: first, that a specific type of theorizing overdetermines current jazz pedagogy, to the exclusion of other, more socially-engaged orientations toward the theoretical. Second, that theorizing in and of itself dominates how we approach teaching jazz, to the exclusion of other modes of inquiry such as historicizing or composing. We stuff HE curricula with courses on transcription, analysis, and other music-theoretically oriented approaches. But the critical socio-historical context necessary for situating and understanding the music we’re trying so hard to learn how to produce is consistently de-emphasized.

Both the over-focus on chord scale theory as well as chord-scale theory itself are problems for equitable jazz pedagogy. Chord-scale theory was ascendant during the moment when white entrepreneurial educators codified jazz studies as such in higher education, co-opting theoretical language about jazz while systematically abstracting it from any socio-historical context, particularly around questions of race. This has had cultural consequences and not just pedagogical ones: it is this transformation of jazz theory from a life-giving philosophical pursuit practiced by creative Black artists to a technocratic “objective” science that allows competitive (white) “jazz-bro” cultures to flourish on college campuses. In short, when jazz is reduced to a game, it becomes winnable.

The abstraction of jazz theory away from its cultural history is one part of what allows it to then line up with default, colorblind, Western epistemologies in higher education, while also (as I just suggested) becoming codified as a system that can be mastered, thus producing jazz theory as a white-masculine disciplinary endeavor. When this system is the specific grounding around which jazz departments are organized, the culture of jazz will change as well. Thus, most jazz programs are emphatically neoclassical, oriented around a revisionist version of bebop that stands in for the pinnacle of jazz practice to the exclusion of contemporary/creative approaches in the avant-garde/creative music lineage, and allowing for discussions of race only to the extent that jazz becomes emblematic of a uniquely American and democratic collaboration of white/Black musical influences and thus white/Black people.

Many scholars—David Ake, Ken Prouty, Eric Porter, Tracy McMullen, Vijay Iyer, and more—have developed robust and nuanced critiques of jazz education in university settings. In my writing on this topic, I’ve tried to bring their work into conversation with related scholarship aimed at white supremacy in (music) education writ-large, including Philip Ewell’s “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” and Loren Kajikawa’s “Leaders of the New School? Music Departments, Hip-Hop, and the Challenge of Significant Difference”. Building on the great conversations I had at the TAAM conference, I also started writing about my own experiences in jazz school from an auto-theoretical perspective, trying to establish a nonlinear correlation between theory heavy curricula and masculine-competitive cultures among music students. Unfortunately, from my conversations with some of the undergraduates who attended TAAM, it seems that my feelings about jazz education from 2007 are still relevant in 2022.

My essay on this topic is forthcoming in Jazz and Culture.


One response to “The Problem with “Jazz Theory””

  1. Heyo – looking forward to the BIG THING in Jazz and Culture!

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