I Love Michael Bolton – Popular Music in Jazz Education

I have a mildly embarrassing confession to make. 

I love Michael Bolton.  His music.  His voice.  His PASSION!

I remember driving to baseball games with my brother Ryan.  Michael Bolton made regular appearances on our playlist, along with Michael Jackson, Michael Brecker, and selections from the Double Dragon soundtrack (from the Sega Master System, not Nintendo).

Imagine Bolton’s How Am I Supposed to Live Without You at full volume, with Ryan and I singing at the top of our lungs to the point of losing our voices and then laughing hysterically.  Then we’d play baseball.

Oh, and this was three years ago; I was twenty-seven.  And I’m not really embarrassed.  In fact, since writing all this, I’ve already listened to the song three times.

You see, Michael Bolton’s in my blood.  Ryan and I were re-enacting scenes from our childhood.  Scenes that also included Bob Segar, Billy Ocean, Memphis Soul Stew, Elvis, Chris de Burgh, and tasteful disco arrangements of popular classical melodies (not really that tasteful).

I’m scratching the surface.  My point here is about diversity.  I grew up with, and had access to, lots of music – more music than any generation before me.

Appreciating Popular Music

There was a period of time when I wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Michael Bolton (let alone singing).  This was in tangent with the time that, contrary to my childhood intuitions, I disliked pop music or didn’t appreciate it as “serious” art.  This is complicated for social and personal reasons of which I’m at a loss to describe here.  Except that, coincidentally, or perhaps not, this period of time was also in tangent with when I started taking my music studies more seriously.

Anyone whose identity rests, even partially, with the academic community knows that there’s a stigma attached to consuming commercial music.  The story of a model jazz musician has very little room for hitting the clubs every Friday night and dancing or twerking to remixes of Miley Cyrus.  In some ways, choosing to become a jazz musician – dedicating yourself to the craft, studying obscure, dead jazz masters, endless practice, jamming until the wee hours of the morning – feels like renouncing all worldly pleasures in pursuit of musical truth, or some other nonsense.

Whether implicit or explicit in jazz and classical education, there’s no place for the study, performance, and appreciation of popular music and more diverse music in general.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; it’s called jazz education for a reason.  But jazz and classical music education are the only academic players in town.  Students have no other options.

I don’t regret this aspect of my education.  I am where I am today because of this period of time when I didn’t appreciate popular music and tried living the life of the model jazz musician.   Some students can navigate this conflict better than others.  Fortunately, I excelled in jazz school (though I do have moments, unfair to my past self, when I regret giving up my use of sequencing software).

For other students though, forfeiting the opportunity to study, perform, and appreciate more diverse forms of music for a jazz education can have serious, personal, and academic consequences.

Taking Control – the Virtual Fakebook

This friction was best summarized by one of my students who was being loaded with bebop tunes week after week in an ensemble class:

I love bebop.  But I hate bebop.”

School is criticized for, as Ken Robinson says, “educating people out of their creative capacities.”   But it’s a two-way street, and it doesn’t entirely have to be this way. At the least, post-secondary students can soften the blow by taking better control of their education.

Every year, around this time in early-March, jazz students at UofT compile a list of tunes to perform at a graded jury.  We refer to them as “personal fakebooks.”  I have the duty and privilege of reviewing, making suggestions, and approving these lists of 20-60 tunes, depending on their year of study.

Presumably, these are also the tunes they’ll be performing after they graduate.  They should indeed be “personal” fakebooks and be a reflection of not only what they’re studying in jazz school, but of who they are, their interests, their stories, goals, and ambitions.  It should be no surprise then, that when these lists mostly contain repertoire written before 1960, I look at them with suspicion and say: “Really?  This is it?  Surely your interest in and passion for music extends beyond the Great American Songbook.

If they’re truly content on learning the usual suspects in jazz repertoire, I’m happy to approve their list and move on to bebop scales.  But if their fascination in music extends to other, more diverse music, then we have a problem and I can’t in good conscience give my approval.  Not because it doesn’t meet the school’s requirements, but because it doesn’t meet the student’s requirements.

The gravity of the problem rests on a simple exercise.  I encourage students to compile a virtual fakebook.  If you were studying music without the pressures of grades, academia and a teacher’s expectations, what would your personal fakebook look like?  What would it sound like?

Students.  Seriously.  Make the list.  Every kind of music is eligible.  If I made such a list today, it’d include artists like Squarepusher, James Blake, Disasterpiece, Rihanna, and tunes written by my Myriad3 buds.

You should be trying to make your virtual fakebook resemble your personal fakebook as much as possible.  It may take some creativity, cleverness and some honest conversations with the right teachers, but it can be done.  At UofT, if you read the jury guidelines carefully, they’re actually very loose in what kind of repertoire is acceptable.  It still has to be approved, and I’m going to uphold guidelines, standards of study, discipline, and academia.  But there’s much more wiggle room here than jazz school is given credit for (which thankfully bypasses the issue of their relevance).

If there are students reading this, from UofT or otherwise, I’m happy to expand on this.  Just ask.

By the way, here’s the most recent addition to my personal fakebook.  It’s I Can Go the Distance from Disney’s Hercules.  Coincidently, Michael Bolton also sings this, but I like this version better.

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