Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there were subjects devoid of controversy. We often joked that motherhood, the flag, and apple pie were immune to criticism. Of course, everyone stood for the National Anthem. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Motherhood and the flag are now considered ideological lightning rods and even the best apple pie may soon have reason to worry.
Literacy, particularly musical literacy also seemed inviolate. Why would reading music or even studying music be a source of controversy? Jon Henschen is a veteran of the financial services industry based in Minnesota. He is more used to writing about bull and bear markets than sharps and flats. But he studied music in school, played in jazz and symphonic bands, and has carried a love of music throughout his life. Recently he wrote an excellent article, “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy and Quality.” It should be read in its entirety, but a brief summary is in order.
Henschen argues persuasively that musical literacy, though of great importance, has declined radically in recent years, due to the reduction of school music programs and boys and girls studying less music at home. He writes, “Both jazz and classical art forms require not only music literacy, but for the musician to be at the top of their game in technical proficiency, tonal quality, and creativity in the case of the jazz idiom.”
He bolsters his case by reminding us that more than 364,500 pianos were sold in 1909; but in recent times, annual sales have fallen to between 30,000-40,000 in the U.S. Since the 1980s and the high-tech computer revolution, children are less likely to take piano lessons; at the same time, school music programs have been reduced.
Henschen also discusses another subject which unfortunately invites controversy, the indisputable decline in the quality of music, especially popular music. To support this assertion, he provides evidence from Joan Serrà of the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona. A scientific study by Serrà and his colleagues revealed that much of today’s pop music sounds the same, lyrics are shorter and repetitive, and electronic technology is used to slur the sounds we hear as part of a homogenous pop sound often created by the same small group of people. Henschen’s conclusions are right to the point; we need to encourage musical literacy in schools and parents should recognize the value of music education and the arts in the children’s lives. His article drew an enthusiastic response from non-musicians as well as those have made music their professional life’s work.
However, there was one sour note. His article was challenged and dissected by a reader intent on making the opposite case. Interestingly, the critic who challenged Henschen’s hypothesis is Andy Jarema, a public school music teacher in Michigan. Normally I wouldn’t devote a lengthy response to someone’s criticism of an article I didn’t write. I have no reason to inveigh against Mr. Jarema, but his assertions merit a meticulous rebuttal for a very specific reason. His talking points are nearly identical to those raised by many others in response to people like Jon Henschen or anyone else who has raised these issues, myself included, in my own books. Those of us who assert that change isn’t synonymous with progress and that good music is in danger of galloping toward oblivion always are faced with the same criticisms. So a response is due.
Let’s consider Andy Jarema’s arguments one by one.
1. The real problem, he tells us, is lack of funding for public school music programs. Of course, every musician knows that instruction in music and the arts are always first on the bureaucratic chopping block when budgets are cut. This problem is as old as music itself. When Lowell Mason introduced music into the Boston public schools in the 1830s, he had to initially teach without pay. When John Knowles Paine became America’s first music professor at Harvard, he too had to initially teach without pay as well. I’ve often quipped that one thing never changes in America’s musical history: people are always trying to find new ways and reasons for not paying musicians. But it’s about more than money. It’s how money is spent. If money is spent in the wrong ways, including efforts to promote current pop, rock, and rap products in the schools, the increased spending will be completely wasted. Throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve it; in fact, it has the potential to make things worse. Marva Collins, the remarkable teacher who founded West Side Preparatory School in inner-city Chicago, was once a guest on the radio version of my program, “Mark! My Words.” She gained international fame for turning out graduates who could compete with those from exclusive prep schools and then sending them on to great academic achievement. She didn’t do it with a huge budget, but with old-fashioned discipline, high standards, and a healthy respect for tradition and achievement.
2. Mr. Jarema announces with confidence, “The decline of music education is more of an issue of privilege and social justice than anything else.” This is troubling because it represents pure politicization. What do privilege and social justice have to do with students emerging from school as musical illiterates? The term “social justice” usually implies that students or citizens should be regarded not as individuals but as members of groups, the identity of which is arbitrarily defined by the social justice warriors. Status is determined by victimhood and the concept of “intersectionality” in which one’s status increases as one can self-identify as a victim in multiple ways. Is Mr. Jarema suggesting that music should be judged on the basis of the ideology it expresses?
Music sends a message. Many of Bach’s compositions were signed with the letters S.D. G. or “Soli Deo Gloria,” which meant “To God Alone the Glory.” Australian conductor Patrick Thomas wrote that “Perhaps it was Beethoven’s faith in man’s inextinguishable brotherhood and his hatred of tyranny that remain the finest examples of this man’s unique and lasting inspiration.” In modern times, Dr.Miklós Rózsa, the renowned Hungarian composer, declared, “I have no time for any music which does not reflect pleasure in life, and more importantly, pride in life.” And Bernard Herrmann, the distinguished composer of symphonic, operatic, and film music, said, “Music is a beautiful art, if not the greatest of all arts. It’s the kind of beauty that lives in time and space and in each performance over and over again.” Yet the English scholar Sir Roger Scruton has rightfully suggested that composers, artists, and film directors are today in a flight from expressing beauty because beauty requires that we renounce narcissism.
The self-proclaimed advocates of “social justice” preach tolerance and inclusion, but they practice total intolerance and exclusion. Who are those excluded in the name of social justice and progress? Typically gifted instrumentalists, composers, singers, writers, artists, and anyone who doesn’t toe a political or artistically ideological line.
3. Mr. Jarema is quite correct in observing that jazz is an aural tradition and that there have been fine musicians that played jazz who didn’t read music. Pianist Erroll Garner famously said, “Nobody can hear you read.” But just because a number of celebrated jazz musicians couldn’t read music is no reason for everyone else to avoid musical literacy. A generation of music illiterates can try their hand at music none of them will play like Erroll Garner. Many of the best jazz musicians have been classically trained and as a result, they have a wide vocabulary. The Modern Jazz Quartet, for instance, was inspired by contemporary French composers. Charlie Parker was intrigued by Stravinsky. The learning process is never-ending. Oscar Peterson once told me that if he played the piano for another fifty years, he still had more to learn; he said this while being recognized as perhaps the world’s finest living jazz piano virtuoso.
In fact, a musician can never have too much education, even if his approach to music is totally non-academic. Bobby Troup, a composer and jazz pianist whom Andy Jarema regards as a source of inspiration, is best known for writing songs like “(Get Your Kicks) on Route 66.” But he was also a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and he certainly read music. When I once visited Troup at his home and he asked me to sight-read a piece of music he had written, the score on his piano was notated, not passed along by ear.
Yet Andy Jarema goes on to announce, “Tying jazz music to notated music is a very Western canon-centric (i.e. classical) approach to understanding jazz music, and I feel you make the same error when discussion pop music. All of these styles are vastly different and need to be analyzed with separate value systems and lenses.” Really?
Music, all music, consists of melody, harmony, and rhythm. There are those who suggest that noise is music too. I will happily challenge them to debate at any time. In discussing the decline of 20th-century classical concert music, my eminent teacher, the world-renowned composer Roy Harris, once said, “Many composers abandoned melody, then harmony, then rhythm. What do they have left?” Yes, there are elements of jazz that can’t be precisely notated. Blue notes can’t really be notated when they sound between the notes on a piano keyboard. And yes, the melodies found in Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” are different than those found in Duke Ellington’s inventive jazz version of the same music. but we can determine if a composer has written an inspired melody or improvised one. We can praise the technical virtuosity of Vladimir Horowitz and Art Tatum on the piano even though Horowitz played notated masterpieces and Tatum improvised with aplomb.
I was privileged to study composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, one of Italy’s most important modern composers. He wrote exclusively concert music for such virtuosos as Heifetz, Piatigorsky, and Segovia, while his pupils (André Previn, John Williams, Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, Jerry Goldsmith, and Johnny Mandel, among others) were comfortable in the jazz world as well. The Maestro believed we couldn’t change the idea of dissonance and consonance not because of an arcane academic theory but because harmony grew out of the overtone series and the natural laws of acoustics. The overtone series is identical whether you’re playing a Mozart minuet or swinging your way through a Charlie Parker saxophone solo.
4. Mr. Jarema asks “Do you truly feel that all pop music is really that valueless?” The word “all” is a debater’s trap, but let’s say “most” and “nearly all.” Since Mr. Jarema is concerned about applying “classical” criteria to criticism of popular music, let’s see what truly intelligent popular and jazz musical figures have to say on the subject.
I suspect that the requests for different value systems and lenses in evaluating popular music usually relate to a desire to avoid imposing musical standards on today’s rockers and rappers because they are usually committing acts of non-music. No one has expressed it better than Vincent Falcone, one of Frank Sinatra’s last conductors, who observed, “Half-the popular groups today could not play without four hundred watt lamps, strobe lights, confetti guns, and fog. If they showed up at a gig and the electricity was off, they wouldn’t be able to play.”
Falcone isn’t finished. He says, “In my estimation, hip-hop, rap, and heavy metal have destroyed the tradition of great American music that depended on interesting melodies and sophisticated lyrics When I was young, music depicted love, romance, or the longing for a lost love. Today what passes for music often depicts violence, hatred, and sex. I have found that young people have only to be exposed to great art to recognize it as such.“
Are only prudes, classicists, reactionaries, and “squares” objecting to today’s great new sounds? Consider the view of bandleader Stan Kenton who spent a lifetime searching for new sounds and told me when he appeared on one of my radio programs, “I’m not into nostalgia.” But Kenton also said to jazz historian George Simon, “You compare some of the Beatles’ lyrics with those of some great writers like Johnny Burke, Jimmy Van Heusen or Sammy Cahn, are we kiddin’ each other?” And consider the view of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis who was the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize. A longtime critic of rap, he has said, “You can’t have a pipeline of filth be your default position and not have it take a toll on society.”
5. This, of course, brings us to everyone’s favorite subject of the moment, the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music, rapper Kendrick Lamar. For the next twenty years, all critics of rap will be reminded of this unfortunate award. Many academicians, eager for approval by their peers, have been quick to indulge in sequacious applause. Mr. Jarema has joined the parade. “A lot of my elementary school music students love Kendrick Lamar and love listening to the Black Panther soundtrack,” he says. “Perhaps we can talk about the age-appropriateness of a third-grader listening to Kendrick Lamar, but we at least have to recognize the pop world (and my very young class of students) is not completely averse to complexity.”
Mr. Jarema is not alone in making a fatal mistake here. I would suggest reading my scathing commentary on the decision to award the Pulitzer to Kendrick Lamar, “An Award is Known By the Company It Keeps.” The committee, led by an employee of The New York Times, did not elevate rap with this award. They lowered the value of the prize itself for all time. Only a simpleton would fail to recognize that Kendrick Lamar’s award-winning work was recognized in part because it included a denunciation of President Donald Trump. Does anyone seriously believe the Pulitzer committee would have beaten a path to his door if he had released a rap recording praising President Donald Trump? I, for one, would have objected either way, on the musical, not political grounds. Regarding the presumed complexity in his work specifically or in rap in general, we can only remind ourselves that in a genre of four-chord wonders, he who happens to know five chords is considered a musical genius.
As for third graders listening to rap, is Mr. Jarema serious? Third-graders, fifth-graders, or seventh graders, don’t need help being introduced to rock and rap. Nor do they listen to the “music” of C-Lo Green, nominated for a Grammy in 2010 for a recording the title of which could not be broadcast on television for fear of running afoul of the obscenity laws. Their ears will be assaulted by the puerile products of pop culture without help from naive, well-meaning academicians. They need to be introduced to good music of all kinds and the sooner the better. School teachers and university academicians at every level blissfully congratulate themselves on being open-minded. They fall prey to what the noted composer Dr. Ernest Kanitz called “Hanslickitis.” Afraid of repeating 19th-century critic Eduard Hanslick’s opposition to Wagner and to “musical progress,” they are willing to accept anything and everything in the name of tolerance.
Of course, when I say “good music,” the predictable response will be, “Who are you to decide what is good music?” I have no desire to engage in what I call a stylistic argument with Andy Jarema or anyone else. There is no correct answer when someone says, “I like strawberry ice cream, so why do you like butter pecan?” Mortimer Adler declared that there is no good reason to argue about how things look, but there is every reason to argue about what things are. Students emerging from school unfamiliar with any music other than what they absorb through the ubiquitous pop culture are the problem. Ultimately, they will all know about Michael Jackson and refer to him as deferentially as “The King of Pop.” None of them will have heard of Calvin Jackson, no relation, musically or otherwise, an incredible composer, conductor, and pianist equally gifted on both sides of the classical and jazz fences. Both Jacksons happened to be African American, but the social justice warriors don’t care because they’re not interested in music, they are interested in using the celebrity culture to advance an agenda.
6. Finally, I have what Mr. Jarema might regard as an unfair advantage. I grew up in the music department of a large Hollywood movie studio. When I wrote my recent book, “Our Musical Heritage: From Yankee Doodle to Carnegie Hall, Broadway, and the Hollywood Sound Stage,” I was often writing about people I’d been privileged to know as teachers, mentors, colleagues, and even competitors. When I wrote one of my earlier books, “Mark! My Words: How to Discover the Joy of Music, the Delight of Language, and the Pride of Achievement in the Age of Trash Talk and MTV,” I was speaking from experience.
As a self-proclaimed fugitive from the Hollywood rat race, I know what the rock and rap and pop moguls say when the microphones are off and they can safely reveal their true feelings. To put it bluntly, they’re laughing all the way to the bank. I’ve often heard them boast of making stars of untalented people and making fools of a gullible public too concerned with fads and fashion to admit that the Emperor has no clothes.
Jon Henschen is quite right in his concerns about the future of music in our schools and homes. I founded an organization, Cultural Conservation, to address this problem. We must not be led astray by vague slogans about tolerance, inclusion, and “new standards.” All good music can be judged by the same standard. I have met people in virtually every walk of life, many of whom have listened to my broadcasts or my music. These include people of all ages and cultural backgrounds. When I ask how they developed an interest in classical music, jazz, film scores, The Great American Songbook, or other music of value, the answer is always the same. Someone, a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, sibling, teacher, or friend, introduced them to great music at a young age. You’re never too old to start appreciating the best music, but it helps if you start early. And parents, grandparents, and teachers who think they are being progressive by encouraging students to limit their outlook to today’s pop culture are doing them no favor. We still have the opportunity to preserve the best of our musical past and present and in the process, ensure a creative and dynamic musical future. Present and future generations will benefit greatly as a result.