School Vs. Street Jazz

By Paul Klemperer


Many moons ago (maybe 15 years), I first head the expression “street jazz” while talking with a fellow musician at a jam session. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Where else are you playing?

Other Musician, pulling on nose ring while enviously watching someone light a cigarette: Oh, I’m rehearsing a new band. We mostly jam at the house… You know, just run through changes and work on our chops. You should come over.

Me: Cool. What kind of stuff, bop?

Other Musician: Yeah, Real Book tunes, classic stuff.

Me: Where did you study, Denton? [as in the jazz program at the University of North Texas]

Other Musician: No, man, I play street jazz, not that academic stuff.

That’s how I remember first hearing the term “street jazz” but in retrospect I have always had one foot in the world of street jazz and one foot in the world of academic jazz. Simply put, academic jazz teaches through systematic procedures in a controlled environment, while street jazz forces you to pick up knowledge as best you can in a sink-or-swim environment.

Of course, like most cultures that are split into two different groups, each group thinks they are superior to the other. Academic jazz produces well-rounded musicians able to compete in the musical marketplace. Most studio musicians, musical directors and instructors have their advanced degree. Street jazz, however, arguably produces more creative, cutting-edge players and composers. They learn by imitation but also by asserting their individuality, trying to get noticed precisely because they don’t play it safe. They are more likely to make an original musical statement, be part of some new musical trend, while academic jazzers are more likely to preserve and promulgate older established jazz styles. A street player may not be as well-rounded as a schooled player, but may have developed and honed particular musical strengths.

The academic vs. street split is real, and yet both tracks are part of the greater jazz tradition. Jazz has always had this split; literate vs. oral tradition, schooled vs. self-taught musicians, and so on. One thing all jazz lovers can agree on is that the history of jazz reflects a complex and dynamic mix of musical influences. So for anyone to think that one method or tradition is superior to another in jazz is a shallow perspective that short-changes what jazz is all about.

So school jazz and street jazz are branches on the same tree. But if we look closer, we can see that they share some fundamental methods. For example, jazz can be taught from books, but only partly. Every player has to sit and listen to recordings. Back before 1918 if you wanted to learn jazz licks you had to go hang out where it was played. But since the Original Dixieland Jazz Band first recorded “Livery Stable Blues” recorded jazz has been an integral part of jazz pedagogy. The classic example is Charlie Parker woodshedding with Lester Young recordings, learning all of Prez’s licks from records, and incorporating them into his own style.

Working with recordings has become very systematic in the 21st century: All jazzers are familiar with the Jamie Aebersold playalong series (jazz music-minus-one recordings), which is now available on cassette, CD, CD-ROM, and whatever else the latest digital medium offers. Also, you can now get digital players that slow down recordings without changing the pitch, so you can learn difficult jazz solos more easily. My point is that the pedagogical methods of academic and street jazz are often the same, and involve a student sitting with recordings, working out melodies, patterns, harmonic progressions, and the like.

The main difference is in the playing. There is an old jazz aphorism which I heard paraphrased as “You can learn the elements, but you have to put them together yourself.” One of my teachers, pianist Roland Wiggins, put it this way: “First you learn the rules, then you supplant them.”

In other words, a jazz performance isn’t just a matter of taking what you have studied and playing it in front of people. You can do it that way, but something will be lacking. Academic jazzers run this risk more than street players. If you spend all your time in the classroom, doing your music in a controlled environment, your music may lack a certain vitality. I have seen many jazz groups with this problem. Their technique may be more consistent than a street player’s. They may have a wider range of knowledge. But their playing may be proficient without emotion, predictable, lacking edge and risk.

Worse still, they have trouble dealing with any unexpected phenomenon. A bad monitor mix, a noisy drunk near the stage, a broken guitar string, any of these things can cause a musical crisis, because the schooled players aren’t used to the butterfly effect, that chance and chaos are part of the musical performance, not something to be eliminated.

In this situation, the street player will have the advantage. He is so used to bad monitor mixes that a good one would surprise him. Noisy drunk? He can walk over to the table, tell the guy to “shut the $#@% up,” and never miss a beat of his solo. Broken guitar string? Well, you still have 5 left so what’s the problem?

In general, street jazz is just another term for real-world playing experience. But it is a little more than that. Jazz depends on people coming together in an ongoing community. Jazz styles can be dissected and analyzed, but they have an ineffable quality as well. What makes a New York player different from an L.A. player, from a New Orleans player, from a Texas player? There are specific stylistic things we can point to, but really it is the continuity of the community, the culture, in each regional style that comes through in the individual’s sound. So players reflect their community in their style of playing.

A player who studies in different communities will have deeper musical roots. Some of the greatest musical satisfaction I have known has come from my varied musical experiences, the fact that I have spent time in different musical communities, absorbed aspects of them, and made them part of my own individual style.

The school and the street not only can coexist, they can strengthen each other. I see individual players move between these two communities and become stronger musicians as a result. Both communities have their strengths and weaknesses, their chauvinisms and contradictions. But they are part of the larger jazz tradition, and the best jazz players and teachers not only know it, they live it.