Monday, August 25, 2008

"Doctor" Jazz?

I recently played a little gig with someone who is about to start working on a PhD in jazz at a well known music conservatory. Other than in academic areas like music education, history, theory or ethnomusicology, the idea of acquiring a PhD in music is rather absurd to begin with. But a PhD in jazz?

Just how does one qualify for such a lofty degree in an art form that thrives on innovation and improvisation? Just what skills should one have to demonstrate mastery of to obtain this PhD? By what objective standards (pardon the pun) should the prospective candidate by judged? Will conservatories start awarding honorary PhD degrees to the likes of Miles, Coltrane and Bird posthumously?

These are just the basic theoretical questions that pop into my mind. But one would think that, at the very least, a person who is even admitted to a doctoral program in jazz ought to be able to, um, play, right? I'm sorry to report that the musician I gigged with the other night plays the saxophone at an amateurish level, and that is putting it politely. This guy has a weak sound, terrible intonation and no concept of how to swing or phrase or play anything coherent. He spits out a stream of bebop cliches without apparent order or consideration of the musical context. In short, this PhD candidate ought to be an undergrad studying with someone who can teach him the basics of musicianship. There's no way this person qualifies for any kind of advanced standing as a jazz musician.

And yet... he managed to get accepted (enthusiastically, according to the anecdotes he told us sidemen) to this allegedly competitive program. In two years, assuming he passes all his classes, he will have bought himself a PhD, which, as far as I'm concerned, will mean absolutely nothing.