Jazz makes the grade in music exams

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"COMPING", "noodling", "riff" and "groove": not the usual language of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, but they will feature in the standards of musicianship expected of candidates when they sit the board's inaugural jazz exams in January.

Styles such boogie-woogie, bebop and barrelhouse are among those to be tested. Nervy sight-reading will be replaced by improvisation, and study aids include a CD with the background ensemble playing but the solo deleted for students to add their own.

As students prepare for the only jazz exams available - piano from grades one to five - teachers are having to adjust to this seismic shift. In the past two weeks, more than 1,000 from across Britain have paid pounds 10 each to attend Associated Board workshops, encouraged by the Duke Ellington line: "There are only two types of music: good and bad." Other courses are expected to continue until Christmas.

Of the four Royal Schools of Music, only the Royal Academy of Music offers a degree course in jazz, and many people have been surprised to see the Associated Board examining outside the classical, European music of the conservatory.

"The Associated Board," says Lucien Jenkins, editor of Music Teacher magazine, "is much the biggest of the examining boards [more than 500,000 candidates world-wide sit its exams each year]. It's seen as very much part of the establishment. This is, I suppose, the board going out to meet 'the people'.

"The grades boards cannot but be influenced by the national syllabus, with its encouragement of composition and improvisation. These skills are essential to all types of music where playing extempore is part of the performance."

If the move represents a marked change for the Associated Board, however, the same is true of the jazz community, which for years has thrived on an anti-establishment image. Many jazz musicians are sceptical about standardised grades.

"Jazz," says Eddie Cook, a tenor saxophonist and editor of Jazz Journal International, "can be learnt, not taught. I think once you get into an academic situation, you're saying, this is wrong, this is right. You can't say that in jazz. You can come in at the wrong time or out of tune, but that's all."

For other jazz players and enthusiasts, though, it is "the light at the end of a very long tunnel". Richard Michael, head of music at Beath High School in Cowdenbeath and one of the course designers, adds: "Jazz musicians have in the past felt like second-class citizens. There has been a feeling that jazz was bad for your musical health. Now we're at last looking for people who can compose as well as recite, and we'll be able to produce students who can play without their eyes glued to the page."

Another jazz educator, Bill Ashton, is pleased to see jazz losing its "masonic, mystical thing" - "Many people," says Mr Ashton, for 33 years director of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, "perceive the jazz greats as idiot savants, autistic and mumbling. There are people who are like that, but it's perfectly possible to learn tricks and conventions. You won't create carbon-copy jazz musicians just by teaching children how to use bucket mutes or particular chord progressions."