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Keynote Speech IAJE 2001 Convention (NYC)


Pat Metheny’s Keynote speech at the International Association of Jazz Educators Convention – NYC
January 2001


The International Association for Jazz EducationWhat a pleasure it is for me to be able to talk to you all today. I feel so proud to be a part of the jazz community. The life that I have been able to lead as player and composer and improviser over these years has been fantastic beyond anything I ever could have imagined when I first started playing.

In a lot of ways, my own career has roughly paralleled the evolution of the IAJE itself. I started playing music professionally in 1968 when I was about 14, growing up around the Kansas City area – and the IAJE, of course, was founded just next door over in Manhattan, Kansas at right around that same time. And it is really just unbelievable to see a few decades down the road how it has evolved into this huge worldwide organization that has done so much to further the music and, maybe just as importantly, as we see here today, to foster a sense of community for all of us that are involved in the evolution and study of this wonderful way of playing and thinking.

There is no question that jazz education is in better shape now than ever. 30 years ago, in the small town that I grew up in out there, although we had an excellent music program developed by one of the best band directors in the state, there was no jazz band, no jazz program at all; there weren’t even any saxophones in the marching band!

The fact that I can go back to Lee’s Summit high school now and see that they have several ensembles available to kids that are interested, is just one of countless examples that can be found all over the world, of the power and pervasive influence of this movement. Nevertheless, as we stand here at the beginning of this new century as jazz musicians, we find ourselves living in a culture that often seems to be oblivious, if not outwardly hostile to musical creativity as most of us in this room would define it. As millennium era musicians and educators, we find ourselves with some major challenges ahead of us, as a community; and as individuals.

But in spite of these challenges, in fact, I personally believe it may wind up being because of some of these very challenges and the real pressures that they will put on us to redefine ourselves, for even our very survival, jazz will likely continue to thrive, although possibly in unexpected ways.

It is jazz’s very nature to change, to develop and adapt to the circumstances of it’s environment. The evidence of this lies in the incredible diversity of music and musicians that have evolved – and lived and flourished – under the wide umbrella of the word jazz itself from the very beginning.

Jazz is an idea that is more powerful than the details of it’s history – a concept bigger than any single one of its partisans could ever hope to define.

However, as a participant in the cause, retaining one’s optimism can be a difficult task in a culture that often appears to be indifferent to the kind of personal creativity that is embodied in the quest for excellence in jazz. As I talk to other musicians and other members of the larger community, it seems like I keep hearing these somewhat gloomy forecasts for the music’s future as the sand beneath our feet continues to shift in these changing times – particularly in the last couple of years.

But I feel that the apparent limitations of opportunity are actually deceptive. Even though I do see certain disturbing changes taking place among the traditional outlets for playing, for touring, funding for school music programs, possible cuts in funding for the NEA, PBS, etc.; I actually also sense that an even more amazing set of potentials are just ahead of us on the not too distant horizon.

We are on the verge of entering a world where the potential for communication itself is about to explode beyond almost anything we can even imagine, and jazz is about nothing, if not the essence of communication. On a very basic level that is sometimes easy to forget or overlook – jazz is actually well suited to excel in this new climate in many ways.

And as long as we, the purveyors of the form are not discouraged by the short term growing pains that appear to be inevitable in changing times like these, and most important; as long as we keep our eyes on – and faith in – the long term power and influence that is embodied in the very nature of the music itself and the way that it is made, we have the opportunity to remain engaged in the collective research that is the lifeblood – and uniting element – of our community; basically, the pursuit of trying to play some great music and to uplift and inform the spirits of the folks who would come to hear it.

To accomplish this, we have to stay vigilant in our efforts to address that most difficult task that faces each and every generation of jazz musicians, regardless of their era or stylistic bent; the task of coming up with musical goods that are challenging and uncompromising, but yet fully and utterly compelling to our audiences. And even in this era of increasingly short attention spans – to cause listeners to seek out the musical universe that we are hoping to hip them to.

And as long as we can come up with the music; music that delivers on our promise of giving them something that they can’t find anywhere else, something that enriches them the same way we have all been enriched by the musicians that have influenced and inspired all of US to become players and teachers and students and fans, then we have an excellent chance of not only surviving, but taking the music to the people in a way that has historically been elusive.

In fact, I believe there is lots of evidence that this is happening. To me, jazz has been continually expanding and growing and broadening, stylistically and in terms of the materials that it draws from as its sources, steadily since its inception. The globalization of the music is now fully underway and there are endless musical opportunities for musicians in pretty much every corner of the globe to learn and address their own musical issues through the prism of the jazz language.

One of the great beauties in the invention of this form, of this platform, of this process, is jazz’s almost unlimited capacity to allow human beings to find out things about themselves and the culture that they live in through the process of reconciling their own personal experiences with the experiences of others through the blessing of improvisational and organizational inspiration in sound.

In recent years, with the centennial of this music approaching and the beginning of a new century, we have spent a lot of time basking in the glory of the achievements of the masters in this form. Tribute records, films, reissues, reissues of reissues, more tribute records, tribute records in tribute to other tribute records! You name it! There are great things about that too, even a certain comfort in that kind of activity, a sense of feeling more connected to the past, a sense of genuine appreciation on all of our parts of amazing accomplishments, and hopefully an always renewed awareness of the incredibly high standards that have been set throughout jazz’s history. But I feel to spend too much time doing that can also breed a certain kind complacency towards one of the major elements that has historically been a primary ingredient in the success – and survival – of this music.

There is an important and consistent element in the jazz tradition of young people coming along and molding – reinventing – the nature of the form itself to fit their times and their circumstances, as only they could possibly know how to do. Whether it was the invention and evolution of the drum set , or the impulse to expand the forms and cadences of the popular songs of the day to accommodate new ways of playing, or the desire to incorporate the newest folk instruments of the time – like the electric guitar – or possibly even nowadays the wild new sounds that permeate an entire culture; there has often been a group of young musicians somewhere saying "what if" to the status quo of jazz culture – sometimes even saying stronger two word phrases than that – but always in the name, and the natural spirit, of moving the music to a new place.

Myself, I have always, and somewhat actively, resisted the mythology that says that we all need to "return" to some kind of a safe place where the proverbial "tradition" resides, in order for jazz to be considered real jazz.

As much as I encourage and value the need to understand the roots of this music, in the most specific and detailed ways possible, I also feel that it is worth noting that most attempts to recreate the past in jazz , even musicians attempting to recreate their own pasts, while often enjoyable, have rarely been made of the fabric of that elusive material that seems to be present whenever and wherever there are musicians who are pushing – and remaking in the likeness of their own generation – the boundaries of the music.

In this sense, I believe the form is actually somewhat unforgiving. It seems to demand, in fact, that each new generation makes peace with something specific that is uniquely theirs. There is something about that particular negotiation that informs the music with a kind of living, breathing, molecular structure than can never be recreated or even accurately simulated by any other means. Whether it is the addressing of a newly invented musical instrument technique or technology or even the reaction to something that they aren’t crazy about in the previous generations, this is an essential element that all of the most successful generations in jazz have had in common; that they have sophisticatedly illuminated some aspect of their culture in a way that could not be found in any other form – or at any other time – and therefore have naturally drawn an audience to it that was attracted to jazz to find out something – in return – about themselves.

For this reason, I always encourage musicians, who are of course citizens of the world first, and jazz musicians second, to address all of the music that they love and that they are attracted to as people, regardless of it’s style, regardless of it’s content, as a unified set of materials when they consider their full options – and potentials – as modern day jazz musicians.

Of course, for a lot of you who are students out there, you may be thinking, "What the hell is this guy talking about, I just want to sound good and not make too many clams at the next jam session when I take my solo on "Autumn Leaves" !!" And yes,I agree absolutely that that may well be the first item on your "to do" list. But I feel this too, and this is something that I’ve noticed over the years and throughout the music’s evolution; that when you are around a certain age – I would say that that age generally falls sometime between 12 and 22 – you actually have access to something, a certain kind of energy, that is really valuable, something really rare, and something most people never have again to quite the same degree of intensity at any other point in their lives.

It seems like somewhere about that time in a musicians life, you can hear the emerging sound of your own generation of musicians. It lives inside of you, and it often rings loud and clear. And it often sounds nothing like anything that has ever been heard before. Listen to that as closely as you can. Listen to it with the same attention and curiosity that you reserve for your heroes on records.

My contention has always been that jazz is, and I hope will always be, a form of folk music; but a very, very serious and sophisticated folk music. Almost a kind of scientific folk music. When I say folk music, I am talking about the tradition of musicians using every aspect, all the materials, all the sounds and moves and vibes and spirits of their time in a musical way. The attempts to make jazz something more like classical music, like baroque music for instance, with a defined set of rules and regulations and boundaries and qualities that must be present and observed and respected at all times, have always made me uncomfortable. That’s not because I am not all for jazz being given that kind of respect, but because I feel that the basic desire for self expression – in whichever of its manifestations that its participants care to address at a given time – is such a primary presence in the fabric of what makes "jazz" jazz – that it is crazy to not take advantage of that fact by relegating it to some predetermined model of supposed authenticity.

And, please, let’s never forget that this is a genre built to harbor irreverence, or even dissent, in addition to earnest devotion. The diversity of jazz is a big part of what makes the street level variety of the form so vital.

What I mean by that is that right now, there are probably kids in this room that have their finger on a certain pulse that none of us over 25 could likely ever even imagine. And in that pulse possibly lie the ideas that could very well alter the future course of jazz, keeping it current and alive. And if this music WILL survive as a primary point of departure for a young kids dreams, it will be because he or she feels that their investment in it as individuals will result in something that they can really call their own; not something they are borrowing or simply emulating, but rather something that they can show to the world that is uniquely theirs and sounds like it is theirs.

To the educators out there that are saying, "Yeah, that’s all great and everything, but it is hard enough for me to get the kids to all play in tune and stop and start together at the same time on their way through a basic chart..."; I understand, and I agree completely that the teaching of the fundamentals of the music is central and essential.

But, just as one example, let’s say one day next semester you might look up, and there may be a kid that is hanging off to the side that would love to participate somehow. And say in this case, he may even have a beat box or a microphone or a turntable or a computer, or who knows what else under his arm. And he is curious. Maybe... go ahead and invite him in. Jam with him. Have one of the kids write or make up some kind of a piece to do with him. To some, this may seem like the worst kind of antI jazz, even, god forbid, "fusion"!! Or they might see it as an encounter that, while maybe being fun, could never result in "real" jazz at all.

But to me, it would be exactly that kind of a gesture; a gesture of inclusion and curiosity and communication and hope – that is the spiritual engine of jazz. It is that spirit that has kept jazz’s momentum going forward so successfully in spite of whatever cultural blockades have been erected along the way for all these years.

I guess what my message is today as we all launch off into our various, extremely individualized little niches within the larger community of jazz and music, is that the openness to experiment, to really be in the moment, not only the specific musical moment, but the larger view of time and culture, is not really an option for jazz musicians at any level – it is a necessity if the music is going to go on.

I know that in my own work, I love playing standards, I love playing the blues and working on trying to make sense of the infinite details that all of my favorite musicians throughout history have laid out so generously for our examination and enrichment. But I also know that for every hour I spend working on those essential, fundamental materials, I need to spend 3 more hours working on how I can reconcile those materials with the vital information that has to do with the things that I see and feel around me each day that are real to me right now, right this second. And I also humbly acknowledge and accept that my reality is, for better or for worse, different and incomparable to any one else’s; not the least, probably, my biggest heroes in jazz history.

Each band director or educator here has his or her own reality, with it’s own limitations, and it’s own potentials. Each student here has their own reality, their own cache of materials learned, and I am certain; a far larger cache of things that they need to know.

The challenge that I make for myself each time out, whether it is a single note, a single gig, a new record, whatever, is to try to, first of all; sound good and deal with the material and the situation at hand in hopefully an effective and musical way, but to also try to find some aspect of what I can offer to that moment in time that honors and respects the less quantifiable qualities of the tradition that I am talking about. A tradition that includes, and demands; pushing it, pulling it, questioning it and even – changing it.

As musicians, educators, journalists, industry executives, students, all of us; we all have an exciting opportunity to take jazz to places it has never gone. To turn it into a music that millions of people everywhere, people that don’t even know how much they love it yet, will find out what we all already know. That the nature of this music has the ability to transform people, to enlighten them and enrich them in ways that only this music can.

But in order for that to happen, we all have to rise to this challenge; and it’s a big one. The challenge to recreate and reinvent the music to a new paradigm resonant to this era; a new time. It’s simply not gonna cut it to just keep looking back, emulating what has already been done with just a slightly different spin on it. We have to get to work to a degree that we haven’t seen for a while now on a broad level within the jazz community; to get our collective imagination working hard on a vision that is more concerned with what this music can become than what it has already been.

We need to put on more interesting and better concerts! We need to make more interesting records that really connect with people! We need to play better! We need to practice more! – we need to kick some ass!

You know what excites me? The thought of a kind of jazz that sounds nothing like the jazz of the 20th century, that is an entirely different thing, a new kind of animal; but one that is still unmistakably connected to the larger jazz tradition. The 20th century is over. The challenge for us is to discover what that new thing might be through our own individual research, by rising to the occasion of the upcoming centennial of this music’s birth with ideas that honor the premise of resonant, organic innovation that have been the hallmarks of the form from day one, the kind of innovation that springs naturally from the curiosity that is imbedded in everyone who gets hooked on jazz. It’s there, collectively, between us. All we have to do is listen hard to find it, identify it; and it will grow into something special and unique.

Along the way, mistakes will be made. Not all things tried will work out. But that impulse, the impulse to try things, is perhaps the most attractive – and sometimes the most underutilized – intrinsic quality that the promise of jazz education offers to it’s students. If young people can really view their time spent learning about jazz as something that will offer them an outlet to dream about things that are resonant and applicable to their day to day lives, man, we would see an explosion of interest in participating in jazz education that would dwarf even the amazing growth that has happened over the past 30 years.

I can’t wait to hear what everyone is going to do here over the next few days, and over the next few years!
Thanks so much for listening.