The “Finite” Art of Improvisation: Pedagogy and Power in Jazz Education

Kenneth E. Prouty


Jacques Attali writes that music can serve to “invent categories and dynamics and regenerate social theory” through improvisational practice. Yet the performance practices of which he writes are those based in free improvisation, structurally boundless and relatively non-hierarchical with respect to the relationships between performers. Many improvised genres, however, are not reflective of such a free approach. Do such improvised idioms similarly open up new possibilities for social relationships, or, by the very nature of their stylistic and practical boundaries of what is considered correct or acceptable, actually reinforce existing social orders? In this essay, I explore these arguments within the context of the critical discourse over jazz pedagogy in the institutional context. It is not a critique of jazz pedagogy pre se, but rather, an exploration of how such discourses reflect, generate, and re-generate social interactions that are often deeply affect by power relations between various entities, such as the western art music tradition versus jazz, the educational institution versus the jazz performance community, teacher versus student, administrator versus teacher. All such relationships have affected the manner in which institutionalized jazz pedagogy has developed, and how it is practiced and lived by all involved.

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Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.
ISSN: 1712-0624