MFA vs. NYC

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A few weeks ago I wrote about Elif Batuman’s piece on MFA (Masters in Fine Art) writing programs in the London Review of Books. I drew some parallels between her critique of writing programs and what might be said about analogous jazz programs that have grown dramatically in numbers over the last thirty years.  Hall Overton did his jazz work in the derelict 821 Sixth Avenue because it wasn’t allowed in the hallowed halls of Juilliard where he taught the popular classical composition and theory course, Literature and Materials. Jazz wasn’t considered worthy of Juilliard in those days.  Now, almost all aspiring jazz musicians go to a university, MFA program, and/or conservatory like Juilliard.  What’s been gained and lost?

Now there’s a new piece on MFA writing programs by Chad Harbach in the literary journal n+1.  A long excerpt from his piece is posted on Slate under the title “MFA vs. NYC”.  Harbach draws a distinction between the MFA community and the community of agents and editors in New York City.  I find his arguments to be intriguing and convincing.  The creation of an industry that provides jobs for writers who can no longer support themselves purely from writing is analogous to jazz today where very few musicians can survive without a teaching job.  Musicians need places to teach, jazz programs need teachers.  Darwinian growth takes place.  But what happens to the creativity?  Some pros, some cons.

One of the most remarkable aspects to Batuman’s piece, two months later, is the relative lack of attention it received.  She’s a new star (rightly so).  Her book The Possessed was just listed by Dwight Garner of the Times as one of his top 10 books of 2010. It was listed as one of the Times’ 100 Notable Books of the Year.  Yet in only two days since Harbach’s Slate excerpt was published, on Thanksgiving weekend, it’s already apparent that his piece on writing programs will get more attention than Batuman’s.  The Slate excerpt alone is enough to ensure that will be the case.  ArtsJournal also gave it a prominent link.

Batuman’s arguments about the roles of race and shame in writing programs are extremely sensitive and touchy to ponder in public (I’m currently seeking an outlet to do this, she’s agreed to participate with me on it).  I believe there are analogs in jazz.  Go to any jazz show in NYC these days and the audience will be nearly 100% white.  Most of the students in the jazz programs seem to be white (as they are in MFA writing programs).  I don’t know the numbers.  There are bound to be implications.

The big, melancholy question for jazz is, does anybody really care what happens?  Despite laments from writers and publishers over declining markets, creative writing occupies a hundred- or thousand-fold larger place in our culture today than jazz.  Two weeks ago, former Jazz Loft Project archivist Mike Fitzgerald passed through town and we had lunch.  Mike is now an archivist doing great things at the University of the District of Columbia.  He and I agree that jazz history is just beginning to be written.  The icons have been studied often (even though they should be studied more, there should be as many books on Monk as there are on Faulkner).  But the icons are just a tiny bit of the history and iconography distorts how the jazz story really went down, as I argued recently on this blog.  Jazz wasn’t created in seclusion behind a desk.  Almost all of jazz was made with others in front of others, unrecorded.  In October I visited Louise Sims, Zoot’s widow, in West Nyack, NY.  Nearly three decades after Zoot’s death she’s got a house chocked full of materials from his quintessential career.  She’s nearing 80 years old.  What happens to all that material?  Will Zoot’s biography and music ever be taught in schools?

-Sam Stephenson

p.s. You can read Mike Fitzgerald’s MA thesis (UNC-Chapel Hill, School of Information and Library Science) on the state of jazz archives in America by clicking here.

3 Comments

  1. matt Said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    I have a question regarding your comment about race. Is it really the style of music (jazz) or the location that predicts the race of the audience? I don’t know about NYC, but on any given night at a jazz bar in Detroit, a white attendee may be the only white person in the building. This is the case at places where every night is jazz, they only ever play jazz, or maybe jazz and blues. But when the occasional jazz show appears at a local mostly-rock venue, the audience is probably white, and probably sparse.

  2. admin Said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    Matt, thanks for the note. In my experience the answer to your question would be both style of music (jazz) and location. NYC, the location I was talking about, may be an extreme example. I’ve been to many jazz gigs all over NYC, including clubs that only have jazz, and the audiences are nearly all white all the time. In other cities around the country I see a larger non-white audience but not much larger. It’s a fairly commonly recognized issue nationwide. I just found this interview with Archie Shepp where he’s talking about it on Allaboutjazz.com:

    http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=16663

    I’d love to know the names of the places you mention in Detroit and I’d like to visit them, maybe write a piece about them. How many people in those audiences are under age 50 (age is another topic for a much longer discussion, transcendent of race)? I was at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September and I noticed a bigger black audience, about 20% of the total by my rough estimate, and everybody white, black, and otherwise was over age 50. There was a jazz venue in Durham, NC – the Know Bookstore – that routinely had all black audiences but it closed earlier this year, and whenever I went there I was just about the youngest person there.

  3. Alex W. Rodriguez Said,

    December 2, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

    Most of the jazz listening audience on the radio in the NYC media market is African American. You’re right, though, that most of the students in university programs are white.
    That said, I saw some of the same parallels that you did when I read the “MFA vs. NYC” piece. I think it came down a little too hard on MFA programs. Jazz musicians also tend to be a little too harsh on the educational institutions, too. Most of the people who play in the NYC area are still graduates of jazz programs, with very few exceptions (Vijay Iyer, for example.)
    I agree that “alternative archives” like 821 Sixth are important, and should be encouraged and supported. At the same time, it’s important to try and work with the academic structures (jazz schools) to incorporate more of what Roy Haynes would dig and less of whatever it is that is exemplified by odd time signatures (whiteness? nerdiness? excessive intellectualism?)
    Let’s also not forget that the “Freedom Now Suite” was in 5/4 time, too …