A Response to Frank Griffith's article from Charlie Beale, Lead Consultant for Jazz at the Associated Board

There is very little in this article with which those involved with the Associated Board's jazz syllabuses would disagree. Frank is absolutely right when he identifies that jazz education is primarily about enabling, coaching, guiding and encouraging rather than 'teaching' in what I assume he means its most didactic and educator-led sense. I'd say that's true of most music education, and indeed of the best education of all kinds. The best way to learn jazz is undoubtedly through some combination of experiential learning on the bandstand and formal study and wood-shedding at home and in the classroom. Finding a key mentor is also important, though this needn't necessarily be a teacher - often someone with a great record collection who encourages the 'creative listening' Frank discusses will do.

Frank argues for a methodology for assessing improvising that gives credit for jazz performances that 'sound good (in a general overall sense)' but nevertheless retains opportunities for the kind of 'undeniable individuality resulting from their individual bouquet of "mistakes"' characterised by the work of Errol Garner or Monk. He raises a crucial challenge to assessors which goes to the heart of what jazz is about. It is one about which the Board have thought deeply and consulted widely. What follows is a broad statement of our position, which I believe addresses his point. It is important to remember that the currently available ABRSM jazz exams are aimed at total beginners. The assessment criteria are designed to be effective at Grades 1-5, that is to say from the very beginning of a player's jazz experience through to approximately five years of experience or NQF Level 2. The "mistakes" Frank discusses are those made by accomplished and indeed highly exceptional musicians, while the Board's work is designed to establish jazz as a mass music which can be played by anyone.

If we see assessment as a filtering process by which features in a performance are identified and affirmed, then our filters will be much coarser than Frank's, and are designed to identify lower levels of skill. If and when we come to write a set of Fellowship Diploma criteria in a few years time, for post-graduate level playing, then his problem becomes a more serious one.

Even so, a close look at the criteria will help reveal our approach, which is open, transparent and, I believe, reflects real world jazz practice well.

The criteria examiners use to assess improvising are published on page 16 of the jazz piano syllabus (free!) and are unlikely to change substantially when our four new syllabuses come on stream early in 2003. In every exam and at every level from Grades 1-5, there are four levels of attainment: Pass, Merit, Distinction and below Pass. The assessment creates a single mark but applies a series of criteria, which cover areas we would all agree are important in jazz: amongst others, technical control, rhythm skills such as feel and pulse, embellishment of the head, tonal control and dynamics and improvising. Not all areas occur at every level.
At Pass level, for example, the criteria focus on whether, in simple terms, the player knows the tune and that the solo is 'of the indicated length'. A twelve bar blues should last for twelve bars, if that is its form - if it's a swing tune it should be played in swing, and you should know the tune and the chord sequence you are playing on. We call these aspects of the performance the 'main elements of the given material', and if these are not in place, then the player has more work to do.

A Merit performance is likely to include a wider range of tonal control, including dynamics, phrasing and sound. There is also likely to be some contrast between sections, so the bridge should feel different from the first 8, for example.

In a Distinction performance, the playing has some real individuality, and the more varied features identified at Merit are somehow harnessed to the player's own interpretation. This makes it stand out from the crowd as distinctive or memorable in some way.

The nub of Frank's point concerns the criteria concerning improvising and embellishment of the given material. Remember that a Grade 1 improvisation lasts for roughly 8-12 bars and contains few changes.
At Pass, other than the length of a solo being correct, we are looking for what we've called a 'basic flow' in the improvising. For the beginner, this flow is sometimes absent and results in a lot of stopping and starting.

At Merit, we begin to identify that the candidate is beginning to control that flow in particular ways. They can turn their playing on and off, begin and end phrases in various ways according to level and there is greater variety. Perhaps their phrases vary in length, with contrasts between short and long, or rhythmically dense material is contrasted with some long notes.

At Distinction, the crucial words in the criteria are 'inventive', 'surprising' and 'risk-taking'. Here we are looking for an approach which, as in telling a good joke, sets up an expectation of some kind in the listener but then confounds it - something that even some 9 year-old Grade 1 candidates are capable of, regardless of technical level.
Finally, we come to Frank's point specifically. None of the tunes need ever be played exactly as written. Embellishment is a requirement of every exam, and every candidate is required by the criteria to think about how to personalise the material they play. The main elements of the given material are not the end of the process and are there as a starting point. What this means is that, at Pass level, we find players all tend to play the tunes in roughly the same way, while at Distinction they begin to sound more and more different from each other. The kind of individuality Frank seeks in his players is specifically replicated in the criteria, though not always in the performances we hear.

I'm sure there are ways in which we can refine our criteria still further and it's great that this debate is at last being entered. No system is ever perfect, especially in jazz, which, thank God, continues to change. All an exam can do is indicate a simple set of standards to aim for which are consistent with themselves, can be rigorously applied in practice and which reflect the real world. How people use that exam is another thing entirely, of course. The next step is to get teacher attitudes and approaches to change, so that the kinds of qualities we all admire in Monk and Garner are better understood by teachers and facilitated in the strategies they employ in their work. Exams are a powerful catalyst in these terms.

For example, I'm much heartened by the demand for teacher workshops the exams have created. Over 2,500 teachers have been to Associated Board jazz workshops in the past few years, many of whom might not previously have seen jazz as relevant to their work. My experience is that most are open to change and increasingly aware there are many skills in non-classical styles that they were not trained in. Often they do little because they feel helpless and don't know how, but with appropriate support and systematic and innovative approaches to professional development, they will come round.

Our goal is that as more jazz syllabuses come on stream and people get used to the idea of jazz at the Associated Board, jazz becomes as natural a part of music education as the little red theory book is now. We're well on the way.

Dr Charlie Beale
September 2002

- Original article