The philosopher of jazz (and music), Wynton Marsalis has, as usual, nailed it.
We hear widespread calls for “outcomes” we can measure and for education geared to specific employment needs, but many of today’s students will hold jobs that have not yet been invented, deploying skills not yet defined. We not only need to equip them with the ability to answer the questions relevant to the world we now inhabit; we must also enable them to ask the right questions to shape the world to come.
We need education that nurtures judgment as well as mastery, ethics and values as well as analysis. We need learning that will enable students to interpret complexity, to adapt, and to make sense of lives they never anticipated. We need a way of teaching that encourages them to develop understanding of those different from themselves, enabling constructive collaborations across national and cultural origins and identities.
Music stresses individual practice and technical excellence, but it also necessitates listening to and working with others in fulfillment of the requirements of ensemble performance. In jazz, collective improvisation offers musicians the freedom to reinvent, adapt and change. But that freedom is tempered by a shared overall objective: swing. The art of swing is the art of balance, of constant assertion and compromise.
Learning to play or paint, dance, sing or act, means constantly being refashioned, constantly demanding risk. “If you don’t make mistakes,” Coleman Hawkins once said, “you aren’t really trying.”
In other words, we need learning that incorporates what the arts teach us.
The arts are about imagining beyond the bounds of the known. They embrace the past and the future of the human mind and soul. Playing music can be both a model and a metaphor for important aspects of the lives our children will be called upon to lead.