Merdeka and Jazz: Freedom, Responsibility, and Jazz

5 September 2018

Writing this as Malaysia celebrates Hari Merdeka, it occurs to me that the story of jazz, in many respects, is the story of freedom. Early jazz musicians, African-Americans in New Orleans around 1900, would have been the children of former slaves. They understood intuitively what freedom means: the individual freedom to do as one pleases, within the boundaries established by the society one inhabits. This is the essence of jazz performance: a musician can play any note he or she wishes, as long as it conforms to the standards agreed to by the other musicians in the ensemble, i.e., the musicians’ society.

As an example, I play jazz trombone. If I am playing with a group that has decided to play in a smooth jazz style, but I decide to improvise using notes from a bebop style, I will probably not be welcome to play with that group a second time. More realistically, I would probably decline to play in the smooth jazz group in the first place! The point is that freedom comes with the responsibility of not interfering with anyone else’s freedom. I believe Malaysia is an excellent example of this, given the multicultural makeup of the population.

Jazz originated in the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century, then quickly spread around the world. The earliest performances in Southeast Asia seem to have been in the 1920s, but formal jazz education was not available in the region until much more recently. There are now jazz degrees offered at one university in Singapore, one in the Philippines, and two in Thailand.

Outside of formal university studies, the non-profit organization Jazz Education Abroad (JEA) has recently emerged as a driving force in promoting jazz education across Asia. Based in Bangkok, JEA is an international organization of jazz educators dedicated to teaching jazz outside the USA. Its mission is: “to increase cultural, musical, and educational awareness through the teaching of American jazz to youth from different backgrounds and regions of the world.” The group is led by Professor Gene Aitken, long-time Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Northern Colorado and a Grammy-nominated Fulbright Scholar who is considered one of the most exciting and energetic jazz educators/clinicians today. Recognized as a visionary in jazz education, music education, and computer technology, Prof. Aitken was inducted into the International Jazz Educators Hall of Fame in 1995 along with Doc Severinsen and Ella Fitzgerald.

Over the past six years, JEA has partnered with, produced, or presented numerous jazz workshops, festivals, and programs throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. A sampling of JEA events in 2018 includes workshops in Thailand, Taiwan, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Hong Kong.

Regionally, the annual Thailand Jazz Workshop has grown over the past five years to include more than 350 students coming from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia. This program has been so successful that it will come to Malaysia in October 2018.

Quoting from JEA: “Numerous studies have shown that American Jazz can be used as a platform to teach broader ideas relating to developing creativity and democracy, cultural and social development, as well as the comprehension and retention of information. Through the study of American Jazz Improvisation, students will be presented with concepts such as the importance of choice, teamwork, and evaluating how an individual’s actions affect the broader group.”

The 2018 Malaysian Jazz Workshop will be jointly hosted by Sunway University and ASWARA, the National Academy of Arts Culture and Heritage. Scheduled for 26-28 October, this three-day workshop is designed for students (middle school age and above) and teachers, at any level of competency. Partnering with Jazz Education Abroad, the master teachers for the workshop will include international educators together with local Americans and Malaysians.

Students in this workshop will participate in big bands, small combos, improvisation classes, instrumental master classes, and faculty performances. All students from middle school and above (including adults) are welcome – no previous jazz experience is required.

As co-hosts of this workshop, Sunway University and ASWARA continue to build strong presences in the Malaysian arts scene. Arts programmes at Sunway include studies in contemporary music, western classical music, film production, theatre, graphic design, interior architecture, public relations, advertising, corporate communication, and visual communication. ASWARA includes faculties of music, dance, theatre, creative writing, film & television, arts & cultural management, animation & multimedia, and visual communication design.

Through this workshop, Sunway and ASWARA hope to strengthen the jazz community in Malaysia, while simultaneously contributing to a better understanding of the links between freedom and responsibility.

More information about the 2018 Malaysian Jazz Workshop is available at http://malaysiajazzworkshop.com.

For The Expat (Vol. 241 • October 2018 • page 59)


Don Bowyer
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