Joe Lovano and Us Five: a study on the development of a unique improvisational voice from within the jazz tradition
Antonelli, Michael Robert
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Both researchers and jazz professionals believe the expansion of jazz performance programs in universities over the last several decades warrants a need for critical research into the processes and experiences by which jazz students develop into professionals. Although the number of colleges offering degrees in jazz performance has risen dramatically during this time, instructional approaches remain relatively standardized throughout the schools. The purpose of this study was to investigate the experiences of five working professional New York City jazz musicians in an attempt to better understand how they learned to improvise and develop their individual voices. These musicians included Joe Lovano, Otis Brown III, Francisco Mela, James Weidman, and Matthew Wilson. In this study I used Wenger's (2008) theory of Communities of Practice as the theoretical framework for an exploration of the meaning, practice, community, and identity of these five professional jazz musicians. Data collected for this case study entailed interviews, observations, and collection of artifacts. The interview data provided by the participants were transcribed and coded for the purpose of identifying emerging themes. The themes were then woven into a narrative based on the participants' responses to a series of open-ended questions. The themes that emerged included auto-biographical recollections of the participants' earliest musical experiences. The musicians spoke openly about their childhoods and various aspects of the context of their learning experiences on the way to becoming jazz professionals. The discussion included the musicians' views on communicating through improvisation, mentoring, and the value of relationships created through involvement in a jazz community on the development of a unique improvisational voice. Two major themes emerged in data analysis. First, Joe Lovano and Us Five experienced university jazz educations but in interviews and observation, the musicians seemed not dependent on, or even utilizing that part of their past. Instead, the musicians strongly emphasized community and community building, professional on-stage experience, and longitudinal exposure and life study that many college jazz majors may never experience. Second, the musicians eschewed certain viewpoints within the music profession, within university music programs, and within the public sector that musicians can simply blend technical prowess with diligent study of a prescribed curriculum to become a professional jazz musician. Here the interviewees uniformly suggested that a unique, individual voice was necessary for acceptance within the field. Finally, I present an example based upon the data from this study of how Wenger's (2008) community of practice could be used to develop a new understanding of the process of jazz improvisation and the development of a unique improvisational voice in an institutional setting.