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School for Cool

The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity

School for Cool

The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity

Jazz was born on the streets, grew up in the clubs, and will die—so some fear—at the university. Facing dwindling commercial demand and the gradual disappearance of venues, many aspiring jazz musicians today learn their craft, and find their careers, in one of the many academic programs that now offer jazz degrees. School for Cool is their story. Going inside the halls of two of the most prestigious jazz schools around—at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York—Eitan Y. Wilf tackles a formidable question at the heart of jazz today: can creativity survive institutionalization? 

Few art forms epitomize the anti-institutional image more than jazz, but it’s precisely at the academy where jazz is now flourishing. This shift has introduced numerous challenges and contradictions to the music’s practitioners. Solos are transcribed, technique is standardized, and the whole endeavor is plastered with the label “high art”—a far cry from its freewheeling days. Wilf shows how students, educators, and administrators have attempted to meet these challenges with an inventive spirit and a robust drive to preserve—and foster—what they consider to be jazz’s central attributes: its charisma and unexpectedness. He also highlights the unintended consequences of their efforts to do so. Ultimately, he argues, the gap between creative practice and institutionalized schooling, although real, is often the product of our efforts to close it. 

288 pages | 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Education: Education--General Studies

Music: General Music

Sociology: Sociology of Arts--Leisure, Sports


“From convocation ceremonies at Berklee, to rigorous classroom training, to extracurricular musical games that students devise and play outside of the colleges—it’s all grist for the author’s ideas and theories. Wilf raises a lot of provocative issues to which there are no straightforward resolutions. Nothing is as it seems; everything is subject to change and further scrutiny. These built-in uncertainties are part and parcel of Wilf’s rigorous manner of examining the thorny, overlapping conflicts and contradictions of jazz education that will play a role in shaping the music’s future. . . . School For Cool is a significant work of jazz scholarship that examines, analyzes, and leaves a thicket of conflicts and contradictions, which resist any end point or resolution. It’s a fitting tribute to a music that refuses to sit still and politely meet the expectations of those who wish to define it in limited, constricted, (and perhaps nostalgic) terms.”

All About Jazz

School for Cool is thoughtful, provocative and well written, and addresses questions that might be posed for higher education in the creative arts more generally.”

Times Higher Education

School for Cool is one of the most creative, comprehensive, epistemologically and substantively provocative, and just generally fascinating books I’ve read in recent years. At the core of it lies the complex nexus of improvisation, aesthetic traditions and their emergent reworkings, institutional practice, and the simultaneous socialization of young jazz performers into canon and creativity. In considering this array of subjects, Wilf provides a remarkably attentive and wide-reaching account of cultural production, reproduction, and transformation.”

Donald Brenneis, University of California, Santa Cruz

School for Cool is a very original book within a new tradition of critical jazz studies that examines the contemporary scene of jazz education and socialization from the point of view of the tradition’s struggle for self-preservation, legitimization, and competition in the music industry. Wilf invites us to rethink the art of improvisation and convincingly argues that one cannot understand the paradoxes of jazz higher education unless one understands the changes in the club scenes and the types of young people who are, today, attracted to jazz as a profession.”

Alessandro Duranti, University of California, Los Angeles

Table of Contents


1 Introduction: The Academic Jazz Program as a Hybrid
2 Contexts and Histories: The Search for Cultural Legitimacy and the Reconfiguration of Obsolete Jazz Scenes
3 “Think-Tank Music”: Public Ambivalences and Contradictions
4 Charisma Infusion: Bringing the “Street” Back into the Classroom
5 Rituals of Creativity: Inhabiting the Echoes of the Past
6 Transcribing Creativity as Creative Transcribing: Legitimizing Theory and Expertise
7 “Now you have to think simple!”: Improvisatory Techniques of the Improvising Body
8 The Games Students Play: Technologies of the Listening Self

Works Cited

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