Tree Palmedo (Brubeck Fellow 2011-12) is featured this month as a guest contributor to the BI Blog. Check out Tree’s essay entitled “In The Tradition”
In The Tradition By Tree Palmedo
I recently read an essay by art critic Leo Steinberg entitled, “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public.” Steinberg, simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the strange progression of visual art, expertly describes the “shock of discomfort” that the average person experiences when encountering something drastically new. Indeed, works now considered classics—everything from Van Gogh’s sunflowers to Andy Warhol’s soup cans—were at one point derided by critics and fans alike; only with the passage of time did these works become recognized for their creative ingenuity.
The jazz world has seen its own tense standoff between the camps of “tradition” and “innovation,” though things have perhaps been even more heated due to the art form’s deep roots in a specific cultural tradition. As a young jazz musician, especially one a bit removed from that context, it’s easy to see those swinging away in the style of Pops or Bird as old fogies, or dinosaurs clinging desperately to a style no longer relevant. It can be easy, from the jazz student’s perspective, to dismiss traditionalist players and educators as a stubborn minority bound to be extinct soon anyway.
Yet Steinberg’s point is that objection to the new is only natural, often based in the noble desire to preserve an art form’s value. The blues, swing, and bebop are indeed valuable institutions and their disappearance would be undeniably tragic. And it’s not ludicrous to want students of the music to learn about—or even learn to replicate—its storied past.
Still, jazz has always been about self-expression; each great artist who has made a mark has done so with his or her own sound, and in doing so has altered the music permanently. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dave Brubeck are icons not for the traditions they upheld, but for the indelible personal stamp each one put on the music. A jazz education system that truly wants its students to become the next Parkers or Brubecks should keep this in mind. Students should be trained with clear, informed self-expression as the goal, not the perfect emulation of a specific style. The way I see it, educators don’t even necessarily have to like the music their students produce. In fact, not liking it might be natural; what matters is that students hone the tools necessary to produce the music they hear, informed by exposure to what’s already out there.
My extremely fun and fulfilling year at the Brubeck Institute epitomized for me what jazz education should be. We learned about influential artists, periods and standards in jazz history, and I picked up a few new favorites and gained newfound respect for some artists in the process. We also learned time-tested musical concepts and techniques that are universally applicable. Guest artists showed us up close what jazz looks like today. And in between, there was ample time for performance, with almost complete artistic control over our material and programming. My co-fellows and I were interested in sounds ranging from Wayne Shorter to free jazz to indie folk, and the Institute gave us the time and support to combine these interests into something I’ll always consider special.
All this is not to say that swing and the blues need make way for something new. I’ve met plenty of young players who live and breathe Lester Young, and more power to them. But I do hope the Brubeck Institute will serve as a guiding light to centers of jazz education. Their model gives hope that when the new tradition inevitably gains acceptance into the jazz canon, it’ll be just as strong and singular as the old.
Tree Palmedo is a 19-year old Trumpeter and Composer from Portland, Oregon, currently living in Cambridge, Massachussetts. Tree is a product of the fertile jazz education scene of Portland, having studied with such local luminaries as Randy Porter, Alan Jones, Thara Memory, Derek Sims, Paul Mazzio, Ben MacDonald and Ed Higgins. Coming up through high school, Tree was fortunate enough to be able to play with many of his mentors as well as with Mel Brown, Darrell Grant, Ben Darwish, Andrew Oliver, Ezra Weiss, Todd Strait, Javier Nero, Hailey Niswanger, and more. He spent the 2011-12 school year attending the Brubeck Institute in Stockton, CA, where he was part of the 2012 “Origins” album release. He now attends Harvard College (Class of 2016) in a joint program with the New England Conservatory, where he studies with John McNeil and Laurie Frink.
Read Tree’s entire bio and catch up with all the great work that Tree is involved with at his website www.treepalmedo.wordpress.com