Can jazz be taught?
The answer might seem obvious—after all, schools around the world teach it. But for Martin Mueller, dean of the School of Jazz, the answer is rooted as much in culture and history as it is in technical training.
“Jazz is about the individual, and had its rise in street and club culture,” says Mueller. “Until jazz was taught in schools, it was passed down from generation to generation, and oftentimes was not written down. As we developed our pedagogy, we tried to instill those values into the curriculum while also creating new procedures and methods that trained students to rise to the top of their field.”
Mueller, who plans to retire this October, reflected on his time with the School of Jazz and everything he did to shape the program into the world-class music school that is today. By hiring acclaimed artists to serve as faculty and focusing on small ensembles, rather than the big bands common in other programs, he helped provide students with intimate personal access to renowned musical practitioners in a classroom setting, which established a strong foundation for the School of Jazz to grow from.
The New School’s jazz department was launched in 1986, a time when such programs were ancillary to music conservatories, rather than stand-alone programs. However, The New School’s radical approach proved successful, as world-class faculty and students quickly flocked to the program.
Originally, the jazz program reported to the dean of Parsons School of Design. After a year, Mueller, who had been a junior administrator, was promoted to oversee the program, which became part of Mannes School of Music in 1995. The jazz program left Mannes three years later and finally became its own school in 2013.
“When we started, the faculty were against the traditional model of music education, as jazz is very democratic,” Mueller says. “People used to joke that we had the most expensive jam session on the planet.”
That democratic approach helped make the program an instant success, as faculty were able to have an active role developing the curriculum and students were encouraged to shape their own learning process. That model has remained in place today and helps set the School of Jazz apart, as the faculty and students continue to influence the curriculum and the educational methods of the program.
“The pace of change at the school is directly related to the pace of change in jazz itself,” explains Mueller. “We are very nimble, which has allowed us to stay current. This approach is very much rooted in the spirit of The New School, which prides itself on responding to constant change.”
Over the past 30 years, Mueller has been instrumental in the world of jazz education. He co-founded the International Association of Schools for Jazz; served on the boards of the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, the International Women of Jazz, and other organizations; earned a Downbeat magazine Achievement Award for Jazz Education; and received “A Team” status from the Jazz Journalists Association for activism.
Last year, the School of Jazz joined with Mannes and the School of Drama to form the College of Performing Arts (CoPA). The move has promoted interdisciplinary coursework and led to opportunities for students across the three schools to collaborate on productions and learn from one another.
“I see a bright future for the School of Jazz,” says Mueller. “We have empowered the students to be who they want to be, and CoPA has given them a new perspective on what is possible. Shared creative learning is a huge advantage and is the future of musical education.”
Richard Kessler, executive dean of CoPA and dean of Mannes, echoed Mueller’s thoughts.
“I am proud of the work Martin has accomplished in his nearly 30 years with the School of Jazz,” Kessler says. “He has helped transform a revolutionary program into one of the world’s top jazz schools, which has made both CoPA and The New School stronger. Knowing that the foundation of the school is sound, I can’t wait to see what the next 30 years brings.”
As for Mueller’s own post-retirement plans, “I’m going to take some time to reflect on my career, and then my wife and I are moving to Portland, where we’ll be living on a floating home,” says Mueller. “I’m going to remain active in the jazz world and see how I can make more connections between the jazz scene on the West Coast and the world of jazz in New York.”