Reading yesterday's New York Times, I came across an article that appeared to date from around the year 1930 — the period in which dunderheaded authorities like Daniel Gregory Mason inveighed against the vulgarity of jitterbugging. In the Times piece, Robert Blocker, the dean of the Yale School of Music, explains why jazz is not a priority for his institution. He is quoted as saying: “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” This is real bad. Jazz is a monumental art form, its major figures among the most original thinkers in twentieth-century music. Its links to classical composition are myriad: classical players who are not exposed to jazz will deliver poor accounts of much music of the past hundred years, from Gershwin to John Adams. It's remarkable that the leader of a music school would resort to such inane formulations when speaking to a reporter. (News flash: jazz is Western, and it is also new.) Blocker's attitude is all the more astonishing in light of the fact that a decade ago the Yale School of Music received an unprecedented hundred-million-dollar gift, one that allowed the school to end tuition. You'd think that freedom from financial pressures would have encouraged the school to widen its intellectual horizons. Instead, perhaps not too surprisingly, sudden wealth seems to have brought about an entrenched, reactionary mindset. Gunther Schuller is roaring from his grave.By Alex' criteria I am the very model of a "dunderheaded authority" because, just as Daniel Gregory Mason (a well-known composer and critic in his day) thought that jitterbugging was vulgar, I'm fairly sure that I have said somewhere that twerking is vulgar. I'm also of the opinion that the Yale School of Music should see as their primary mission the transmission of the Western canon extending back in time and forwards to contemporary music. We have seen over the last few decades the destruction of English departments as the study of the great works of Western literature was replaced by their deconstruction. Fewer and fewer students enroll in English because reading Roland Barthes and Derrida is far less worthwhile than reading Shakespeare--who is anathema because he is dead, white and male. Of course, so are Barthes and Derrida, but that's ok because they are attacking Shakespeare. It is actually refreshing to hear a dean be so bold as to actually state his mission clearly! The job of Yale Music is not to cultivate the Miles Davises and Ornette Colemans of the future (for one thing, the era when jazz produced such giants is long gone), but to transmit the thousand year tradition of great Western art or concert music and train a new generation of performers and composers who have an idea of what it is.
Nothing against jazz, but it is not part of that tradition and not a good fit in academia. Great masters of jazz have never come from a university environment any more than punk bands, hip-hop artists or country music stars have. Why would they? A university music department is not needed to support and teach those genres. As the dean said, “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” Why is this controversial, or in the golden prose of Alex Ross, "real bad"? Perhaps you can make a case that jazz is a monumental art form, its major figures among the most original thinkers in twentieth-century music--I have my doubts, personally. But even if this were the case, this still does not imply that Yale should be teaching it. There are a number of schools that do specialize in jazz such as the Berklee College of Music.
Alex mentions Gunther Schuller who is not only rolling in his grave, but roaring from it! This provides us with an excellent example of why jazz and classical music (or concert music, or art music) are awkward bedfellows. Schuller, who just passed away a couple of months ago, was a formidable figure in both the jazz and classical worlds. In the 1960s and 70s he composed works that tried to synthesize the two traditions. In later years he reverted to being primarily a classical musician as Artistic Director for the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington. I think, at this distance in time, it is possible to look back at his attempt and see that it was ultimately unsuccessful. His "third stream" compositions have made it into neither the jazz canon nor the classical canon.
But you be the judge. Here is Schuller's Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk for 13 instruments, from 1960: