Duke Ellington should be taught in schools

Being born into a musical family – my father, Trevor Griffin, was a highly respected saxophonist in the Australian Jazz scene – Jazz made sense straight away. I remember listening to Dizzy Gillespie casettes in the car when I was 4 or 5 years old and already understanding it. As I grew older and started to realise that Jazz was something that not everyone loved as much as me, and was considered a music that many people could not understand, it was almost a foreign concept to me.

Photo by Aaron Blakey
Michael Griffin

Considering how much of my life I had devoted to listening and learning this music, and believing it was the greatest music in the world, I was truly shocked when I got to high school to realise that throughout my entire high school years there was hardly any mention of Jazz or the great men that contributed to this music. The two biggest names I consider the most important in jazz history, are Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker – two men who I believe made a difference in the world of music in general, not just jazz. Duke Ellington for his outstanding contribution through composition, and Charlie Parker for his genius musical language which inspired the entire world of improvisers.

I’ve always believed that people such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald should be known to anyone who studies any music class at all – not just people who take up a course on jazz, but any student who takes up music in high school; they should leave knowing about Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven and all who contributed to the great world of classical and baroque. However, what a dishonour it is to these great jazz artists to not even receive a mention in a music class. People who were musical geniuses and gave so much to the world and the arts for not much money, to be quite frankly looked down upon and deemed unworthy by the educational system.

I recently heard a conservatory trained opera singer say “What’s a Duke Ellington?”, and I gave a lesson to a high school student who had never heard of Miles Davis and didn’t even recognise the tune ‘The girl from Ipanema’.If this is our future, then I’d say we are in big trouble, unless we can get this stuff talked about in the classroom.

The issue with Jazz is it has no place. It is generally too sophisticated for the mass general public to grasp, and in the education world, the people in charge generally come from a classical background; they are people who sneer and look down on jazz, because often they don’t understand it. So it ends up with no home, unless someone decides to study it at a conservatory. However, who is going to choose to study jazz if they’ve barely heard it?

In my opinion, people studying jazz at university should arrive with alot of their knowledge and skill mastered and spend their time expanding on that. In a lot of cases students arrive and whilst they may be able to solo through a blues, they really don’t know much about it, because they haven’t had the exposure and education about it. This goes back to it not being talked about in schools.

The one man I’ve always believed deserves to be mentioned in the classroom along with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms is Duke Ellington, America’s Greatest Composer. Here is a man with a big band that was not just writing riffs or typical swing tunes, like Count Basie or Benny Goodman (which is still fantastic), but a serious composer, who not only wrote some of the greatest jazz standards, but also composed several suites, such as ‘Black, Brown and Beige’. It’s something I am truly passionate about and something I’d like to fight for in my life – having these people in jazz mentioned in the same breath as the classical composers- especially considering the level of skill required, the knowledge of harmony required and mastery of technique of instrument required to perform this advanced African-American classical music.

Michael Griffin will give a lectureperformance dedicated to the music of Duke Ellington, on Saturday 18 August at Foundry 616