Review of edX 8.01x: Jazz Appreciation

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By coincidence, it is now Jazz Appreciation Month, which is observed every April. So it is fitting that I just completed the free MOOC from edX on “Jazz Appreciation”, UT.8.01X, through UT Austin, taught by Jeffrey Hellmer.

Intro video:

There was good and bad in this course.

A survey

This course was a low-stress way to get a little survey of jazz. I’ve never formally studied jazz nor systematically read up on its history, so all that I know comes purely from random personal listening, more than anything else. I don’t consider myself a “true” jazz aficionado; I know a whole lot more about classical music.

I thought it was a good idea to start with 1950s hard bop rather than go in chronological order through history, and then work backwards and forwards from there, because of the accessibility and typicality of the jazz from this era.

I liked how the instructor illustrated concepts at the piano, and brought up issues of artistic differences without judgment and getting into controversies that still exist today. He basically said, you don’t have to like everything you hear in this course, but know how to identify and compare the stylistic features and goals. There’s a reason musicians chose to go in the directions they did.

Cerego quizzes

The Cerego quiz platform was the most annoying thing about the course. I thought it was counterproductive busywork. In fact, I can’t believe I tolerated it just to complete the course; it was a waste of time to have done so.

You had to demonstrate “mastery” of isolated facts, through identifying musical snippets, classifying the eras of musicians, memorizing what instruments they played, etc. I can see some point in some mastery of some facts, but the sheer repetition and shallowness of the concept bothered me. It got to the point where I made a game of identifying a musical selection based on hearing the first quarter second of its audio.

What I learned

Overall, I didn’t learn that much from the course, because I’ve already done my share of listening to jazz. I filled in a few gaps, but not in any deep way. Unfortunately, a course like this must be shallow. You might learn a few names, hear some musical snippets, and then it’s purely up to you to go investigate more if you want to.

The drawback of a survey course

I’m not sure whether to recommend a course like this if you’re interested in learning more about jazz. I believe it may be more enjoyable and instructive to simply pick a few favorite artists and listen deeply. A shallow survey simply cannot do much. I feel this way about survey courses on any subject, whether ballroom dancing, programming languages, or cooking. It’s best to just go deep, and then later fill in gaps.

My followup

Actually, one thing I did do as a result of this course was that the instructor mentioned resources such as Ted Gioia’s writings on jazz, and so I went and read his book from 1988, “The Imperfect Art”. I loved it, and it clarified for me some things I had been thinking about regarding the nature of jazz. I may write about this later.

I don’t actually read much music criticism any more, but if you want to read about jazz, Ted Gioia is definitely one guy to read. For example, check out his recent article “Music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting”.

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