On the Value of Liberal Arts Education Part 2: Classical vs. Jazz

My previous journal entry was about my transformation from a science and math nerd to a China/Asian Studies nerd and how the liberal arts experience at Dartmouth enabled that transformation. Perhaps I overstated the case a bit. Looking back on those days, while I professed to have an interest in science, ironically it was more from a humanities perspective all along. Maybe that's why I felt an affinity with the scholars of ancient China with their multiple interests all grounded in a basic love for humanities and arts.

Whatever the case, I think this was a fairly accurate description of my internal processes and motivators as I made that transition back in my college years. Whatever it is that separates a scientist from a humanist, I definitely have favored the latter path in my own career and life. And I have my Dartmouth education at least in part to thank for that.

When I speak to people about the enduring value of liberal arts education, I certainly mention this story but I don't dwell on it. After all, I don't want youngsters to get the wrong message about the sciences. Rather, I look at the more holistic experience of liberal arts education and again use stories and people from my own experiences to illustrate that. 

Some of us are destined for a liberal arts education. If you look at my own family, you'd see that I was no exception. My mother went to Carleton College. My dad went to Swarthmore. One of my uncles went to Oberlin, the other to Harvard. My step-father was also a Dartmouth grad, as was his own father. The education and value system that I inherited as a boy were definitely deeply influenced by those of my parents and extended family members, who embodied the liberal arts ethos in many ways.

When I talk about liberal arts to people in China and elsewhere, I often mention the great experiences that I had as a member of the Chamber Singers. I have written about these experiences in a previous journal entry. What I say less about is how during my four years at Dartmouth, I spent a great deal of time learning about music. Most of that learning was done outside of a formal classroom. The Chamber Singers of course was an extracurricular activity, though it seemed at times to be as rigorous as any class. In addition, I took piano lessons with one of the music instructors at Dartmouth. I'd taken lessons in high school, and had achieved some progress, but certainly could not compete with the many talented classmates (most of them Asian) and friends of mine who were highly proficient in reading sheet music and performing classical pieces. Would that I had studied jazz at that time, my life might have been different. But I'll get to that point later.

The fact is, while at Dartmouth, I became obsessed with classical music. I have to thank my dad at least in part for that, since he often gave me tapes of classical pieces and musicians he liked. Through my father, I was introduced to the preludes and etudes of Chopin, and the impromptus of Shubert. Since it has been well demonstrated that there is a strong connection between learning Chinese and studying/appreciating fine music (I say this partly, but only partly, in jest), I found myself surrounded by accomplished and talented musicians at Dartmouth, who introduced me to other periods, genres, and musicians from the broad landscape of what we call classical music.

I read many books on classical music, especially the great pianists from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods. Above all, I listened. I spent many hours in the music library listening to records and CDs. For some reason, I took a strong interest in Brahms. But I was also listening to Dvorak, Richard Strauss, Mahler, and others who were leading the world of classical music into the 20th century.

None of this, mind you, was done for a course or for credit. Why it did not occur to me to take an actual course in music history I can't say. But the point I'm making here is that a good liberal arts environment will encourage students to learn things on their own without a formal course of study, and that is a great preparation for post-collegial life.

It's funny how, given my ongoing obsession with jazz throughout my adult life, I did not take a deeper interest in jazz in college. I began to be interested in jazz in high school, after my dad gave me a mix tape that covered some of the greatest musicians in American jazz history. Had I taken that interest into college, I might have joined Dartmouth's famous Barbary Coast jazz ensemble (though my piano would have needed a great deal of work to get to that level). Like my classmate Matt Roberts '90, I may have gone on to take a lifetime interest in jazz performance. Instead I went on to become a historian and documentarian of jazz in China. Not the same thing by a long shot.

The Ah Q Jazz Arkestra performing at the Beijing Bookworm in March 2017. Matt Roberts on trombone, and David Moser (foreground) on keyboards.

The Ah Q Jazz Arkestra performing at the Beijing Bookworm in March 2017. Matt Roberts on trombone, and David Moser (foreground) on keyboards.

When talking about my Dartmouth experiences, I often bring up Matt, who is known in China as Rao Mengzhi. Matt started living in Beijing around the time I graduated in 1991, and he has basically been living there since. Although he has built a fine career in other fields (journalism and the business world to be precise) he has always devoted a significant portion of his life to music. Matt is a jazz trombonist and he plays in a band called Ah Q Jazz Arkestra along with my colleague David Moser (another great liberal arts humanist, who plays keyboards in the band). They recently celebrated their 14th anniversary. When I told Matt that I was bringing up his example during my talks on liberal arts, he remarked that at Dartmouth, they taught us to work hard and play hard. In other words, we learned how to be dedicated to our work, our jobs and careers, but also our passions, whether or not these coincided with our careers (and ideally they should). So while Matt didn't earn a living per se as a musician, he is still a professional musician in every other sense of the word. That said, most musicians have jobs that support their love of performing music. Relatively few can earn their living primarily by their music alone.

Matt also told me another story, about his first trip to China in 1987 and how his music teacher at Dartmouth asked him if he was planning to bring his horn. When he said no, his teacher scowled at him, and next thing he knew, he was bringing his horn to China. Since then, he has gone on to play a significant role in the revival and spread of jazz in China. Who knew that that scowl would be such a decisive moment in his own life and in the history of jazz in China?

These moments and passions, added up, make for a fine liberal education.

Next I'll talk about my other longtime Dartmouth alum pal, David Spindler, who taught me everything I know about the Great Wall of China...