New jazzers slam exam board’s “out of touch” removal of genre from syllabus

Deji Ishishakin
Members of London’s thriving new jazz scene have criticised a leading exam board’s decision to drop the study of jazz from its A-Level syllabus.

The change followed pressure to reduce the music A-Level workload as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Pearson Edexcel, one of the five main exam bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, removed the work of six musicians from the course’s set works, lowering the number from 18 to 12. This included Courtney Pine, the only black composer on the syllabus, as well as Rachel Portman, the first woman to win an Academy award for best original musical score.

Patricia Pascal, founder of talent development company and youth jazz promoter Jazznewblood, said the decision shows an out of touch attitude. Having helped debut acts such as Zenel, Kokoroko and Quinn Oulton, Pascal was initially influenced in part by Tomorrow’s Warriors, an organisation committed to increasing diversity in the arts through jazz.

“The music scene is working towards a more inclusive, gender-equal industry and early music education,” she said. “The foundations of the future generations of musicians should be synchronised to reflect that effort. Young musicians need to be challenged with a more diverse pool of resources and inspirations.”

Deji Ishishakin (pictured) aka Xvngo – a former student of Edexcel’s music A-level, who now fronts the experimental jazz outfit Hypernova – agreed. “Whether it be soul, R&B, rock or funk, all of those are derived from jazz”, he said. “If you want to educate kids with a full understanding of how we got to where we are today with popular music, you need to include jazz on the syllabus.”

Defending the decision, a Pearson spokesperson said it “understands the concerns our changes have caused”, while insisting that the “volume of work was too high and needed accelerated change in light of the COVID-19 pandemic”. They added: “we will be reviewing this specification again in time for students taking exams from 2022 onwards.”

Before its removal, Courtney Pine’s Back in the Day album was studied for its commercial fusions of American modern jazz with popular music styles such as hip hop and reggae. The album also makes heavy use of sampling and covers of other songs – compositional approaches which A-level teachers often deem crucial to the study of music.

Pine, initially providing comment on the change for The Guardian, said he was at first “deeply honoured” to be included in the A-Level syllabus, and that he has met many students who are aware of the existing lack of jazz in the A-Level syllabus even before the change took place.

Among the remaining compositions on the Edexcel syllabus include works by Kate Bush, The Simpsons composer Danny Elfman, JS Bach, and Igor Stravinsky.

AQA, another exam board, also reduced its workload. However, its approach differed to Edexcel’s, choosing instead to only lower the amount of original compositions and live performances required from its students, rather than removing any set works.

Jude Iago James