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Dropping the only black composer and Jazz from Edexcel’s A-level syllabus is a damaging decision that must be reversed

Award winning Jazz musician, composer and Piano Professor Robert Mitchell writes for The Ivors Academy.

Robert Mitchell

The announcement from the examination body Pearson Edexcel that they are cutting Courtney Pine CBE, both the only black composer and Jazz, from their A-level Music syllabus-right at the start of 2021 is appalling.

It is a tragedy for young students taking an exam that might determine their long-term futures in the arts. This comes alongside a number of severe pressures currently threatening the future of arts in the UK and their abilities to interact internationally.

So many of us are still reeling from 2020. A year that has awakened a lot of young people to racial inequality. Add in a vastly increased awareness of the climate crisis. In combination with a (hopefully) rare but brutal pandemic. All of these matters are global. Anything that can help us to know each other more fully will help find the best collective solution to these problems of the age.

We should be overseeing an opening of education options and inclusions – instead of the opposite. Music enhances creativity in all spheres, it fires our empathy and understanding, and supports problem solving, which includes badly needed creativity amongst political leadership.

This is being written as we see how Covid has exposed the far-reaching and tragic consequences of inequality. Democracy in the USA is facing its sternest test for generations. Pearson has a vast stake in US, UK and international education. In 1844 when they were founded – we were seemingly millennia from a time when black creativity would be deemed worthy to be taught, let alone widely disseminated. Female composers were not acknowledged. Period. Pearson’s existence includes the history of Jazz in its entirety so far. It had not appeared in its syllabus until recently – why are such public moves in a backward direction being initiated now? When and how was the decision made?

Courtney Pine is an international Jazz legend. His influence goes far and wide enough to be highly registered on lists of the most important black Britons ever. The music to be removed comes from one of his pivotal albums amidst a movement that helped bring a wave of popularity to an art form said to be waning in appreciation for 20 years. The removal is also of an important cultural memory as well as an erasure of two categories in one go. Could this reduction not have been at the expense of both the only black and Jazz representative? Some may say there are bigger names globally, but this is a UK syllabus that should reflect the contribution of black UK composers.

Far from enough acknowledgement has been given to the black contribution to UK Jazz culture from Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson onwards. For those doubtful about the comparative creative abilities to their US legends – then multiple syllabi should open minds by including names like Reginald Forsythe (whose music was played by Louis Armstrong), Winifred Atwell (20 million instrumental UK album sales – still unbeaten), Joe Harriott, Kwamlah (Cab) Kaye (who played with Dizzy Gillespie) and Gail Thompson (who played with Art Blakey). Given the heritage of this music the disparity is still too great. Given the reach of several UK exam boards whose syllabi for instrumental exams have been international for over a century…this can only be deliberate.

Cutting out Jazz is also a massive mistake. The music has informed many styles of music that have gone on to be hugely popular. We are at a time where a vast array of UK Jazz talent, from multiple generations – is currently creating and contributing brilliance to culture here and abroad. Does it then make sense that a whole category of UK music – whose creativity has always been superb and whose popularity is also on the up – should be excluded from this syllabus after only recently being included? It has earnt a permanent place through nearly a century of seminal contributions.

Teachers are overwhelmed by the pandemic. This has been made worse by poor leadership from the Government and the Department of Education at a critical time. There are a myriad of passionate UK Jazz musicians who would gladly help to explain how this incredible music works and why it is so important to acknowledge.

Generations of all cultures in the UK have grown up having never come across names like these in classical music; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, George Bridgetower, Julius Eastman, Undine Smith-Moore, Ignatius Sancho, Margaret Bonds, Florence Price and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The paltry growth rate of their inclusion in performance, recording, broadcast and publishing suggests it will be the 22nd Century before amazing talents like this start to become fully recognised. This is in spite of luminaries like Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, her Chineke Orchestra and the success of the Kanneh-Masons. How many budding composers are now not even entertaining the idea due to never seeing examples of so many creative high-flyers who look like them?  How many more forgotten names need to be unearthed before we understand there is amazing musical talent – everywhere?

The pandemic has heightened the reliance on culture – online, recorded and published. This is absolutely critical for mental and spiritual health. This should result in the appearance of more inclusive and innovative curriculums online as a response to the curtailment of what were normal educational procedures. There should be provision for all children in need to be provided with tablets, as has been urgent since before the pandemic began.

Students need to be challenged and have their minds and awareness opened. 2020 forced the pace concerning several major issues all pertinent to these young generations. The internet provides infinite chances for inclusion to be reflected in a syllabus. We have infinitely more powerful communication abilities compared with the last major global pandemic. The world gets smaller. Education should broaden.

For Pearson Edexcel and for all the exam boards who will affect arts education so deeply whilst it’s over a precipice, I call on you to show resilience and leadership. Reflect what is around you that has more than proven its worth. The study of music increases these very abilities. Please use it to expand souls and minds in ways that this music has, long before there were exam boards.

The Ivors Academy extends an open invitation for constructive dialogue on this matter. Courtney Pine must be reinstated. Jazz must be included on every music curriculum.

Robert Mitchell, Chair of the Educational Publishing Working Group, The Ivors Academy.


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