Dave King's RATIONAL FUNK: Pedagogy, Criticism, and Productive Absurdity

Dave King is a professional.”  These five words on the about page for RATIONAL FUNK, an instructional program by drummer Dave King, credential whatever insights he offers in a video series spanning 60 episodes.  Though he has been part of many projects in [insert nearly any genre here], it is perhaps his work with the ambitious jazz (for lack of a better term) trio The Bad Plus that has won him the most recent acclaim.  In spite of what has no doubt been a very busy schedule supporting projects such as The Bad Plus’ reimagining of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a record, tours of the trio with Joshua Redman, various side projects, and a new The Bad Plus album set for release later this month, not to mention his being a family man, King somehow carved out time between December 2014 and April 2016 to create the aforementioned series of online educational videos.  These videos are irreverent and entertaining, but here I want to look at how some elements of King’s tone and implicit criticism seem to reflect values of what has been termed in the academy "the new jazz studies.”

At first glance, King’s lessons seem reminiscent of the kind of material that’s been floating around jazz pedagogy for decades.  This type of video series claims to offer secrets, “chops in a box," to lay bare the tricks of the trade, and to expose the uninitiated to the mysterious techniques of improvising deployed by the masters: the right way of approaching music and creativity. This is exactly what RATIONAL FUNK claims it will do: “RATIONAL FUNK is a complete instructional program for musicians of all skill levels, featuring tips, tricks, inspiration, and industry secrets from acclaimed drum professional Dave King (The Bad Plus).”  However, right out of the gate, RATIONAL FUNK feels different. King’s self presentation and stream-of-consciousness delivery come off as manic and even jocular to the point of parody.  But this deployment of humor masks a serious intent. Like much of his output as a leader, sideman, composer, teacher, etc., King’s “complete instructional program” is intelligent and playful.  In each five- to ten-minute episode, King talks to the camera and/or the camera operator, Joe Johnson, as if the viewer is in his studio for a lesson.  Rather than offer a sterile, mechanical explanation of a technique or process, King rambles in a free-associative manner, often about everything except whatever technique or process he’s ostensibly demystifying.  It’s as if he’s explaining his whole world to the student rather than just how to play a poly-meter.  That’s really the point of the RATIONAL FUNK series; it’s an anti-instructional video series.  By throwing the fallaciousness of pedagogical methods and an attendant music industry more interested in image and “content,” as opposed to world building human activity, into high relief, King takes the air out of the idea of buying chops, that there’s a right way to do anything.  Two things that are repeatedly on the chopping block are pedagogy in general and the personal and social effects of neoliberalism’s commoditization of art. This roasting is done by magnifying the absurdity of what is the case.

For example, Episode 4, “Artisanal Drumming / Making an Entrance / Emoting,” features a segment that teaches the student that in the image-driven culture industry, it’s often not the relationships you make, your listening, nor your humility that aid in commercial success.  Illustrating how to make an entrance, King enters a room wearing mirrored sun glasses, talking on his cellphone: “Oh, are you kidding me? No, they’re Gucci. It’s Gucci, Prada, yeah…”  He continues, disinterestedly pointing small greetings at the people in the room. Finally ending his call, he breaks the fourth wall to explain:

You roll in with a vibe like that where you’re disconnected enough to create a mystery but at the same time you’ve got a huge ego, big puffed out chest and, you know, you’ve got the chops to back it up…It appears to me after years of thinking that wasn’t cool – it appears to me that that is the type of energy that runs the world. Everyone seems to be acting like that and no one seems to be reflecting about anything. And everything seems to fine and everyone makes a shit ton of money. The more self-conscious I am, the more second guessing I am about all of my behavior, and, like, trying to be cool with everyone and trying to be gentle and be humble and those things…that is not a situation that’s rewarded in the entertainment world. That is a situation that’s rewarded if you’re like a poet or something. Um, but if you wanna play music I’m sorry but there’s no room for poetry.”

This, followed by the oft-repeated indicator of a lesson well communicated, “And [snap] that’s how you get the gig.”

As such, RATIONAL FUNK is not a simple parody of pedagogy; it’s real teaching.  King certainly talks about music in general and the drums in particular, but not in the way to which most students may be accustomed.  His assertion that one’s engagement with the music is a reflection of one’s life practices, not a commodity to be purchased, resonates with a kind of pedagogy that differs from much of what has been generated since the academy realized that jazz as an influential cultural practice is here to stay.  I am referring to the kind of “chops in a box” approach to licks and scales as well as the “great man," canonical idea of jazz history developed by historians, scholars, and pedagogues who have made it their business to squeeze a varied group of creative musical practices called jazz into the Western understanding of what art music is supposed to be.  This institutionalization of creativity has done a kind of violence to earlier, more open and practiced-based means of learning.  This violence has created a canon of jazz masters, practices, and works, glorified as representative of transcendental jazz "truths," while minimizing and often erasing the contributions of other artists, practices, and works.  To anyone actually engaged with creativity and art as life practice, this understanding of what might be termed the jazz tradition is clearly problematic.

As I mentioned in the introduction, King isn’t alone in criticizing what has become the status quo of pedagogy and the canonization to which I’ve referred.  As early as 1963, Amiri Baraka’s (LeRoi Jones') monograph Blues People illustrated blues and jazz traditions not as objects but as practices which cannot be divorced from the histories and life-worlds that produced them.2  Fast forward to 1996 and we find George Lewis’ salient 1996 conversation about what he terms the Afrological vs Eurological issue in improvised music, wherein musical performance styles generated by an African American history and social subjectivity have been squeezed into a (deeply ideologized) Western system of aesthetic understanding.3  These works and others have led a charge to interrogate the relationships of race, gender, and power to the ideas of tradition and canon-formation as jazz has become more concretized in the public sphere and the academy.

But what is it that these scholars, representing what’s sometimes called the “new jazz studies,” and Dave King, in his own way, have against a formalization of pedagogy and a canonization of artists and works?4  Gary Tomlinson explains it this way: “Like the canon of European music, the jazz canon is a strategy for exclusion, a closed and elite collection of 'classic' works that together define what is and isn’t jazz.  The definition sets up walls, largely unbreachable, between ‘true’ or ‘pure’ jazz and varieties of music-making outside it.”5  He goes on to criticize the canonized, “great works” understanding of aesthetic works present in the Western art music tradition and characterizes a notion of works in and of themselves divorced from their contextual worlds of production as absurd:

"the view that meaning (and hence, value, which only arises alongside meaning) inheres somehow in the notes themselves. Behind it lurks the absurd proposition the music alone, independent of the cultural matrices that individuals build around it, can mean—that a recording or transcription of a Charlie Parker solo, for example, or the score or performance of a Beethoven symphony, can convey something even in the hypothetical absence of the complex negotiations we each pursue with them.”6

Doing his part to destabilize formal pedagogy and canon formation, King opens Episode 1 of RATIONAL FUNK with this preamble: “This is gonna be a drum instruction series that really focuses on not only drum instruction but life instruction as well.”  And this seems to be the takeaway: that the real tip is that there are no tricks, only living the work, living the music.  Though he talks about music quite a lot, King also drives his car around and free-associates about culture (Episodes 17, 39).  He talks about his family life and even features his parents and children (Episodes 38, 42, 44, 45, 46, 50).  This all paints him as an open book to his student viewer, an absurd guru offering life lessons as much as drum lessons.

Other topics include communication, the balance between authenticity and performance, getting away from riffs and formalist learning methods, the pain of booking yourself and the field of diminishing returns, hearing the music in the world and not being a jerk, defying the arbitrary wall between high and low brow culture, the abstract and alienating nature of contemporary life, and recurring exhortations that there are no shortcuts, so stop binge watching, quit social media, and spend time with your instrument.

Having concluded with a final, 60th episode made entirely of text thanking their contributors and audience while King and cameraman Joe Johnson have a good cry, RATIONAL FUNK has called out jazz pedagogy as well as the dissonance between music making and how it is quantified and sold by the music industry, all with King’s unapologetic humor and self-deprecating grace.  These episodes are funny; but their humor isn’t cheap.  They speak to those of us who care in a hidden way about all that’s wrong with the boxes into which our economy and the weight of our Western aesthetics are trying to stuff lived musical experience.  They reply to the socially and artistically deleterious absurdity of this pedagogic and economic practice with perhaps the best, most magnanimous attitude available, productive absurdity.  “And that’s how you get the gig.”


[1] In fact, the creation of instructional video series by popular drummers is particularly well precedented. One only has to browse Jamey Aebersold’s www.jazzbooks.com to note at least thirty different jazz instructional videos from artists such as Peter Erskine, Ari Hoenig, Dennis Chambers, etc., that represent just a small corner of the oeuvre. A quick search on YouTube shows the drum instructional video to be such a well-represented trope as to have earned its own parody videos in the popular media—with, among others, drummer Jenns Hannemann (Fred Armisen) sharing his “Complicated Drumming” techniques. And If you like parody jazz instruction videos, do not miss Hans Groiner’s (Larry Golding) Jazz Piano Masterclass.

[2] LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). 1963. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Harper Collins: New York.

[3] George E. Lewis. 1996. “Improvised Music after 1950.” Black Music Research Journal 16(1):91-122.

[4] For more “new jazz studies” texts, see: Gabbard, Krin, ed. 1995. Representing Jazz. Durham: Duke University Press.; Gabbard Krin. 1995. Jazz Among the Discourses. Durham: Duke University Press.; Monson, Ingrid. 1996. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.; Fischlin, Daniel and Heble, Ajay, ed. 2004. The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialog. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.; O’Meally, Robert G., Edwards, Brent Hayes, & Griffin, Farah Jasmine, ed. 2004. Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies. New York: Columbia University Press.; Jackson, Travis A. 2012. Blowin’ The Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene. Berkeley: University of California Press. – to name a few.

[5] Gary Tomlinson. 1991. “Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian Signifies.” In Music and Historical Critique: Selected Essays, Gary Tomlinson. 129. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

[6] Ibid., 130.


Andrew J. Kluth is a Phd Candidate in UCLA's ethnomusicology department, systematic musicology specialization. His research incorporates perspectives from aesthetics, contemporary interpretive strategies, and the corpus of philosophical thought to situate questions of musical meaning and affective power. Research interests include musical experimentalism, philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, and jazz studies.





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