All of which added a rich layer of subtext to Mr. Marsalis’s spectacular early career, underscoring jazz’s natural cycle of mentorship and apprenticeship. That guildlike process, by which young musicians absorb invaluable lessons from their elders, was then famously being upheld by bandleaders like Blakey, a volcano of a drummer, and Betty Carter, a spitfire of a singer. Informal but rigorous, and pragmatic to the core, experience with veterans like these was seen as an essential path to success.
That trajectory might seem a little less certain now. Beginning in the 1990s, a decade that saw the deaths of Blakey, Davis and Carter, jazz’s apprenticeship system has routinely been described as woefully diminished. That’s surely the case in market terms, given that so few jazz musicians can keep a working band on payroll in today’s climate. But it’s not as if there are fewer apprentices availing themselves of counsel.
“It’s definitely helped shape me, musically and as a person,” Godwin Louis, a 26-year-old alto saxophonist living in Harlem, said of the mentorship he has received during his fledgling solo career. “But I’d add that it is indeed a different dynamic now than the way things were. All my connections have been through school.”
Mr. Louis — a recent graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance and the Berklee College of Music before that — isn’t wrong, and he isn’t alone. These days Mr. Marsalis administers tutelage through the educational arm of Jazz at Lincoln Center, while countless others serve as mentors in conservatories, from the Manhattan School of Music to the California Institute of the Arts. Like so much else involving jazz’s training arc, the apprenticeship model has been formalized and made accessible for a fee.
It’s easy to find fault with that shift, as many have over the years. But the current situation isn’t quite so clear-cut. Apprenticeship lurks outside the academy, for those resourceful enough to find it. Many prominent jazz artists still make a point of featuring younger talent in their bands, and many of the best up-and-comers seek out their elders as a matter of course. At the same time jazz is better fostered in institutions than it was in the era when Mr. Marsalis dropped out of Juilliard. The result is a hybrid reality that has recently produced a wave of sophisticated young improvisers with well-formed ideas about composition, band cohesion and their relationship to an aesthetic continuum.
This new bumper crop — musicians like Gerald Clayton, Aaron Diehl, David Virelles, Kris Bowers, Fabian Almazan, John Escreet, Jonathan Batiste and Christian Sands, and that’s just pianists under 30 — has availed itself of mentors both in and out of the academy. And that blend of opportunities doesn’t indicate a drought; it suggests that the tradition of jazz apprenticeship is thriving again, albeit in different forms.
Why are jazz apprenticeships so vital in the first place? For one thing the music essentially models a community, with every ensemble thriving on communication, a code of ethics and an implicit grasp of roles. Jazz is also still a young music, with about a century of precedent, imperfectly captured on record and poorly served by written notation. Its lifeblood is the direct transmission of a vast, intangible body of knowledge. Consult an alumnus of Blakey’s ad-hoc academy, and you’ll likely hear descriptions of gruff but avuncular insight: wisdom from the trenches, so to speak.
It’s worth noting that mentorship happens at various stages, often in high school or earlier. (Mr. Marsalis, the product of a musical family in New Orleans, obviously had a leg up in that regard.) Last week on his blog Ethan Iverson published a long-form interview on this subject with his former piano guru, Fred Hersch. Delving into his own history of apprenticeship, Mr. Hersch reflects on his formative experience with the likes of the bassist Sam Jones. But long before that, there was Jimmy McGary, a saxophonist little known outside the scene in Cincinnati. “Jimmy was the best teacher by being almost a nonteacher,” Mr. Hersch recalls in the interview, a must-read for anyone curious about the myriad forms jazz mentorship can take.
Institutions like the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music now take pains to engineer a few of those forms, an effort that hasn’t gone unnoticed by high school players deciding where to apply or which scholarship to accept. In principle this isn’t new: Mr. Hersch attended the New England Conservatory of Music for the express purpose of studying with the pianist Jaki Byard, which is the same enticement that led Jason Moran, almost 20 years later, to the Manhattan School of Music.
But in practice the institutional student-apprentice ideal means that more college-level players are being coached under a simulacrum of real-world conditions. And more professors are bringing their charges into the real world, hiring them for recordings or tours. The unclassifiable composer and multireedist Anthony Braxton has made this his custom at Wesleyan University, which is a beacon of experimental music largely because of his longtime tenure there. (His protégés have included the saxophonist Steve Lehman and the guitarist Mary Halvorson, among dozens of others.)
For his part Mr. Louis, the young alto saxophonist, swears by the guidance of Ralph Peterson, a drummer with whom he studied at Berklee. He has worked as a sideman with Mr. Peterson then and since, in the band Generation Next. In his own band Mr. Louis features a couple of peers from his class at the Monk Institute, which until last year was overseen by the trumpeter Terence Blanchard, a former Jazz Messenger and a major steward of young talent himself. The institute has built its entire program around mentorship, with input from a board that includes Mr. Hancock and the saxophonist Wayne Shorter. And it has groomed some of the music’s sharpest newer talent, like the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.
But it’s no coincidence that Mr. Akinmusire has also served a tour of duty with the visionary alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, an important mentor to more than one generation of adventurous improvisers. Mr. Coleman has long cultivated young musicians as sidemen, notably in his working band, Five Elements. In recent years he has also led a series of Monday-night workshops at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan.
Mr. Coleman’s influence on the current jazz landscape also extends through many of his former collaborators, who are now mentors too. The trumpeter Ralph Alessi presides over the School for Improvisational Music in Brooklyn, which upholds a collectivist model of instruction. Along similar lines, the pianist Vijay Iyer recently became director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in Canada.
“There’s a lot about music, especially improvisational music, that you learn in the course of performance and nowhere else,” Mr. Iyer said recently, reflecting on his own experience with Mr. Coleman and some older lions of the avant-garde, like Roscoe Mitchell and Wadada Leo Smith.
It’s likely that even Mr. Marsalis, with his staunchly different set of aesthetic values, would agree with that assessment. Jazz’s apprenticeship system, after all, flows freely across the fault lines of ideology. It can take root in a classroom as well as a club. And judging by the track records of certain former prodigies, it has a way of perpetuating itself.