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Passing the Torch: Jazz in the Next Generation

By Published: January 25, 2007

As young jazzers mature, their listening becomes more focused, their musical vocabulary expands and their visions broaden. Kevin Blancq is primary fanner of the jazz flame at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, arguably the preeminent public institution of its kind. Music students selected for admission can audition for one of two jazz big bands, take a jazz history class, or develop their small-group skills in an after-school program supported by the Thelonious Monk Institute. Blancq, thoroughly enjoying his fifth year in this cauldron of creativity, is a passionate advocate for his students, emphasizing the importance of creating a comfortable and mutually respectful environment where young musicians can learn to communicate who they are through the language of jazz. "You have to be a person first , he reminds them, "you need to get along with people—before you're going to be a great artist. Along the way, you're going learn how to play, and that's going help you become a better person. As an accomplished classical and jazz trumpeter who has logged experience playing in noted big bands, with substantial facility on piano and drum kit as well, Blancq is more than capable of showing his students what he wants. However, he emphasizes, it's not about him, it's about them.

Significantly, a name frequently arising in Blancq's conversation is that of his own mentor and musical father-figure, George Jansen, a New Orleans legend who also taught Wynton Marsalis. After suffering a stroke that disabled half of his face and canceled his performing career, Jansen channeled his musical passion into teaching, spawning a dynasty of fine trumpeters from the Crescent City. Now, a generation later, Jansen's legacy—high standards coupled with tough but tender love—is alive and well at LaGuardia.

In his or her college years, a jazz student's thoughts turn towards developing a career and individuality. Many make the pilgrimage to Manhattan and environs to partake of the hub's many excellent secondary schools, including The New School University, Manhattan School of Music, The Juilliard School, as well as programs affiliated with Jazz at Lincoln Center (Artist Diploma) and Carnegie Hall, or numerous workshops and other informal environments such as Barry Harris' bebop classes and the structured jam sessions at University of the Streets. On-the-stand experience is available at various venues and a giddying abundance of top-flight players living in or near the city affords opportunity to study privately with living (and soon-to-be) legends.

On the national and global level, jazz education speaks to broader issues, with wider ramifications. Bill McFarlin, Executive Director of the International Association for Jazz Education—an umbrella association with some ten thousand members in forty countries—has the benefit of a broad purview of jazz pedagogy. McFarlin notes that jazz education is not only about developing better teachers in the classroom environment, it also includes assisting working musicians, clubowners and non-profit producers to become smarter consumers in order to propagate the presentation, performance and consumption of jazz. Furthermore, he adds, it embraces the historical perspective, a need to recognize and document the musicological and cultural heritage of the music. Thus jazz people can't afford to be naïve about the exigencies of marketplace economics, and plenty of commercial savvy is necessary if jazz is to have "a seat at the table with other lifestyle experiences. Greg Carroll, IAJE's Director of Education, is also concerned for the music's future, suggesting that we revisit the traditional paradigms for practicing and thinking about jazz in order to discover new avenues of accessibility and inclusivity: "The roots are very important to stay connected to, but... there's a new blossom that has been born out of that root. In other words, educators as well as people from all walks of the jazz lifestyle need to think outside of the box (the Bach's?) in order to find fresh ears, new sources of inspiration and fuel for the creative fires. It's time to improvise.

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