New School Jazz Celebrates 20 Years With Concert
“ On this occasion the New School itself took lead billing, and the jazz stars in attendance played a decidedly supportive role. ”
New York, NY
June 20, 2007
New School's good for jazz; and it has been for a long time. As early as 1941 the New School for Social Research began holding classes in jazz, making it the first college in New York City to do so. To put this date in context, at about the same time as New School began teaching jazz classes, up at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, there was a young core of disaffected musicians pioneering the idea of jazz as uncompromised art and turning the jam session into a proving ground for young musicians as well as a talent farm for the burgeoning star system in jazz. New School's mission to create methods courses and support a mentoring system in jazz apprenticeship continues to institute the revolutionary thesiscirca 1940that jazz, especially when taken seriously as art and studied methodically, can progress.
The gala function at New School on the night of June 20th attested to the conviction that the jam session, that most intimate form of apprenticeship, still acts as the preferred form of producing jazz competence. New School provides young musicians with the proving ground and social network necessary to launch jazz careers, providing for young pupils a safe launching pad from which to take flight. In 1987 under the leadership of Arnie Lawrence and David Levy, New School introduced a full-fledged jazz department that combined this mentoring system with a curricular depth overseen by such experienced professionals as Reggie Workman and Junior Mance who both started teaching at the school's inception at that timeand by, among other more recent additions, Jane Ira Bloom. Complementing the program, performances by New School's students frequently occur in highly visible establishments in New York as well as in approximately 150 recitals annually.
New School's gala held on June 20th capped off a series of festivities surrounding the twenty-year anniversary of the department's founding. Department director and impresario for the evening Martin Mueller informed the audience that on the floorboards of that very historic stage at New School have sat a veritable bevy of jazz heavies, naming Cab Calloway and Joe Williams as just a couple of the past performers at New School. But earlier, on the night of the 17th, the floorboards positively groaned beneath the combined jazz heft that New School had in attendance for the evening: Roy Hargrove, Bernard Purdie, Barry Harris, Chico Hamilton, Junior Mance, Jim Hall, and Fred Hersch just to name a few. What did all those jazz luminaries share? They all had in common not just a connection to the school as former students or teachers: they also shared a dedication to the special sort of mentoring that New School promotes. Sharing the stage with these long proven veterans were a host of new talents, all recent graduates of the New School who can now take wing in the jazz world, initiated by veterans with vast experience and knowledge who have taught and performed with these young jazz men and women. New School grants these young musicians a positive advantage.
Opening the show was the newly-minted Doctor Chico Hamilton, who recreated his mallet solo from the classic film Jazz on a Summer's Day. Another veteran of that 1958 movie, guitarist Jim Hall, followed the doctor and, as always, got the most out of those quiet and intense little melodies between chords that he has favored ever since Train and the River days with clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre. Joining him on stage was his student Peter Bernstein, playing the role of the rebellious but apt pupil; he buckled under Hall's direction. But with his teacher's guidance, Bernstein channeled his ample energy into graceful single note lines. Then, after just one song, they exited stage left. The quick surrogation of one jazz luminary taking the place of another after just one song and the veritable parade of jazz greats made the evening a little odd. As Mueller himself pointed out on a couple of occasions, any one of these acts could warrant a full evening on their own. Extended jam sessions pushing musicians to new creative peaks may vindicate the mission of the school, but the evening was not about that. On this occasion the New School itself took lead billing, and the jazz stars in attendance played a decidedly supportive role. The limelight shone in reverse. The evening's performanceswhile still entertaining and even dazzling at momentsilluminated a sometimes neglected institution that has pumped vital life blood into the heart of jazz for a couple of decades if not a good deal longer; the format of the program made the very makings of jazz greats plainly visible.
After Hall and Bernstein's duo came the highlight of this all too brief evening in the form of the so-called alumni ensemble made up of all New School graduates. Under the direction of Reggie Workman, the former students comprising this group ranged from 1989 graduate Roy Hargrove and Marcus Strickland, 2001, to Frank LoCrasto, year of 2006. Once lined up on stage, the band fired up Freddie Hubbard's "Open Sesame." Lakecia Benjamin, class of '06, took the first turn, an immensely attractive and greasy alto solo. Behind the soloists, the alumni band was quick to adapt to each player, making rapid changes to alter the mood as necessary, once even briefly employing a salsa clave. These folks had been taught to function as one corporeal entity under the guidance of Professor Reggie Workman. This New School alumnus' ability to live and breathe as a group memberand to step out and speak for the group as an individual soloist informed the playing of all these jazz initiates. To end the solos section, this nimble body of players improvised a vamp behind the solo flight of tenor saxophonist, John Ellis, class of 1999. Ellis, who has brought impeccable timing and taste to another well-honed body of musiciansthe early 2000's Charlie Hunter bandlater shared the remarkable little entre nous that the alumnus band had learned the personnel of the group and the selection for the evening just a few brief hours before performance.
A particularly intimate duo reading Hoagy Carmichael's "The Very Nearness of You" between Fred Hersch and Jane Ira Bloom followed the Alumni band, and after them came the crowd favorite, a 6/8 time, Chicago blues-inflected "Dr. Feelgood, starring newcomer and New School alum Vickie Natae backed up by a couple of not-so- newcomers: Bernard Purdie and Junior Mance. The level of intimacy between Natae, Mance, bassist Kiyoshi Matsuyama, and what seemed an immensely pleased Purdie again signaled the success of the mentoring system that New School employs to give its students a leg up in the ever-so-competitive jazz world. Ms. Natae, alongside Lakecia Benjamin, starred at the Blue Note not long after this performance. Finally, past, present, and future came together in the so-called Anniversary All-Stars, which brought to the stage Jimmy Heath, Benny Powell, Barry Harris, Charlie Persip, and introduced to the audience the animated Maeve Royce on bass, alumni 2007, now working with Rachel Z.
With such an embarrassment of riches, what lent coherence to the evening was the spectacle of watching the new kids work it out with the veterans; the audience collectively held its breath whenever a new jam began. The veterans' very orbit and presence would have overwhelmed even the most initiated, but it seemed veteran and novice alike had attained a level of intimacy unknown to newcomers outside of this very special circle provided by the New School jazz department. Even afterwards, at the reception following the performance, these initiates and veterans mingled together sociallysometimes nervously, but always genially. This intimacy engendered by the mentoring process and close contact between vets and initiates lent a sort of confidence to the newcomers. Moments like when the delightfully nimble-fingered pianist Frank LoCrasto played a sprightly intro to bring in the Alumni All-Stars on "Open Sesame," or when Ms. Royce got a hold of the beat behind and even began pushing the Anniversary All-Stars, or when John Ellis and Lakecia Benjamin soared above the alumni band anchored by Workman provided the highlights of the evening.
Certainly, these moments were something akin to watching a tightrope act, but the real pleasure came in the sigh of relief that accompanied everybody's safe delivery. There was no schadenfreude to be had this evening. Certainly, the selections tended towards the conservative; one wonders, for instance, what all Mr. Matsuyama was capable of with that deep resonance he milked out of that gorgeously tricked-out bass. But the veteran's gaze produced a level of professionalism that far outweighed any limits an institutional setting might impose on individual freedom. Indeed, the evening was above all about communityNew School's jazz department houses a core of dedicated musicians who lovingly work together to ensure the security and perpetuity of jazz's future. Jazz's next generation stands on its own sure feet atop the shoulders of present giants.