Ray Scro: What Jazz Education Means
For Ray Scro, music education is a redundancy. He's been performing, studying and teaching music for nearly fifty years in his home of Staten Island, and throughout New York City. In the early seventies Scro studied under saxophonist and guru Lee Konitz, and he's played with Jimmy Knepper, Chuck Wayne, Charlie Persip, and Chico Hamilton, among others. In addition to his own groups, he works regularly alongside bass legend and jazz scribe Bill Crow. For fifteen years, Scro has also served as Band Director at Curtis High School in Staten Island, and was head of the Performing Arts department for six.
While arts education is often discussed as a socially relevant abstraction, Scro is on the ground ensuring that the next generation of jazz musicians understands where the music came from as well as why it needs to keep going.
All About Jazz: Most seven year olds are reaching for a baseball mitt or toy gun. What made you grab a clarinet?
Ray Scro: I started music lessons at seven because my parents made it part of my life, as well as baseball and toy guns. My brother and I were simply expected to play an instrument.
AAJ: How did you first get introduced to jazz?
RS: The first jazz musician I remember hearing was Stan Getz (introduced to me by an older cousin, a beatnik wannabe). As a teenager I played in the horn section of a rock band and the pianist hipped me to Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Lee Konitz brought me to understand and love Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and I can't get enough Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Sidney Bechet.
AAJ: Konitz is respected as a mentor as well as a musician. Has his pedagogy influenced your approach to teaching?
RS: My teaching method and philosophy are profoundly influenced by Lee. The importance of a historical understanding of the music is something he stresses: you don't have to play like Louis Armstrong but you better know his music.
AAJ: Have you been able to adapt Konitz's method for teaching a single, advanced player to a group of teenaged students?
RS: Part of Lee's method is learning how to apply the theoretical knowledge of harmony to the actual practice of improvising by limiting the available note choices and rhythmic values. For example, improvising a solo using only whole notes selected from chord tones. This gets the student to internalize the sound of the harmonies. Very simply, the student learns what notes sound "right." We do this in class as a group: the rhythm section will play through the tune while the sax section plays whole notes, or half notes or some simple rhythmic riff. We'll use these riffs as background parts in a kind of 'head arrangement' of the song.
AAJ: How do students respond to Konitz's method?
RS: The students respond favorably! They gain confidence in their ability to create using the given theory. We'll move from this to individuals soloing over these riffs.
AAJ: Does your own career as a musician influence your teaching?
RS: I constantly relate my playing experience to my students in class, for example [explaining that] "when I'm playing second tenor in a big band my job is to copy the phrasing of the lead alto" or "when I'm soloing I'm trying to listen to and feed off the pianist." I regularly bring in bands of my own to perform for the students, and many students attend my performances.
AAJ: What types of ensembles do you play in?
RS: In addition to [jazz, blues, folk and pop trio] This Old House and [performing, arranging and composing with The Ray Scro/Mike Morreale Big Band], I do many small band jazz gigs. For years I led a steady quartet, doing standards as well as my own compositions. Recently, however, I've been mixing it up, using different combinations: quartets using a variety of players (some former students at times), a trio with a vibraphonist, a quartet with Bill Crow and two other horn players (modeled after the Gerry Mulligan piano-less groups). In addition to this I've worked as a sideman with other bands in a variety of styles (mainstream, Latin, funk, etc.). I try to play as much as possible and remain open to diverse musical genres [...] I'm surrounded by valuable resources in the musicians I work with. I often pick their brains or bring them in to do workshops with the students. I know I can't do this all on my own, so I call upon other professionals to work with my students.
AAJ: Who are some of the musicians you've brought in to work with your students?
RS: Over the years I've brought in John Mosca and John Reilly from the Village Vanguard Orchestra, Bill Crow, Jimmy Knepper, and Don Hahn, from Maynard Ferguson's band, to mention a few.
AAJ: What's it like seeing that type of generational exchange?