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?
RS: These pros inspire the students and are in turn inspired by them. It's a win-win.
AAJ: And seeing your students hear and start to enjoy jazz?
RS: Two favorite moments: after listening to our band play through an arrangement, John Reilly sat down behind the drums and played the same tune. The student drummer's comment was "I didn't know a human being could play like that!" Following the workshops Reilly and Mosca performed with [the student band]. We opened the concert while they waited backstage to join us later. We played "Boplicity" from Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool (Capitol Records, 1957). The students had worked very hard on the arrangement, even learning the solos by [Davis] and Gerry Mulligan note-for-note. Halfway through the performance I saw both Reilly and Mosca, their heads peeking out from behind the curtain, beaming.
AAJ: Do you encounter many other music teachers who are also professional musicians?
RS: Most music educators perform in varying degrees. Personally, I define myself as a musician who teaches; performing informs teaching.
AAJ: Yet you estimate that you do about sixty or more gigs a year. Do your colleagues keep a similar schedule?
RS: My performing schedule is a lot busier than most educators, and my experience is a bit different. I came to teaching at forty-three years old, after over twenty years as a professional musician. That much playing experience brings a different perspective to the classroom. For one thing, I make the students aware of it and I gain credibility. It also gives my teaching a practical and realistic point of view.
AAJ: What does that perspective add to teaching students about playing jazz?
RS: For example, much of what is known as jazz phrasing (how the written part is supposed to sound) is not specifically written out. It takes quite a bit of interpretation to make it sound authentic. My playing experience has given me insight into how to interpret. There's also the question of what makes the music swing in a relaxed way and not feel stiff. I've learned these things through experience. I go through a lot of effort in trying to figure out how to articulate these concepts to students and my real, hands on experience as a performer helps.
AAJ: What do you like best about teaching?
RS: A large part of the joy of teaching is the inquisitive energy I get from students, the sense of wonder and discovery that we are part of. Keeps me young!
AAJ: And what are the challenges in teaching jazz to students this age in a public school setting?
RS: The biggest challenge in teaching jazz is the students' complete unfamiliarity with the sound of jazz. They simply have not heard enough of it. That's why I'm constantly playing recordings and performing in class. I can only speak for myself in that I have an administration that embraces the jazz program I've developed. I know that's not always the case, not only for jazz specifically, but for the arts in general.
AAJ: What are your thoughts on why students are not exposed to jazz?
RS: Very few of the students go to hear performances of jazz. It's not really 'their" music; they're at least two generations away from it. Their exposure to this music is very limited. I try to make up for this. That's another reason I bring in guest professionals, and also play for and with the students: to get the kids to hear what jazz sounds like. Trying to play jazz without listening to it is like trying to speak Spanish without ever hearing someone speak it. So through recordings and, even better, live performances, I force-feed it to them.
AAJ: Music education, and the arts in general are usually the default "low hanging fruit" when it comes to cuts in education. What is the significance of music education, and specifically jazz, in a student's development?
RS: It's a well-known fact that students involved in music tend to do better in their academics. Yet, in most schools, we are still the first to go when budget cuts hit. This is pretty much a fact of life for most arts educators; we do the best we can. On the other hand, the state of jazz education in this country has grown tremendously in my lifetime.
AAJ: How has jazz education grown?
RS: When I was an undergraduate music student at Brooklyn College in the early 1970s I was told by the chairperson of the department that I should put aside taking lessons from Lee Konitz, and switch to clarinet studies with a classical teacher. Less than ten years later, [Brooklyn College] had a full jazz program at the school, and now every school that considers itself legitimate has jazz studies. I bring my student band to the High School Jazz Festival at Berklee [College of Music] and see literally hundreds of school jazz bands. There are brilliant young jazz players all over the world. Things have gotten better.
AAJ: If you were speaking to parents, teachers, administrators and political leaders, what would you advise them to do to make sure things keep getting better?
RS: To be a jazz musician you must have discipline, creativity, intelligence and analytical and critical thinking, the same skills that will lead to success in a wide variety of careers. Plus, you get to experience and appreciate America's greatest contribution to world culture.
Ray Scro, Bop+The Ray Scro Quintet (Self Produced, 2011)
This Old House, Live Adobe Blues (Self Produced, 2007)
Vinnie Zummo, Swinging Guitar Sounds of Young America (Vaz Music, 2006)