Ray Scro: What Jazz Education Means
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?