Imagine the scene: The room is dark, pitch black. Not a sound is heard. The players sit quietly, poised, ready to perform. No distractions, just the musicians and their instruments. Instructions are given. The music begins to fill the room . . . The scenario is actually a classroom setting, a course called “Black Out” where students learn to sharpen and sensitize the acuity of their ears to the feeling of their instruments, to focus on making music without any extraneous diversions. It is one of several innovative concepts that David Bloom has integrated into his program at the Bloom School of Jazz. Whether it is the professional wishing to deepen their musical expression or the amateur in need of the basics, the school welcomes students from all levels, ages and backgrounds. “Our goal at the school is to take beginners and teach them to be good enough to go out and play, and for professionals to compete on the world stage,” says Bloom.
The institution was conceived in 1975 when Bloom taught theory and ear-training to eager instrumentalists of every type from his classroom on Rush Street, upstairs from the supper club and jazz lounge, Jilly’s. After listening to Motown bands in the mid-60’s and blues musicians such as Buddy Guy, Bloom began to realize that jazz music was about personal expression. “That has guided me a lot in terms of what I try to do with students. . . a lot of people have really come out of their shells.” This idea of observing the masters and articulating their concepts was, and continues to be, the driving force of his program.
Four years after the school opened its doors the jazz combo program was born. Musicians could now focus on group interaction, building arrangements, and crafting the nuances that make a jazz combo’s sound sparkle. Throughout the years Bloom has seen many musicians pass through his tutelage, including notable Chicagoans Larry Gray, Ryan Cohan, Cliff Colnot, Steve Rodby, Loren Cohen and Todd Howe. Some players have studied at the Bloom school since 1997, when Bloom moved to 218 S. Wabash in the heart of the loop. A quick tour of the premises reveals the working environment that has shaped many who have passed through. It’s an impressive space, with ample room for rehearsing, practice and recording. One room houses a grand piano, amplifiers, a drum set, and various books and recordings. In another room sits a CD listening library, while still another has a multi-track recorder.
Bloom has designed a well-balanced curriculum, consisting of courses like “Intro to Jazz,” an ear-training and theory course, “The Jazz Artist Program” and “Jazz Awareness,” a four-week history course that examines the great musicians of jazz and explains why they are revered.
A special source of pride is Bloom’s “Perfect Set” course, designed for the serious jazz musician deeply commitment to making art. It runs for an intensive six-month term. “The idea of the course is that the students prepare all the music, all originals. We work a lot on group interaction and improvisation,” states Bloom. Recently, these groups have brought the result of their hard work to Jazz Showcase, where their focused listening, and their composing and performing skills in the spirit of the jazz masters have culminated in a series of impressive concerts before large, attentive audiences.
All students, regardless of their level, will get the chance to perform. “We have about ten to fifteen concerts a year, vocals or the groups . . . or together on the same gig. For the vocal course we have a professional (pianist) in every class,” says Bloom. The final session is a dress rehearsal for the concert. To accompany the vocal students, a professional bassist and drummer are brought in to form a trio with the pianist. At Jazz Showcase and Andy’s they show off their stuff after a semester’s hard work. What better way to end a course than an evening of fun?
It is clear from talking with Bloom and reviewing student feedback that his pupils receive a great deal of personal attention. Since jazz is an art form that allows room for personal expression, nurturing talent is crucial. “We usually have six or seven people in a class, which are three hours long. We tape them, we play them back, we fix things . . . we give everybody the opportunity,” Bloom says. Musicians can be assured they won’t be lost in the crowd!
Since the classes are small there is much interaction between the students and their teachers. The rest of the faculty is seasoned veterans. Jim Sellers teaches piano and is a vocal coach. Jim Trompeter handles piano and improvisation. Paul Wertico teaches drums, Spider Saloff voice, Kevin Guin bass and Nick Besesi saxophone and flute. Students can choose to take one-on-one private lessons with these teachers on their instruments for an eight-week period, with the option of renting an instrument. Besides the regular Chicago faculty, out-of-towners will occasionally make special one-day appearances. Bloom, like the others surveyed, agrees that these guest artists strengthen the program. “One of our concepts here is that students should learn right from the horse’s mouth. The real truth comes from meeting the jazz legends themselves.” Working with the masters allows students to find out the why and how of they achieved their level of greatness. Within the last several months saxophone guru Dave Leibman and young tenorist Chris Potter have imparted their wisdom in these seminars. Other impressive artists in the past include Donald Byrd, Johnny Griffin, John Scofield and Randy Weston. Bloom schoolers are always encouraged to perform in the masterclasses. What these masters possess is really what is at the heart of Bloom’s teaching. “I demand directions in solos,” he emphatically states. “Technique that does not serve ideas or human expression” is not music making. “There is so much sense-making with great players,” he adds. From his years of listening and performing, Bloom always strives to impart to his pupils not only what constitutes a good solo but what makes a good musician: “When you listen to Coltrane, or whatever your exalted stuff is, [you] don’t hear an ounce of self-reference . . . all I hear is people who are showing us how much they love music, how much they revere it.” It’s not about ego, it’s about serving the music. Bloom’s perspective on teaching differs from other conventional approaches. “Within these walls we demand a very strong aesthetic. Jazz is freedom with form rather than freedom from form,” says Bloom. “Most players are not great in making melodies up in pure, static chords,” adds Bloom. Rather than teaching a series of memorized “licks,” Bloom sees the learning process in a different light: “Most of the restrictions [in jazz programs] have to do with harmony. My restrictions are much more linguistic, having to do with language, hearing sentences, paragraphs, dynamics and articulations. I demand it.” Details and subtleties lead an average-to-competent soloist into a more artistic realm. Bloom has seen over the years many of his students use these concepts in their playing. And how they have grown! When asked about the Chicago scene, Bloom agrees that the city is filled with plenty of talented players, but many lack the fundamental skills that would transform them from being merely a good soloist to a more complete musician. “I think the jazz players neglected the whole idea of presentation of music . . . getting carried away with their own chops,” says Bloom. When hearing the masters, Bloom has seen time and again that “every note is connected to emotion.” What would David like to see more of in our city? “I would like to see a camaraderie with musicians again. The old Jazz Showcase on Rush Street was a great place . . . people were looking up instead of down. People were in awe.”
Bloom sums up his program with these words: “We try to find people that are very hungry for jazz, and then we give them the tools that they need in order to express themselves.” As the 2002 semester comes to a close and students take their holiday break, the memorable, visceral experience of “Black Out” will stay fresh in their minds. After the music is made and the lights in the rehearsal room are brought up, Bloom smiles and asks one female student, “So how did you feel about it?” The girl responded, “Kind of special.”
This article was submitted on behalf of Chris White. It was first published in Chicago Jazz Magazine