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Blackboard, Lit Screen and Red Hot Jazz

Andrew J. Sammut By

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Teachers must find it hard to leave their job in the classroom, like Olympic runners find it hard to take their time. The best teachers educate out of reflex, and for Michael Steinman that reflex transcends classroom or course listing. Whether it's English at Nassau Community College or hot jazz on the World Wide Web, passion and pedagogy are one and the same for Steinman.

Steinman's blog, "Jazz Lives," honors the traditional jazz he's loved his whole life. He collects photos of legends past, and shoots his own video of legends in the making. Steinman calls it a celebration of excellence, yet his devotion is an event in itself. Aside from his infectious admiration for the music, Steinman's educational instincts shape every word and image. While other websites catalog the sights and sounds of this esoteric chapter of American pop, Steinman's passion for this music and self-described "didactic impulse" make for a compelling seminar in the history and future of hot jazz. Like the great authors he teaches, Steinman doesn't just tell but shows his readers what traditional jazz has offered, and continues to offer to this day. "Jazz Lives" offers history free of lecture and appreciation without self-indulgence. Like a great rhythm section, Steinman's pedagogy is felt, never forced.

A photograph from a 1937 jam session is animated by Steinman's description of "Frankie Newton [being] protected by George Wettling from the sounds of Mezz Mezzrow." It's a good-natured, winking insight that jazz aficionados will agree or disagree with, and jazz neophytes will want to understand. The music reaches a range of readers, without textbooks or Hollywood soundtracks.

Jazz has reached out to Steinman since he bought his first record at age 11. The electric guitars and shouting vocals of his youth couldn't compete with Prohibition-era pop and the swinging rhythms of the big bands: "Growing up in the sixties, The Beatles and other bands didn't have the same emotional strength and drama of Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, or Big Sid Catlett. I was basically training to be a social outcast!"

He was actually training for a lifetime of jazz journalism and scholarship. As for being a social outcast, the miracle of the internet has connected Steinman with fans throughout the globe and across decades, from toe-tapping readers in Australia to trumpeter Andy Schumm, who at 25 is just one musical connection from the 18th Amendment to the 21st century. "Jazz Lives" transcends geography and generations.

A photograph from 1956 shows father/son trumpeters Stewart and Tom Pletcher and bass saxophonist Joe Rushton pensively soaking in Bix Beiderbecke's cornet. This forgotten, amateur photograph becomes a documentary in Steinman's hands. Several musical generations within and outside the photo honor an innovative artist and departed friend. We get to know "Bix," and everyone he's touched, right down to the man sharing this image with us. It's a recording within a photograph within a profile, a triple reflection designed through Steinman's passion as listener and collector.

Steinman comments, "you can almost hear the records spinning," but his writing turns up the volume. He captures that magical moment of "listen to this" in print as well as image. Intimations of "creamy altos" and singers who "believe what [they] sing, without any overlay of dramatization" invite the reader to sit back and share in the music. Moonlighting as unofficial videographer to the stars of traditional jazz, he narrates with the energy of a sportscaster and the breadth of a painter. Hundreds of hours of his own footage grace "Jazz Lives" and YouTube, an invaluable record made all the more stirring by Steinman's attention to detail.

Filming Vince Giordano's Nighthawks, Steinman covers the full sweep of the band, but zeroes in on the leader's percussive slap bass. It's a musician's eye, even if Steinman retired his clarinet years ago. The viewer gets to see and hear what's in front, underneath and inside the music, the whole so much more than the sum of its parts.

The Nighthawks exclusively play the music of the twenties and early thirties, much of it recorded by original bands decades ago. Steinman names the source material and the musicians on the original sessions, but with a rhythmic brevity that lets you keep moving from clip to clip. Technical detail becomes superfluous with Steinman as your guide: he doesn't need to explain how the engine works to take the viewer flying.

Musicians and audiences both benefit from a place to see and hear music otherwise lost amidst the clank of glasses and the march of time. "In general, musicians are supportive, with an understandable concern whether this footage will get viewers to buy a CD or come to a future show." It's public service for music that doesn't receive the distribution or publicity of the latest midriff-flaunting chanteuse. After a laudatory review of one new release, Steinman humorously advises, "I can't write (even in jest), 'Look for it wherever better books and records are sold,' but it is available as a CD or download at, etc." A single voice goes a long way with any niche market, and Steinman spreads the word about this music as much out of gratitude as affection.

Steinman talks very little about himself. You sense that the music does so much for him that this is his way of giving back. Yet the hours he spends shooting video, the careful selection of the most stirring photography and his ebullient prose, it adds something to the music and the experience. We love this music that much more because we feel Steinman's love of it channeled with such power and skill. Even a cursory glance at the comments he receives indicates how many people are touched by his work. Gratitude from musicians, and kudos from a global readership point to something much larger than one man posting videos and comments.

There might be several faculty members teaching James Joyce or calculus, but finding that special teacher who makes the material something more, that's what education is all about. Michael Steinman has such a classroom, free and open to the world.

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