Passing the Torch: Jazz in the Next Generation


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As young jazzers mature, their listening becomes more focused, their musical vocabulary expands and their visions broaden.
The concept of jazz education is problematic, perhaps even oxymoronic. How do you teach someone to swing, to improvise creatively, to play with soul, to be him-or herself? In other words, Can jazz be taught? While some might argue to the contrary, numerous folks out there, on the scene, are making a difference, kindling and stoking the jazz flame, sharing their love and expertise with the music makers and listeners of the future.

Jazz education begins with listening. Those who are lucky enough to have been raised by parents with "curious ears or who have been exposed to sonically creative environments have had an early ("ear -ly?) peek at—and may have been piqued by—the possibilities of improvised music. Others catch the bug later on in life. Now a globe-spanning language, the ways of jazz are understandable at almost any age, in almost any culture. As early as preschool, children can learn to listen to and perform jazz.

Manhattan-based singer and educator Louise Rogers has accomplished amazing feats with her youngsters, some only two years-old! To develop their aural skills, Rogers uses call-and-response techniques: she'll play a background track or her husband Rick Strong will walk a bass line, then students echo her scat vocals or drummed improvisations; alternatively, she'll put on Ella Fitzgerald's "How High the Moon and have them transcribe the "doo-s , "dwee-bah's and other scat-icisms. To hone compositional instincts, she has students imagine a scenario about Charlie Parker, then compiles their ideas into an original lyric set to the tune of "Now's the Time, which they perform. She finds that connecting the musical ideas to a story line is especially effective for engaging and holding the attention of her youngest participants. To develop children's improvisational skills, Rogers has them pass a play-microphone around the circle with each student extemporizing a response to an open-ended prod such as, What did you have for breakfast? Interestingly, she reports that even kids from culturally diverse backgrounds, whose primary language may not be English, quickly become comfortable with the no-wrong-notes atmosphere of her classrooms; two children with a previous cultural and/or linguistic barrier can instantly open up a dialogue in scat-ese, producing a sense of confidence and camaraderie that transfers to other social activities.

Middle-school musicians face issues and challenges unique to their physical and mental maturity. One of under-sung miracle workers in this arena is pianist/composer Eli Yamin, the driving force behind an extremely successful series of jazz musicals staged at the Louis Armstrong Middle School in Corona, Queens. Can you imagine fifty-plus youngsters singing and dancing their hearts out to topical tunes steeped in blues, bebop and swing, including free-form interludes inspired by Sun Ra? Believe it. "Message From Saturn is one of five original jazz musicals composed by Yamin for the Jazz Drama Program; "Nora's Ark , the first in the series, is now available as a score, script and demo-CD for schools wishing to immerse their student body in jazz's cultural aesthetics.

Yamin understands the importance of finding a way to make the music relevant to young folks' lives: "You can't just go there and tell kids, 'Duke Ellington is so important and you should all know that.' That's a terrible way of trying to invite people in. You've got to find more dynamic ways to get people excited about the music and to get them to own it for themselves. Like Louise Rogers, he often begins with a story his students can relate to, then creates a jazz soundtrack for it, or he might pen new lyrics for a catchy Fats Waller tune. Like his mentor, drummer Walter Perkins, Yamin likes to structure improvisations programmatically: in a musical featuring enchanting trees slowly coming to life and menacing the protagonists, Yamin assigned a clarinetist to a particular tree with instructions to make an appropriate sound anytime the tree moved. Free improvisation is important, he stresses, because "kids need to feel right away that they can participate with their mind, body and soul. We can't teach this music so that it's so freakin' intellectual that it's twenty years before you get to say anything [laughs] of your creation!...The music is about connecting with your creative voice and being able to express that. The trick, he notes, is to find a balance between constraints: give students some parameters so they'll sound good, but not so much that they become bogged down by technique. To introduce the parameter of time, for example, Yamin has his rhythm sections play a 4/4 groove in no particular key with horns soloing on top. He contends that an overemphasis on harmony at the expense of melodic development is apt to stifle an individual's creative voice, citing Lester Young as an obvious antithesis to this trend. As a result of his activities, Yamin was asked to found and direct the Lincoln Center Middle School Jazz Academy, a vantage point from which he continues to spread the word, contending: "We can change the culture of America with jazz.

Yamin's work is just one of many artist-initiated jazz education programs. Other notable torch-bearers include Hans Benjamin Schuman, drummer and artist director of JazzReach, a non-profit outreach program featuring interactive multimedia presentations. Schuman's groups have toured all over the U. S., bringing high-quality performance standards and engaging programming to future jazzers. Hayes Greenfield runs a similar program called Jazz-A-Ma-Tazz, featuring fun for the whole family.

Another keeper-of-the-flame active on the New York scene is bassist and band director Sergio Larios, a veteran of the public school system who now teaches at Eleanor Roosevelt Intermediate School in Washington Heights. Described by one colleague as a "role-model teacher who "has really nurtured so many wonderful kids who just wouldn't have gotten out of that neighborhood if it wasn't for what they did in music , Larios has offered opportunity and optimism where it counts the most.

Wynton Marsalis, through the offices of Lincoln Center and with the support of his orchestra, has brought jazz lore to youngsters across the nation. In a recent Apollo Theater performance/workshop "What is an Arranger? Marsalis explored options open to jazz composers, comparing these to the articles of clothing one picks out when getting dressed for the day. To the audience's amusement, many of the orchestra members were decked out in fairly outlandish sartorial "arrangements. To illustrate these options musically, he introduced the various sections (trumpet, trombone, saxophone & rhythm) by having them play individually and in combination with each other. Using Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train as a common denominator, he had each saxophone (baritone, tenor & alto) play the melody, followed by the brass clothed in various mutes (straight, cup & wah-wah), to show the range of available timbres. More importantly, he called on several musicians to play the tune in their own style, emphasizing the individuality of these idiosyncratic interpretations. To demonstrate differences in groove, the band played short arrangements of "A Train employing latin, swing, ballad and hip-hop time-feels (predictably, the latter got the most enthusiastic response). Marsalis introduced musical terms such as decrescendo, crescendo, and dynamics, challenged audience members to define and repeat them out loud, and then demonstrated these concepts with musical excerpts. The Apollo audience ranged from elementary schoolers—who were bouncing on their seats when the music swung hard, much to the bandleader's bemused chagrin—to high schoolers, with food-for-thought available to all appetites.

As young jazzers mature, their listening becomes more focused, their musical vocabulary expands and their visions broaden. Kevin Blancq is primary fanner of the jazz flame at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, arguably the preeminent public institution of its kind. Music students selected for admission can audition for one of two jazz big bands, take a jazz history class, or develop their small-group skills in an after-school program supported by the Thelonious Monk Institute. Blancq, thoroughly enjoying his fifth year in this cauldron of creativity, is a passionate advocate for his students, emphasizing the importance of creating a comfortable and mutually respectful environment where young musicians can learn to communicate who they are through the language of jazz. "You have to be a person first , he reminds them, "you need to get along with people—before you're going to be a great artist. Along the way, you're going learn how to play, and that's going help you become a better person. As an accomplished classical and jazz trumpeter who has logged experience playing in noted big bands, with substantial facility on piano and drum kit as well, Blancq is more than capable of showing his students what he wants. However, he emphasizes, it's not about him, it's about them.

Significantly, a name frequently arising in Blancq's conversation is that of his own mentor and musical father-figure, George Jansen, a New Orleans legend who also taught Wynton Marsalis. After suffering a stroke that disabled half of his face and canceled his performing career, Jansen channeled his musical passion into teaching, spawning a dynasty of fine trumpeters from the Crescent City. Now, a generation later, Jansen's legacy—high standards coupled with tough but tender love—is alive and well at LaGuardia.

In his or her college years, a jazz student's thoughts turn towards developing a career and individuality. Many make the pilgrimage to Manhattan and environs to partake of the hub's many excellent secondary schools, including The New School University, Manhattan School of Music, The Juilliard School, as well as programs affiliated with Jazz at Lincoln Center (Artist Diploma) and Carnegie Hall, or numerous workshops and other informal environments such as Barry Harris' bebop classes and the structured jam sessions at University of the Streets. On-the-stand experience is available at various venues and a giddying abundance of top-flight players living in or near the city affords opportunity to study privately with living (and soon-to-be) legends.

On the national and global level, jazz education speaks to broader issues, with wider ramifications. Bill McFarlin, Executive Director of the International Association for Jazz Education—an umbrella association with some ten thousand members in forty countries—has the benefit of a broad purview of jazz pedagogy. McFarlin notes that jazz education is not only about developing better teachers in the classroom environment, it also includes assisting working musicians, clubowners and non-profit producers to become smarter consumers in order to propagate the presentation, performance and consumption of jazz. Furthermore, he adds, it embraces the historical perspective, a need to recognize and document the musicological and cultural heritage of the music. Thus jazz people can't afford to be naïve about the exigencies of marketplace economics, and plenty of commercial savvy is necessary if jazz is to have "a seat at the table with other lifestyle experiences. Greg Carroll, IAJE's Director of Education, is also concerned for the music's future, suggesting that we revisit the traditional paradigms for practicing and thinking about jazz in order to discover new avenues of accessibility and inclusivity: "The roots are very important to stay connected to, but... there's a new blossom that has been born out of that root. In other words, educators as well as people from all walks of the jazz lifestyle need to think outside of the box (the Bach's?) in order to find fresh ears, new sources of inspiration and fuel for the creative fires. It's time to improvise.

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