Real Jazz at The Real School

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Big Jazz Nerd,

I'm a high school senior and the first-chair alto saxophonist in my school's jazz ensemble. I like playing in the band and I'm thinking about majoring in music in college. Could you recommend some top of the line music schools that specialize in jazz performance?

Spencer McLaughlin, Ponca City, OK


Congrats on your decision to study jazz in college. Like Bird said, now's the time. But as you probably know, not all college jazz programs are the same. In fact they're a lot like cheap vacuum cleaners: a few suck and the rest blow.

Before you swallow your reed, let me explain. There are a handful of excellent schools that specialize in jazz. Eastman, Berklee, The New School, North Texas State, each have earned reputations as first-tier music colleges due in part to their famous faculty and hotshot alumni. And every year on graduation day these formidable institutions of higher jazz learning turn out a fresh batch of skilled composers and performers. Close your eyes and imagine their young fresh faces bobbing in a sea of caps and gowns, diplomas held high, smiling and waving to proud family members. Now imagine your face among them, Spence, a graduate from a top-flight music college. There's Mom applauding wildly as you approach the stage to shake hands with the dean. Now she's tearing up, overcome with pride for her grown up son. Dad too is crying. He's balling like a baby over the tens of thousands of dollars he's pissed away so you could diddle your horn.

When recommending a prestigious jazz college one must consider the bottom line. Is it worth all the money they charge for tuition? Yes, if: (1) you're good enough to secure a full-ride scholarship, (2) your parent's house has a service entrance, or (3) you're skilled in the art of identity theft. But if you answered no to each of these possibilities, then I suggest enrolling in the jazz program at your local community college.

Of course, there is another option that may be right for you: The Real School.

The Real School (my alma mater: full disclosure) is an alternative, non-profit, non-accredited university designed to train student musicians in the art of jazz performance. For real. There are no grades, no transcripts, and Real School faculty members are all soon-to-be-working musicians who attended prestigious jazz colleges before dropping out after a semester or two.

There are currently three Real School campuses in the United States. The main campus in Boston was established in 1976 by Professor Fuzz (a.k.a. That Guy Who Looks Like Pat Methany). It's a basement apartment on Massachusetts Avenue across from the Berklee Performance Hall. The New York City campus is located in Washington Square Park, directly north of the fountain, third bench to the right of the big tree. Ask for a guy named Papers, he's the student enrollment officer. The Real School's L.A. campus is a pilot program in mobile education. The director is Toby, bassist, really cool guy. He conducts classes out of his van parked somewhere along Venice Beach.

Popular jazz performance courses offered at The Real School include: Weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, Schlepping Gear, The Hang, Stretching the 15-minute Break into an Hour, What Time's the Gig, and Living on Ten Dollars a Week. Required reading for all Real School students is The Real Book. Duh. Has been for the last 30 years.

The Real School also offers internship opportunities. Thanks to a longstanding partnership with city transit authorities, The Real School provides students with access to public performance spaces in the subway, where they become skilled in busking basics, audience apathy, and playing short solos (especially during rush hours when the trains run every three minutes).

Perhaps the best thing about The Real School is the student body, your fellow jazz nerds, chummy guys with endearing nicknames like Train Wreck, Tin Ear, Clams, and F-hole. When, in response to your letter, I decided to pay my old alma mater a visit, F-hole was the one who finally answered the door. I guess if you knock on the front door there's a chance no one will hear you because of the stereo, so next time you should go outside and pound hard on the laundry room window, he said.

Our tour of the two-bedroom campus/apartment was brief. F-hole informed me that Real students are a close, tight-knit group where everybody knows each other, sometimes sleeping 10 to a room. A culture of camaraderie was immediately apparent; new students are encouraged to paint on the walls in Real School colors: black, brown and beige. And of course, in a music college one can expect to hear music playing at all times. Campus life revolves around the stereo where anyone can play whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as they check with F-hole first.

I was fortunate to meet a number of Real jazz students during my campus visit, and, seizing the opportunity, I ventured a few questions.

What were their main influences? "Bud! replied one young man, no doubt in reference to Bud Powell, the pioneering bebop pianist. "Herb! called out another, clearly referring to guitarist great Herb Ellis. "Mary J! hollered a third, while holding up a lighter in one hand and a long cylindrical object in the other. I nodded in approval. Mary J. Blige, although technically not jazz, is certainly one soulful singer. These kids had done their homework.

Next I asked the students what skills, apart from music, they had to fall back on after graduation. An awkward pause preceded hysterical laughter, then I noticed Clams pointing to the futon rolled up in the corner.

Before we said our goodbyes, I asked F-hole to compare his Real School experience with the experience someone might typically receive at a big name music college like Berklee.

"At Berklee, sure, you're probably going to develop an aesthetic and critical understanding of the meaning of quality performance and be able to define quality using technical and interpretive musical criteria, he replied, pausing to gnaw on a Slim Jim, "and, yeah, you'll probably develop a sufficient theoretical, conceptual and philosophical background in the area of musical performance to cope with and adjust to a lifetime of will-crushing debt.

"Wow. Can you get all at The Real School? I wondered.

"All that, minus the will-crushing debt, said F-hole, smiling.

"How much is tuition?

"A bag of groceries from Trader Joe's.


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