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Wouter Turkenburg: Jazz Education in the New Millennium

Victor L. Schermer By

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All About Jazz and Wouter Turkenburg would like to dedicate this interview to the memory of saxophonist Michael Brecker (1949-2007). In addition to his prodigious accomplishments as an instrumentalist and band leader, Brecker was an exceptional worldwide teacher and mentor, both by example and instruction in countless workshops and classes. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music and left a jazz legacy that will forever provide a role model and inspiration for students and aspiring musicians.

[This is the fifth of an All About Jazz series of interviews and articles on "The Many Faces of Jazz Today: Critical Dialogues" in which we explore the current state of jazz around the world with musicians, scholars, educators, and entrepreneurs who give us their own unique perspectives.]

Jazz education has changed radically since the days of hot jazz, swing, and bebop when musicians mostly learned jazz "on the street" by playing and talking with other musicians. Today, jazz schools and university departments abound, and most young players take extensive coursework and mentoring to jump-start their careers. Their studies are having a profound influence upon the music and the way in which the musicians pursue their careers. At the same time, jazz has become a global enterprise, and the digital age is changing everything. Serious musical education is the main way that musicians can keep up with all the changes that are taking place at breakneck clip.

Wouter Turkenburg is in a unique position to observe these changes. In 1989, he and saxophonist David Liebman co-founded the International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ), and for nearly three decades they have been meeting jazz educators and musicians worldwide in dialogues about learning and teaching, A guitarist and musicologist, Turkenburg is long-time head of the jazz department of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands. Currently, he is also engaged in research on the historiography of the history of jazz in Europe. In this interview, he brings his unique combination of scholarly, historical, and hands on perspectives to help explain the role of jazz education today.]

All About Jazz: For a warmup, and to get to know you, tells us about your musical preferences, which is also important for our discussion. What are some of your favorite recordings that would you take to that desert island?

Wouter Turkenburg: I would definitely bring a record of Michael Brecker. I saw him perform with Steps Ahead in 1985, so I would take their record, Modern Times (Elektra/Asylum Records, 1984).That was a game changer for me. I'd take an early Charlie Parker recording. I really like the Charlie Parker recordings where the rhythm section still plays swing, and he's on top of his time, and you can hear him trying out all those new licks. I keep being impressed by Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). I love Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. Being a guitarist myself, I go for guitarists like Bill Frisell, John Scofield, and Pat Metheny. And singers should be on the list: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald. And a record by Keith Jarrett, one of his "Standards" trio-recordings on ECM. And pianist Aaron Parks' album, Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008), which I think is one of the most important recordings of the last decade.

From Classical Guitarist to Head of the Jazz Department at the Conservatory

AAJ: You trained as a classical guitarist, so how and when did you become interested in jazz?

WT: I came to jazz somewhat late in my musical development. I studied classical guitar, but I wanted to know more about music in general, so I went to the University of Amsterdam to study musicology. It was the late 1970s, and jazz wasn't a big part of the curriculum. But in order to pay for my studies, I got hired for a Dutch version of a Broadway musical called Masquerade. It was very funny, there were men in drag, and the orchestra consisted of jazz musicians. I earned good money for the gig, and during the sound check, we would play jazz, all the standards. They taught me how to improvise, and in turn I shared my advanced knowledge of chords and so on. I really enjoyed it, and as I was graduating, I bought a ticket for the North Sea Jazz Festival. Then I lost my ticket, but I called the box office, and somehow I got connected to the founder and director, Paul Acket. He didn't believe that I lost the ticket, but I insisted it was true. Then we both laughed, and he said, "OK Come to the box office and get your ticket. It will be waiting for you." Amazingly, it was a front row seat, and right in front of me were Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Branford Marsalis, and Wynton Marsalis. I still get goosebumps when I think about it. At that moment, I totally knew I had to be involved in jazz.

So I went to the head of the music department of the Music Lyceum in Amsterdam and asked her if I could form a jazz combo, and she said I could put out a notice to the students. I just wanted to start a quintet, but we had so many applicants that I had many good players, so I started a big band. So with very little experience, I started teaching jazz at the music school, and the big band still exists under the leadership of Peter Guidi who received a medal from the King of the Netherlands for training all these young musicians.

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