AAJ: In the past, a musician might get interested in a certain approach, move to a city or join a band where that approach was being used, and do gigs with the guys who were doing it the best. Now, they're absorbing the entire scene, and then they have to find they're own path or role in the music that's being made at any time.
Is Creative Spontaneous Interaction Teachable in Jazz?
AAJ: I want to get your opinion about a complaint some top musicians have about jazz schools. They feel that the schools give the new musicians incredible knowledge and skills, but when they graduate, they still aren't steeped in the tradition, and they don't know how to find their own unique voice. They take classes, but they don't play as many gigs where they can experience the spontaneous interaction. They have no sense of how what they play comes out of the tradition and from within themselves. They are at sea about what their playing means historically and as creative expression. Some say you can't get any of that in a classroom. Do you agree with this assessment?
WT: That depends on the particular school. If the school is still steeped in the institutional period, where they are just pumping information into the students, these are not the better schools. In the historical period, the musician was left to his own devices. Miles Davis would advise them to "become a man," or something vague like that. The new guy had to wing it. That's not so good, either.
AAJ: But at that time, they learned from playing a lot.
WT: "In the street," so to speak. Now we at the International Association of Schools of Jazz realize that it has to be the other way around. Formal education is necessary for jazz today. So the question is, how can the schools also be part of the street again? How do we get back some of that interactive and spontaneous quality that you're talking about? That's very hard. The field has become so diversified, and it's become global. Jazz has so spread out, it has been so stretched. I can see that if you're 24 years old and starting out, you're lost! You know so much, but where do you go with it?
Here's how I dealt with that problem in my department. I renamed the department JAM -Jazz, Audience, and Media. The students have to learn: where am I in all this, what do I have to study, what do I have to communicate? For example, I ask them, who is in your audience? Do you communicate with them through your website, Facebook, and so on? Today, you have to create your own niche, you have to find your audience. Venues like nightclubs and festivals will only book you if you bring in people. The musician has to generate his own audience. The artist now has the responsibility to bring in the listeners. This is the reality of the digital age, and the musician has to adapt to it well. We have to teach them how to do that.
New Ways of Teaching and Learning Jazz
AAJ: What would be your utopian idea of the ideal jazz school for today's aspiring musicians?
WT: Well for one thing, the musician has to become extremely good at playing his instrument, developing his technique. Players like Wynton Marasalis raised technique to a very high level. That should happen in the bachelor's degree program. In addition, in the masters degree program, I try to push the idea of communication. How do you communicate on stage? Pat Methney came to our school and he said that the hardest thing in music is to monitor yourself on stage. You have to see yourself through the eyes of the audience.
AAJ: But many musicians say they have to go inward and focus on what they're playing, not adjust to the audience. The audience can be supportive, but it can also be a distraction.
WT: I disagree. I think the musician has to be aware of how to connect better to his audience. In her excellent book, Saying Something (University of Chicagao Press, 1996), Ingrid Monson discusses how musicians communicate when they perform: the musical interaction between the musicians, social interaction with the audience, and cultural interaction. You make a cultural statement by the way you play and interact. The musician has to be aware of all three.
My parents live near the village where Vincent Van Gogh painted. It used to be thought that van Gogh was a kind of madman who just poured himself into his painting, like a crazy jazz musician! New studies show that Van Gogh was highly organized about his painting. He had a clear idea of what he was aiming for artistically and knew that some day he would get there. Similarly, all the great jazz musicians know a lot about all these three levels of communication.
AAJ: I can't imagine a dedicated jazz musician like Bob Brookmeyer paying a lot of attention to an audience.
WT: In the 1990s, Bob Brookmeyer tried unsuccessfully to set up the World School of Jazz. I spent a lot of time talking with him about these things. He knew exactly what I was talking about. He knew how audiences work, how jazz fit in with the culture. He was fully aware of how to communicate with the other musicians, with the audience, and with the culture. He was aware of all three of Monson's criteria.
I've always loved jazz ...my mother was a classical pianist and my aunt was a blues singer, who was managed by Clarence Williams (Bessie Smith's producer). As a young boy, they introduced me to people like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy Smith
I've always loved jazz ...my mother was a classical pianist and my aunt was a blues singer, who was managed by Clarence Williams (Bessie Smith's producer). As a young boy, they introduced me to people like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy Smith. We hung out at my Aunt Kate's Soul Food restaurant in Harlem after the matinees at the Apollo where I listened to their stories. I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician from then on. My mother wanted me to play piano, but my Aunt bought me a guitar. I've been playing ever since.
At my mother's early prompting, I first sang Blue Velvet at my Catholic elementary school...and all the nuns came running in and asked me to sing again, so I knew I must have sounded pretty good. I've been singing ever since.
I met Tony Bennett in Miami and he inspired me to return to New York. He was a great mentor.
The best show I ever attended is mpossible to say, I've seen so many great shows. From Tony Bennett to Pat Martino, Return to Forever to Weather Report...I've seen some great performances.
My advice to new listeners is don't let jazz intimidate you, the music has something for every listener and it is our American gift to the world.