Friday, February 28, 2014

Tomorrow's Jazz Program

Many university jazz programs today are doing a fine job producing graduates capable of sight-reading, interpreting a wide variety of written music, improvising, composing and arranging --- all at relatively high levels. In many regards, the curricular structure, guidelines and expected competencies outlined in the N.A.S.M.’s handbook appear to be working. The dedicated jazz educator must now grapple with how to balance traditional, proven methods of instruction with new systems, approaches and tools to best educate and equip our students for the future.

At increasingly younger ages, undergraduate students are becoming adroit in transcribing and copying master musicians, and assimilating their musical vocabulary. This adheres to the fist part of Clark Terry’s celebrated philosophy for learning to play jazz: “Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.”

Transitioning from copying to creating is where students often falter. As mentors/guides/coaches, we collectively need to ponder how to help our students make the leap to musical innovation and creation. Ways in which this could be accomplished include:

  1. subtly modifying our pedagogy to emphasize the conceptual.
  2. encouraging and rewarding experimentation with instrumentation.
  3. increasing the required presentation of original compositions.
  4. prompting upperclassmen to write and play their own melodic lines, rather than only drawing upon transcribed material.
  5. directly exposing our students to cutting-edge, innovative artists through campus visitations. 
Jazz Education
If we are preparing and shaping tomorrow’s artists, we need to be concerned with their complete education. Skilled, conservatory-trained musicians without inquisitiveness for the world around them make boring artists. Somehow, we must impress upon our music students the importance of studying and contemplating the humanities. Artistic collaboration with other university units is one means through which to realize this mission.

Tracking the career paths of recent fine arts alumni reveals a trend towards blended careers, encompassing several skill sets. Tomorrow’s jazz program will embrace this shift, by developing/offering new cross-pollinated degrees which partner with business, education and/or other fine arts disciplines, thereby better preparing students for “real life” employment situations. Emphases in jazz studies within arts administration or business management degrees would be both practical and attractive. Adeptness in grant writing, project management and marketing has become mandatory for musicians, yet these disciplines have not entered the core curriculum of most conservatories.

Accessing information has never been easier than in this current technological age. We must not only stay current, but lead in finding new ways to utilize technology to our advantage. There is a need for the development of helpful music “apps”. Entrepreneurial ventures could be explored, such as a university-run recording label with online distribution. Streaming concerts and lectures will become the expected norm.

Our current jazz programs have done well in embracing the use of notation software in arranging and composition courses. Similarly, we should further stress the use of new recording technology. In the last decade, affordable, easy-to-use home systems have replaced the large professional recording studios. To remain current and create job opportunities, we must provide our students with the skills needed to create music for films, jingles, TV, video games and other digital media, from their laptops.

With a pang of remorse, the time may come when it will be necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of our jazz ensemble offerings. We will ask, “Has the big band become an obsolete instrumentation outside of academia?” If so, should our time and fiscal resources continue to be channeled into this area? Should big band be the default “flagship ensemble” by which our jazz programs are judged, or should we branch out to include other instrumental configurations? Options are limitless, but might include 10tet (decatet), jazz/strings lab ensemble, commercial ensemble, art ensemble, and studio orchestra.

The jazz educator’s work is not complete in challenging lingering, negative perceptions about jazz music and its practitioners. Even within music schools, classically oriented colleagues joke about our being up late at night, hanging out in bars. The jazz educator of today and tomorrow must be willing to proselytize for their art form and the discipline and intellect it demands. Every performance must be well-prepared and of the highest artistic caliber, capable of enhancing our collective lives, by providing unique expressions of emotion, thought and spirit.

Should a student of jazz ultimately choose another career path, he/she should be exalted for the transferable skillsets learned through the study of jazz. In saxophonist David Liebman’s article for Instrumentalist, “Jazz Education In the Century of Change: Beyond the Music”, he eloquently addresses the question, “What values does a jazz education offer beyond the music itself?”

Discussions of vocationalism are sometimes avoided within academia, based on the notion that professors are only responsible for transmitting information and guiding students’ artistic development. However, savvy students and parents are understandably seeking more thoughtful, calculated responses to their occupational queries. The tremendous cost of post-secondary education obligates the leaders of tomorrow’s jazz programs to know a multitude of current career options, and the route to attain such work. Industry mentorship programs could be cultivated at radio stations, concert venues, record labels, recording studios, publicists offices, jazz festivals, etc.

Personally, I bubble over with enthusiasm when considering the many possibilities for tomorrow’s jazz program. I believe the future is bright for jazz education!  I would love to hear from other passionate jazz educators about their vision for tomorrow's jazz program.  Do we stay on our current path, maintaining the status quo, or should we start instigating some radical changes?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reflections of Monk

I attended the "Reflections of Monk" performance at New York City's Birdland jazz club on Tuesday, Feb. 18th, and thought it might be fun to share some of my impressions.

This was my first time in the new Birdland, and I was highly impressed with the club's physical layout.  The stage is well situated so that everyone sitting at tables has a clear view of the band.  The $40 music fee was steep; nevertheless, the club appeared to be at near capacity.

photo by Brian O'Kane
The band featured:
Tom Harrell - trumpet
Greg Osby - alto saxophone
Ben Allison - string bass
Matt Wilson - drum set

Producer, Milan Simich was given credit for assembling the ensemble.  I imagine that a recording session might follow the week long stint, but this wasn't announced.

As the title infers, they played renditions of Thelonious Monk tunes.  I could only stay for the first set, which was comprised of the following tunes:

Who Knows?
Let's Cool One
Monk's Dream
Friday the Thirteenth

To my ears, it was obvious that this was the band's opening night.  Some of the heads (especially the opener) were a bit sloppy.  The band interacted well, but clearly they were still "feeling out one another".

It was interesting hearing Greg Osby in this context.  Monk's harmonic material forced him to play more bop-like than I have heard him play before.  Only on Rhythm-a-ning did he really open up, let loose, and play the fast, angular, "slightly out" linear material I equate with his sound.

Tom sounded great throughout.  No complaints.  His tremor may have increased since the last time I saw him, but it didn't affect his sound drastically.  His improvisational lines were beautiful and well executed.  Some of the Monk heads weren't as polished as I would have liked, they aren't the easiest pieces to play, as any jazz musician will attest.

This was my first time hearing pianist Aaron Goldberg live, and I was impressed.  He's got incredible facility and great ideas.  In my opinion, his rousing solos consistently stole the show.  I appreciated his ability to develop simple motifs and move them around harmonically.  When pianists play Monk tunes, they often fall into the unfortunate trap of playing like Monk.  Their touch changes, and they play more clusters and whole-tone runs than usual.  Aaron did a nice job of sounding true to himself on this repertoire.

Ben Allison is a marvelous soloist.  In fact, he may be one of my favorite string bass soloists, due to the beautiful, singable melodic content in his solos.  I hate to be critical, but I'm not a huge fan of his walking.  His quarter notes often sounded short and detached.  Sometimes the pitch wasn't very distinguishable; it was just a nondescript thump.  (I may be off base... no pun intended.) This was my second time hearing Ben live, and I had the same impression when I heard him at Smalls with Jonathan Kreisberg a couple of years ago.

Matt Wilson is a bit of an anomaly.  Honestly, I can't decide if I love or take exception to his orchestrational choices on the drum set.  He's a bit of a show boater which I find off-putting.  I found myself closing my eyes to see if I'd be less critical without watching him.  I admire his creative spirit, but at times its just too much for my tastes.  There were some beautiful moments though, which he played a significant role in creating.  What he played during bass solos was especially sensitive and complimentary.

Overall, I'd say it was a good night and I'd recommend the show for those interested in attending on subsequent nights.  The band did a nice job breathing new life into Monk's timeless, beautiful compositions.  I imagine that by the end of the week, the music will have reached a remarkable level.