( Ahem.....) Well, I'd be lying if I said downtown Reno was picturesque, although there is a nice park near the Truckee River. Still, it's a great event and I always have fun. (This year, I had fun without alcohol! Yay!) It's cool to talk with other musicians and educators and of course hear some great students. They also have some great guest performers; this year, I got to hear the incredible Vertical Voices, and the amazing SF Jazz Collective. I got to play a jam session with saxophone greats Donny McCaslin and Jacam Manricks. There are a lot of clinics and performances throughout the day; as a judge, it can be just enough to get through the solid two days of judging, so I don't get to hear a lot of what I wish I could have heard.
( I still hate the word combo, but I reluctantly use it just so jazzers west of the Mississippi know what I'm talking about. It's like saying "Small Coffee" instead of "Tall Coffee" at Starbucks; I just don't have the energy to rebel against their system.) I've heard a wide range of levels coming from these high schools; some of the groups would rival a college group, maybe even a professional group, and others are more at a beginner level. I found this year hat I was able to be positive and constructive with even the most rudimentary groups, and I also was able to find way to improve with the most advanced groups. The "feedback" component of each groups performance is in some ways odd because I believe that the stress of preparing for Reno, traveling by bus or car all the way to Reno, warming up and playing for 20 minutes and being nervous is probably enough for some of these kids; at that point, their energy is spent, and they are ready for some R and R. That's when they head for the "feedback room," and I get to tell them what I liked and didn't like. I find it rewarding, because my goal is never to make people feel bad. ( This year and last, I had a student stand up in the middle of my critique and say, " Excuse me, but I think I'm going to be sick." Both times, it was when I was commenting on something they did. I asked of course, " Was it something I said?" Their fellow students, on both occasions, said something like," No, they have a stomach bug or something....")
I always try to be positive, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't call it as I see it. Overall, the fact that we still have music in any high school is probably a miracle, and the fact that young people are playing jazz is extremely hopeful. So right off the bat, just coming to an event like the Reno Jazz Festival is cause for celebration. However, I have noticed a few things that it seems like are common issues in high school jazz combos. I say this because I found myself saying the same things over and over during the feedback sessions. Here's a few things:
Where does the material come from? Well, as the late great Clark Terry said, " Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate."The jazz language is what the students are learning to speak, and they have to hear it being spoken, as well as learn the theoretical knowledge of chord scales. Will all due respect to how hard band directors in the U.S.A. have to work, I think it's possible to spend a bit of time with chord scale theory appropriate to the selected repertoire. I also think it wouldn't be hard to have some kind of listening time or listening assignments. In this era, no one has to buy records or even go to the library; students can hear s many jazz recording for free on youtube or spotify. Students need to hear the
|Clark Terry: " Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate."|
One frequent question I asked the students was "Who are your top five musicians on your instrument?" Some had a list, some had less than five, and some couldn't name any. I think having a top five is important in a jazz musicians' development. We have to have heroes. I ALSO recommended that students have a top five on an instrument other than their main axe; jazz musicians need to understand what the other instruments are doing in order to communicate properly on the bandstand. I don't assume that everyone will become a multi-instrumentalist. I would recommend to a young jazz muscian that he take one of his favorite jazz tracks and listen to it all the way through and focus on just the drums. Then do the same thing with the bass, and so on and so forth. I think it heightens the understanding of what the other improvising members of the band are doing. ( I also suspected that when I asked for "your top 5 in your instrument," some of the young musicians in Reno were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. The top 5 list is actually for YOU, not ME! If you love Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett, and Robert Glasper, that's wonderful. If you said Liberace, Joe Sample, Hampton Hawes, Andre Previn, and Yanni, I'm cool with that, too! I was listening to trumpeters Maynard Ferguson, Harry James, Bunny Berigan, and Jonah Jones as a kid; they aren't my favorites now, but at least I was listening to something.....
2. The ride cymbal is the most important part of a jazz beat. I would say that almost every other
" Wow, in jazz you can just play wrong notes and it doesn't matter!" That's different.) " Mistakes" are really just notes that are not the most optimal. It's a state of mind. The less than optimal notes are part of the process. Young musicians at a competition have a hard time slowing down their minds and actually listen to each other, let alone enjoy the performance. The less nervous you can be, the more you will enjoy every time you perform, which will make you want to keep playing and practicing, because you will be practicing so that you can have FUN!
5. Bass players need to have a pro show them how to hold the upright bass. There were so many
|Christian McBride has pretty flawless technique|
6. There's really no reason why high school students couldn't write and play their own music! I'm always surprised when young jazz musicians tell me that they never write their own tunes. I think if you can improvise on chord changes, you can write at the very least a blues head or a rhythm changes head, or some kind of contrafact( melody over existing changes). Encourage your students to be composers! Composing and improvisation are really the same thing, if you think about it. Don't worry about whether or not your tunes are good. You'll get better as a composer if you keep doing it. If you don't write music, you won't develop your skills and creativity.
|"Weren't you guys in the last jazz combo?"|
8. Keep some perspective. I love being a feedback judge because I believe that giving a young group
I thought that some of the high school groups, especially the ones that brought all of their parents, extended family, friends, and essentially an entourage worthy of a major Rock group, seemed to view the competition almost like it was a football game. I understand the need to celebrate the success of the students, especially after a long drive to Reno, but even so, it's just one twenty minute performance. Music isn't like sports; it's art, it's subjective, and listening to jazz music isn't necessarily going to have a fist pumping moment like when the Junior Varsity running back scores the winning touchdown.
I couldn't help but feel as though some of the groups didn't really want a "critique" so much as a twenty minute celebration of their "greatness." While I like to talk about the good, I wouldn't be doing them any service at all if I just massaged their egos. ( I guess I probably thought I was hot stuff in high school as well, what with my three years of winning the "Louis Armstrong Jazz Award." If you heard me play trumpet in high school, you would probably want to run for the hills!) I couldn't help but wonder what sort of "feedback session" some of the groups and their respective entourages were expecting :
You guys sound great. I mean really great. I mean you guys are the best high school musicians I have ever heard. All of the other groups I've heard today were terrible next to you guys. Most college groups are crap compared to you guys. I wish I could study with you cats, if I'm being quite honest.
I usually suggest that you guys listen to the great jazz players of history, but you guys have clearly already mastered the history and are taking jazz into the 21st....well, maybe even the 22nd century! You guys have broken new ground in jazz. I wish Trane was alive to witness this miracle of musical genius.
I would offer you guys scholarships, but I think what I should really be offering you is a Full Professor position with tenure and a six figure salary. Everyone in the band gets a University job! Also, I would offer you a recording contract but I don't run a label. But I do have Bruce Lundvall's home number. I know it's late on the east coast, but I'll wake him up; he needs to hear you guys and I'm fairly certain he will offer you a multi-album deal with Blue Note, plus unlimited tour support and merchandising profits on top of a huge advance which you will never have to pay back.
Oh, wait, sorry, I'm getting a phone call. Hello. President Obama? Yes, they are here.....Guys, Barack Obama has heard about your triumphant performance at the Reno Festival and he is going to award you the Medal Of Honor. You are flying to the White House tomorrow on Air Force Two for a special ceremony. You'll also be given tax-exempt status for the rest of your lives.
Again, you guys are essentially the greatest jazz musicians who have ever lived. Your performance was essentially flawless. It was the epitome of perfection. You all play like GODS! I'm just speechless. I'm probably going to quit playing music after this and go back to working at McDonald's.
Oh, one last thing. I did take off a few points for the black shirts and matching ties.........