Younger Lions: Caleb Chapman
by Matt Parish
For those looking for a savior of jazz education, mild-mannered and sparsely populated Utah probably isn’t high on the list of scouting locations. But that’s where ambitious private teacher-turned-bandleader Caleb Chapman calls home, and he’s gone a long way toward creating one of the most successful youth jazz programs in the country. What’s more he’s done it all with local kids.
Chapman runs the twelve-year-old Caleb Chapman Music and the fledgling Caleb Chapman Institute, programs that he’s slowly developed based on a meat-and-potatoes love for jazz and a strong music education background of his own. An avid saxophone player through high school, he first got the conducting bug when given the helm of his all-state high school band in New Hampshire. He moved to Utah from his hometown of Derry, N.H. to study music at Brigham Young University and nearly enrolled at business school before starting a private instruction business on a whim. In 1999, he opened The Music School, a sprawling program of individual lessons and ensembles including early versions of his stalwart groups the Crescent Super Band and Little Big Band.
He pared down to simple ensemble direction in 2008, taking the reins of each group of middle and high school students himself, and the results have been striking. His bands frequently travel the country and, in some cases, the world, performing in festival slots usually reserved for world-class professionals. Chapman now serves as an education expert with the Jazz Educators Network and has seen his approach sought after by Juilliard School of Music, Berklee School of Music, and high school administrators across the country, many of whom hope to sign on to Champan’s new satellite programs starting this year.
His flagship band, the Crescent Super Band, remains the only musical group to perform at the halftimes of NBA’s Utah Jazz games in Salt Lake City, and has been named the Best Band in the Country twice by DownBeat Magazine. The group has also won four “best in state” awards in Utah as well as the BOSS award for top organization in Arts and Entertainment in the state, beating out all other professional groups. They’ve performed with over 200 guest artists including Christian McBride, Joe Lovana, Peter Erskine, and Bob Mintzer.
All this by a band that comprised totally of Utah natives that meet once a week for two hours. And none of them are over 18 years old.
Chapman spoke to JAZZed about the unorthodox path he’s taken to get his students to work toward such a consistently high level, how he handled a few bumps along the way, and what’s in store as his program begins its expansion beyond the borders of the Beehive State.
JAZZed Magazine: You have a sprawling program of activities for your students, so let’s start by getting a lay of the land. What are the different ensembles your students can get involved in?
Caleb Champan: Currently the program consists of eight different bands. It’s a contemporary music program so some of the groups are pop-oriented as well, but the majority are jazz ensembles. Our flagship group is the Crescent Super Band, who’ve been in heavy rotation on the Real Jazz channel on Sirius/XM since last October. That’s pretty cool. I’ve got a lot of friends who are Grammy-winning jazz musicians that have a hard time getting their music played on the Real Jazz channel. So to have a bunch of high school kids from Utah be in rotation for that many months is pretty exciting! I’m not gonna lie. I think it’s a real tribute to the work that these kids put in. The other groups are The Voodoo Orchestra, which is big band stuff with jump swing; Caribeña, which does Afro-Cuban stuff like Tito Puente’s big band; the Soul Research Foundation, which has a Tower of Power kind of configuration; the Crescent Octet, an all-star combo; and the Little Big Band, which is the junior high big band.
JAZZed: Tell us how your adventures in jazz education began.
CC: I started my program back in 1999 originally as a community musical school with private teachers and things like that. Then in 2000, we started doing some ensembles. We started with a junior high all-star jazz big band and then it took off from there. I invited some other teachers that I felt shared the same values and quality of instruction that I had set. And so when we opened up, we had maybe even 200 teachers between the six to ten teachers. We grew that to the Music School, where we had 1,500 students and I had 100 instructors working for me.
But everything I loved about education and all this stuff – I looked in the mirror and I wasn’t doing any of it. I was an administrator. My job was a mix of being a public school administrator and a corporate CEO. I spent my time managing people and balancing budgets and doing spreadsheets and doing investor meetings and I realized, “This is not what I want to be doing!”
JAZZed: Was there a problem with the economy tanking at about that time in 2008?
CC: Right, the economy tanked and the investors of the school at that point were in control. They were calling the shots and their other companies, just like everybody else, just weren’t doing well and decided that they wanted to move on and not be part of that. I got some incredible friends in the industry and there were plenty of people who came to me afterwads that came to me and said, “Here’s the money to keep doing what you’re doing.” It was a great opportunity for me to go, “Thanks, but that’s actually not what I want to be doing.” I wanted to be directing bands, creating the educational component, not just be an administrator.
What I’m doing now feels like I’m contributing. Even with the numbers – I’m working with 150 students instead of 1500 students so you might say that’s a step backwards, but I’d say it’s not because we’re able to dramatically impact the lives of those 150 students. And the beauty of this program is that each of these kids is required to be contributing, active leaders and members of their public school music programs. So by really having a high-quality program available to these 150 students, that’s actually impacting thousands of students across Utah.
JAZZed: Your curriculum has been picked up and recognized by so many schools as this program has gained success – what’s made it special?
CC: Well, that’s the question, you know? I’ve had some of the publishing companies approach me about writing a book or doing a video and I’ve thought about it, and I’m not really sure that I’ve got any secret sauce or any special techniques. I have an articulation technique that I’ve developed that’s kind of proprietary, but I don’t think that’s what makes the difference. I think what it comes down to is simply setting the expectation level higher than most people think you can set it, and then clearly articulating those expectations to these young musicians. I think as educators, so often, we simply don’t set the bar high enough. Young musicians want to be challenged. They want to have someone tell them that they’re capable of amazing things because, once you give them that permission, they’ll go ahead and do the work and make it happen.
JAZZed: Now are these really all just local Utah kids? How far are they traveling for class?
CC: If you’ve ever been to Utah, you know there’s two parts – the part where people live and then there’s the part where nobody lives. The average is about an hour’s drive for all the kids. Some are closer, and I’ve had some kids that drive three and a half hours each way to rehearsals. I had a kid that would fly in because he was about four-and-a-half hours away. He’d fly in and out of every rehearsal and he made it every time. It was the most insane thing I’ve ever seen. But most of the kids are from the Salt Lake area – Oren, Provo, Park City.
JAZZed: Do you think the locale plays into the success of the program?
CC: I think the exciting thing about this program is that it absolutely could be done anywhere and I think the fact that we’re doing it in Utah is testament to that. It’s not like there’s something in the water here in Utah where we have this incredible individual talent. I think for the most part, as kids start in my program in junior high, they’re kind of average kids that are just willing to work really hard.
Regardless, there were over $1.5 million in scholarship offers between 26 kids that graduated from the program last year. You do the math on that. And most of these kids have a 3.9 or 4.0 GPA, and they’re going to be successful. They’re going to be arts advocates for the rest of their lives and they’re going to play music for the rest of their lives and they’re going to be people supporting the arts. That’s what we really need. We don’t really need tens of thousands of new professional musicians, you know? [laughs] It’s nice, but we’ve got plenty of great musicians right now, many of whom are starving. That’s why I think a program like this is important.
JAZZed: You only get two hours a week with each of these groups – how do you organize things so everything gets done so efficiently?
CC: To the outside world, is this a music school? Yeah, I guess it is and I’m a music educator. But the way I talk about it to the kids and to the parents, I don’t ever mention the word “school” or “music education” or any of that stuff. We talk about this as a professional musician training program. They’re auditioning for spots in a professional band, every group, even the junior high groups, we run as professional bands. And so that means if you’re going to miss a rehearsal, you have to send a sub. Once we hand out music, the next time you show up for rehearsal it’s expected that that music is perfected. When we have gigs, you get docked on your pay if you’re late for sound check or any of that stuff.
JAZZed: So the bands function like the real-world working bands?
CC: When these kids go on tour, a good chunk of their fees or all of their fees in some cases are covered by the gigs they’re doing. So where a lot of high school bands are out selling candy bars, these kids are out playing shows and making real money to pay for their programs. They work. The Super Band just did two shows here before they left for Europe where they got paid $10,000 for one night and $15,000 for the other night. I mean try to find college bands getting paid that kind of money, you know? Or professional groups. I mean I have Grammy winning musician friends who will call me up and say “Hey I’m in town, if you can get 500 bucks together, we can come play with the group.” I mean, we don’t take it for granted. What it means is more opportunities for these musicians to be performing, to tour, to improve their musicianship and to just grow as individuals.
JAZZed: I’ve noticed the group even has pro endorsement deals.
CC: Right, just like the big guys have, where they’re featuring them in their advertising and sponsoring them in clinics and stuff like that. The companies that are working with us right now are Rico, Evans, Cannonball, ProMark, D’Addario, Yamaha. I think it’s really cool that the companies are realizing they need to support education and not just the big celebrities because if we don’t have support for education and these programs it all goes away, like I say.
JAZZed: Here’s a professional dilemma for you then – is there ever a danger in customizing your performances too much to grab those kinds of gigs and miss out on certain areas of the music you could otherwise be focusing on? “Selling out,” maybe?
CC: Sometimes there’s an attitude in jazz where we play the music that we want to play and if the audience doesn’t get it, then they don’t get it. And of course that attitude brings us to where we are today, where there aren’t audiences for jazz music and there are no record sales, right? I get really frustrated with that.
So you’re absolutely right to wonder about that, but for me it’s not a conflict. What I’m running is a professional musician training program. And I think it’s really important for these musicians to understand that for them to find fulfillment, they need to pursue the kind of music that really speaks to them. That may or may not be the music that’s going to connect with audiences, but they need to be able to play music that’s going to connect with audiences and play it with integrity. It just takes some effort. A lot of times maybe jazz musicians especially take the easy way out and say, “I’m just gonna play this and that’s what I want to play.”
JAZZed: Was there any hesitation about deciding to run the groups like professional groups? Any pushback or insecurity from the kids or parents?
CC: What was important for me as a young musician was that I wanted to be part of something real. I’m very careful with my groups – we don’t call them, like, “The Music School Jazz Band A.” Who wants to be part of that? I want to be part of the “Soul Research Foundation.” I want to be part of the “Crescent Super Band” or “The Voodoo Orchestra.” So you’ve got the concert tees and the CDs and you’re on the road and that’s the real thing! It’s exciting. So no, it was the opposite. I think that was part of the success and it helps us with the attitude of, “We’re going to make these demands of you as far as quality goes because it’s a professional group.”
JAZZed: Was part of the “pro band” concept to avoid having to secure donations and grants, or was that a happy accident?
CC: I’m on several non-profit boards and you spend 50 hours filling out the form for a grant to get $300. I want the program to be good enough that parents are willing to pay tuition to be a part of it and I want the music to be good enough that people are willing to pay to see and buy tickets to come to it. I don’t want to have to rely on grants and other funding.
That’s been a big deal to me from the beginning to not go the non-profit route and walk around looking for handouts and grants and kind of begging. I feel like we need to work to make what we do quality enough that people are willing to support because they want it, not because there’s some kind of obligation to fund the arts. Again, we’re in a bankrupt country, so if we’re counting on the country to bail out jazz, it ain’t gonna happen. We have to do this on our own. As musicians and educators. You can quote me on that.
JAZZed: How did you begin working with these big names that are involved with the program? Who was the first person that walked in to work with you?
CC: As a young musician growing up around Boston, it was my dream to just shake hands with Branford Marsalis or Michael Bradford or get an autograph or something. To me, they seemed to unapproachable, like I’d get the magazines religiously as a kid and I devoured music and was such a huge fan. But the first year I had the Super Band, I thought, “What would it be like if we could get just one artist to come play with them?” You know, just once! So I dared myself to start calling guys and see if I could get anybody to come play with them.
I remember exactly where I was and the whole conversation when my phone rang and it was Bob Berg. He was just one of the guys I’d always worshipped. I picked up the phone and he was like, “Hi, is this Caleb? This is Bob Berg.” I couldn’t even talk. I was totally star struck. But he agreed to come out and do a show with the band. We sold the show out and it was the first – it kind of set the stage for everything that happened since. It was like five or six months after that performance that he was killed in the [automobile] accident. But luckily for us, he was so excited about it that he told a few guys before he passed away and one of those guys was Randy Brecker. So I called Randy because we wanted to do a tribute to Bob the next year. He came out and loved it and started telling everybody, so it just snowballed from there. Since then, we’ve had so many guys come out.
JAZZed: How big is it to have the kids work with these kinds of musicians on a regular basis?
CC: It’s a big, big part of it. Over the course of a year, if you’re in the CSB, you’re probably going to play with 10 to 15 A-list artists. I think in my entire high school and college career, I played with zero. [laughs]. Just this week, on Saturday night, the Super Band did a show with Jeff Coffin from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and the Dave Mathhews Band now. It was our feature show with “special guest Jeff Coffin” at a 2,000 people outdoor venue. The kids want to show the guest artists that they can play at that level. That they can hang and that they can do it. So I’m trying to convince them that they’re a professional band and there’s nothing better for that than for them to actually be the professional band for these guys. Last summer, they were Toshiko Akiyoshi’s backup band at the Teluride Jazz Festival. I mean I know pro guys that are scared to death to sit in Toshiko Akiyoshi’s band, and here are these high school kids throwing it down.
JAZZed: What’s the touring schedule like for the bands?
CC: I try to make sure each of the bands has one tour during the year and try to limit it to that with the younger groups. Again, these musicians are all involved in their school programs as well, and are involved in sports. The Super Band is a different story. Especially in the summers during the festival season, they’ll be out at least a couple weeks. Again, it’s not like a completely professional band – they’re all high school students. But they’ll probably do a good three to four weeks of traveling per year.
JAZZed: And what are your plans with the new Caleb Chapman Institute?
CC: It’s building on the success of this ensemble program. I’ve gotten accredited, meaning we can offer high school credit and grading. So we’re offering ensemble programs to musicians that don’t have access to it in their educational settings, to private schools that don’t have bands or orchestras or home schoolers or schools where they’ve already cut the programs. Places where ensemble opportunities don’t exist that this program makes those ensemble opportunities available to them.
It’s a hybrid learning program, so part of it is done online and part of it’s done in person. We’ve had a lot of success with these kids getting together once a week for two hours and we really think that can be replicated. We’re hoping this can be a solution to bring music programs back to the areas where they’ve been removed. We feel like the education product is going to be something that school districts and smaller schools can afford but still be high-impact and high-quality.
JAZZed: Will you be working with teachers from your old program?
CC: We’re using the very, very best public school educators in Utah for this pilot program this year, then we’re going to be launching in California and Nevada and Arizona next fall. It’s a bit different personnel than I employed previously, but we’re really excited about it. And really, all of this goes away if we don’t find some way to make education available to kids again. It doesn’t matter how good our teaching methods are for improvisation or technique or whatever if nobody has access to it. And without making education available, I think the consumers start to disappear pretty quickly.
I don’t know, this year JEN and Berklee awarded me the John LaPorta Jazz Educator of the Year award, and it was kind of a shock, you know? I wasn’t planning to be doing this. I was planning to be working at a computer at some corporation. I’m not sure how we ended up here but I really feel like I’ve got the best job in the world. Since they honored me with that award, I really feel like now I’ve got to go earn it.