Writing the Book on Jazz Education

March 11, 2008

Ronald CarterWithout the leadership of capable ambassadors, jazz and the boundless creativity and dedication it inspires would never have gained the foothold it has today in our schools. One of these heroes of jazz education is Ronald Carter, who currently serves as the director of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, international vice president of IAJE, and an educational consultant and program director for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

After catching up with Carter at the Midwest Band Clinic in Chicago last December, JAZZed was compelled by the story of this man who, in addition to being a prolific performer for almost four decades, built one of the top high school jazz programs in the country and has since transitioned to positions that provide even greater influence on the role of jazz in American music education and beyond.

Formative Years
Ronald’s early days were spent in a small town in rural Georgia. As he says, “I started teaching way back when I was about eight years old. I was singing at church and I started working with the other kids, teaching them how to play music. I taught all the small classes.” Meanwhile, he was listening to and learning from some of the greats, like Cannonball Adderly and Stanley Turrentine the latter of whom collaborated with Ron Carter’s namesake, the celebrated jazz double bassist, on the 1971 CTI release, Sugar.

In high school, Carter played the baritone saxophone in the jazz band and the clarinet in the concert band, which brought him all-state honors. His performing career took off early, as a high school sophomore, when Ron began playing gigs with a rhythm blues band at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia.

Carter finished high school and matriculated to Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he got a BA in music performance and diversified his musical experiences. “I was student teaching while I was studying, and I was the section leader the first year I got there, so I was already teaching in my own ensembles,” he recalls. “Then I got into writing and scoring for the marching band. I was arranging for them and started arranging for all the groups I played with, too.”

In spite of the busy schedule, Carter’s path through school was circuitous: “I took a year and a summer off and went on the road, where I played with a group called The Morning After. We opened for a lot of acts like Kool and the Gang those types of bands. We did rhythm blues, and we did some jazz.” When that tour ran its course, Ronald returned to school, finished his undergrad, and went on to study for a masters in Music Education at the University of Illinois, Champagne.

Jazz at Lincoln High
“After I got my masters, my first real job was in East St. Louis at Lincoln Senior High School that’s the high school Miles Davis had attended,” he says. “The music department had actually fallen way down by the time I got there, and they brought me in to start the jazz program. A friend of mine from the University of Illinois, Michael Dupard, who had gone to Grambling State University, was offered the job first. I was substitute teaching in Champaign-Urbana when Michael called me and said he wanted to start a jazz program. He asked if I’d be interested in working there with him. Of course I was, so I started midyear, in January.”

The impetus for a jazz program at Lincoln Senior High School was born primarily from the young teachers’ interest in the genre. Says Carter, “Dupard and I had played in various jazz bands around Champaign (Ill.) when we were in school, so we were into [building a jazz program]. It was just a matter of making it happen.” But while getting jazz in the door was certainly a priority, the whole music department at Lincoln High School needed to be reworked.

“The music program had been down to about 10 kids. We had to jump-start the whole music department marching band, concert band, jazz band, everything. So we put in the work and the program grew. We ended up with 120 kids in the marching band and the jazz band recorded and toured every year it was the top jazz program in the area for over 12 years.”

What does one do to achieve that level of success after starting from such meager beginnings? “It was basically a lot of hard work and being able to motivate kids to use their talents,” notes Carter. “There’s a lot of talent in East St. Louis: Jackie Joyner and Miles Davis came through there, of course. Some of my students were Bruce Allen (a gospel artist, Stellar Award winner, and member of the Grammy voting committee who now owns a record label and publishing company), Tony Suggs (the pianist for the Count Basie Orchestra for the last eight years), Montez Coleman (a drummer who plays with Roy Hargrove and is on Mack Ave Records), Terreon “Tank” Gully (a drummer playing with Stefon Harris and Christain McBride), Reginald Thomas (a pianist who’s now a professor of music at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville), and Russell Gunn (a jazz trumpet recording artist, former member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and two-time Grammy nominee), among many others#149; There was quite a tradition just from the 18 years I was at Lincoln High School.

“And it wasn’t only in music, too doctors, lawyers, teachers, really everything. In fact I recently received an e-mail from a former student of mine who just got his doctoral degree in biochemical statistics. And he wrote his dissertation on the statistics of playing in the trombone section. He actually used his time in my high school band as the emphasis in his dissertation.He got his doctorate at OSU and now he’s teaching at Tulane.”

The success of the Lincoln High School jazz bands was in part predicated on the burgeoning St. Louis jazz scene. Cashing in on the intrigue created by his program, Carter was able to bring some world-class talent into his classrooms. As he explains, “Every jazz artist who came to town came to work with my high school kids. Everybody. Wynton came to town, he was playing with Art Blakey when he was 18, and that’s how I met him. He had heard of some guys from down south who were teaching and he had heard about our high school program, so he came over on his own.” Other artists that Carter’s students were fortunate enough to work with include Steve Turre, Clark Terry, Ellis Marsalis, Oliver Lake, Frank Lacy, Bunky Green, Slide Hampton, Bob Mintzer, Hamiett Bluiett, Henry Butler, and Steve Wiest.

“Some of these folks I knew from my own playing, but most just came through because the program had gained such national and international recognition that anybody who came to town wanted to come by Lincoln High School and see what we were doing, see what we were putting in the water.”

New Challenges
With the Lincoln High music program safely in flight, Ronald Carter recalibrated his goals and aimed even higher: “The program had grown so much, I got to the point where I felt like I needed new challenges. That’s why I took the job at Northern, where I’m now the director of Jazz Studies. My position here gives me more flexibility. For example, a year after I started here, Wynton [Marsalis] had already taken over as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and he wanted to start an educational program. So he called me and asked if I’d help him get that underway. What we came up with was the Essentially Ellington program, and that’s been going on for about 13 years now.” Carter wouldn’t have had the time to diversify his activities had he stayed at Lincoln High, though the school system was reluctant to let him go.

“After I left they tried to get me to come back as the supervisor of music, but a former student of mine just jump started the band at the new high school [ed. note: Lincoln H.S. was torn down in 1998 to make way for a larger facility] which is East St. Louis High School. He actually just contacted me to come down and give a clinic at his school, which I’ll be doing in March. My college band also does a tour there every year at the Sheldon Theatre.”

There’s something poetic in the shape Ronald Carter’s professional career has taken, from young touring professional and all-state musician to high school music teacher, performer, and clinician. From there, Carter has moved on to become a program director and developer of curriculum, author of textbooks. One constant throughout Carter’s multifaceted career has been his affiliation with the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE).

As the educator explains, “I’ve been with the IAJE for almost 30 years. I’ve been the vice president of the organization for the past two years, but before that I had been state vice-president and state president two or three times. I’ve been working to expand music education in the state where I’ve worked over the last 30 years.” As for what specific benefits the IAJE offers, Carter elaborates, “IAJE helps with networking. That’s the first thing. Through IAJE, I’ve had lots of opportunity to present workshops and clinics all over the country. My high school band played at a lot of IAJE conferences, and my college band has played at those many times, as well. The association gives opportunities for educators to share ideas. It hasn’t been that long since jazz education was formalized.” With a wry chuckle, Ron adds, “I was inducted into the [Down Beat Magazine] Jazz Education Hall of Fame almost 20 years ago, and I’m not that old!”

And it doesn’t stop there. In addition to helping make policy for the largest jazz education organization in the world, Ronald Carter has also been involved in hands-on local projects designed to empower youths through music. One such endeavor started like this: “When I was in St. Louis, we played at the Chicago Jazz Festival a couple of times. After I left the high school, an organization called Jazz Unites asked me about starting up a youth program in the city of Chicago for elementary-age kids. So I started the South Shore Youth Jazz Ensemble, which was funded by the mayor, the park district, and the South Shore Cultural Center.”

The goal was to keep the kids of Chicago focused on something positive and, ultimately, to expand their educational possibilities. “The main thing is that that was a way to help kids attend college, and a lot of kids have gone on to do that. When I started the program, I also started a scholarship fund. We’d do a concert in the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago to raise money, and we gave four $1,000-scholarships every year. There were also summer training programs where kids came to learn music business, theory, jazz, and just how to respond in performance situations. The kids actually got paid during the summer, five dollars a day, to come and learn music.”

Ron put together a full curriculum for that six-week program. “We’d meet and we’d have theory, we’d have improvisation, we had big band and we had combos that we pulled out of the big band. We also had lectures on the business aspect of music. Students basically auditioned to get into the program, but they also had to live within the city limits of Chicago.” Concerts were held all over the city, and included performances with the Chicago Jazz festival and artists such as Wynton Marsalis.

Last year was its 12th in existence, but changes appear to be in store. Due to limited funding, the sun appears to be setting on Ronald Carter’s affiliation with the South Shore Youth Jazz Ensemble, as his attention shifts again towards reaching a larger audience, this time through a jazz education textbook and a summer camp for band directors.

The textbook, co-written by Ronald Carter along with Wynton Marsalis, Ron McCurdy, Reginald Thomas, and Ron Modell, is called Teaching Music Through Performance and Jazz and is a part of the Teaching Music series distributed by GIA publications. The series is said to be the best-selling text for band in the world. “We’ll be doing the second book in that series this summer, and that means doing a lot of recording [for the accompanying CDs],” says Carter. “For the standards that are already recorded, the idea is to make educators aware of them. For those that aren’t, the object is to convince record companies to re-issue them the same thing with arrangements. New compositions and arrangements that haven’t been professionally recorded are what I’m going to try to put down this summer.

“We are also talking about expanding what we’re doing at Jazz at Lincoln Center, too, so my plate is full. We have the essentially Ellington program, but we are talking about expanding that to include other composers.Also, we’d like to expand the educational elements offered there, too. What we’re looking at now is putting together some DVDs on teaching jazz concepts, because I’m also the program director for the band director academy, where I’ve put together a curriculum to teach band directors how to teach jazz. We get directors from all over the world from South Africa to England, all over the USA, and from middle school all the way up for college. Some of these teachers are jazz musicians themselves, though not all, but just because you can play jazz doesn’t mean you know how to teach it.

“A lot of the concepts we focus on are scale chord relationships, but I’m also trying to promote teaching more directly related to the cultural aspects of jazz, from the concepts of dance, from the concepts of divorce, how to listen, what to listen for, how to combine auditory knowledge with actual academic knowledge and all those kinds of things. We hold three of these camps for directors every year: one in N.Y., one elsewhere in the US, and one now in Canada.

The genesis of this project is also rooted in talks with the inimitable Wynton Marsalis. “After we started the Essentially Ellington program, Wynton and I were talking about what we should do next. I said, #149;We need to do something for band directors.’ If you teach educators how to teach, you can reach a lot more students. That’s another reason I want to get the text done, because the front chapters in that book deal with teaching specific concepts, like teaching the culture of jazz, how to listen, improvisation, how to work with the rhythm section. And the other part of the book is actually taking music I’ve selected and showing how to teach that chart to the band, how to organize it, and how to teach its form and the theory behind it.”

“I Just Put the Challenge Out There”
Ronald Carter’s underlying affinity for spreading musical ideas stems from the milieu that shaped him as a child. As he affirms, “When I was growing up, I was exposed to singing and music, hearing it all the time, at home, in church. Not necessarily in a technical aspect, but just the exposure to it was tremendous. I heard jazz and blues and gospel and rhythm and blues and country/western going on all the time around me. When I got to school, I was fortunate enough to be in band programs that gave me the opportunity to learn different types of music I played jazz and RB professionally, but both of my degrees were on classical clarinet. And then I got into writing and transcribing when I was very young before I realized I wasn’t supposed to be able to do that kind of thing yet.

“It was the same when I started teaching: I never let on that something is really difficult to do; I just put the challenge out there and the students don’t know better than to accept it. My own experience gave me the confidence to have a clear cut idea of what I wanted from my students and how to get them to achieve those goals.” Valuable lessons from the man writing the book on jazz education.

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