Introducing Students to the Giants of Jazz

June 21, 2007

RoundtableThink about Wyoming, and you may picture cowboys, or blaring country music, or wide-open spaces that stretch on and on.

It’s not a place known for jazz, a fact that Adam Jenkins knows all too well. “When I grew up in Wyoming in the 1980s, the record store really didn’t have jazz albums,” says the saxophonist.A high school band director, however, opened Jenkins’ ears to a whole new musical world by letting the young musician borrow jazz recordings from his personal collection. These albums represented something new for Adam – something electrifying.

Jenkins remembers listening to Count Basie for the first time. “It floored me,” says Jenkins, who now lives in Davis, Calif. and coaches ensemble clinics and offers private lessons. “I’m so thankful my high school director had that library.”

Good music is powerful: the right record can inspire, can expand minds, and can open doors. One of the jobs of jazz educators is to lead young students to the good stuff. Whether because they’re hung up on pop, or they’re unsure of what albums or artists to check out, young students often aren’t listening to jazz on their own. Educators have the opportunity to change that.

For if students want to play jazz, they need to listen to it.“It’s not enough to learn the theory,” notes Ed Palermo, jazz coordinator at Hoff-Barthelson Music School, a community music school in Scarsdale, N.Y. “The vocabulary of jazz isn’t easy. There are a lot of rules to learn, then you learn how the giants broke the rules. The only way you can do that is to listen to [jazz].”

And what giants should students be listening to? If a student wants to gain an appreciation for what jazz is all about, what albums should he or she try out? JAZZed surveyed some jazz educators to find out what recordings they suggested to their students. For the most part, their suggestions centered on the “Mount Rushmore” of jazz – those classic artists who have laid the very foundation of this momentous art form: Armstrong, Basie, Dizzy, Duke, Parker, Miles, Coltrane, et cetera.

These artists left behind a big wake, and their music can startle and shake up a young musician. One album Adam Jenkins frequently gives his students is Duke Ellington’s All Star Road Band, Vol. 2, a live album from the 1960s. “It’s one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard,” Jenkins says. “The band is having so much fun. It’s joyous, high energy. It reflects what jazz music should be.”After listening to it, a student once told him, “That changed my life.”

Kind of Blue
Perhaps not surprisingly, the album teachers most suggested to students is the national anthem of all jazz records, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.Any conversation about what to give young jazz scholars starts with this masterpiece. Educators say it’s a student-friendly album, featuring not only fantastic songs that are accessible and easy to play, but also some of the greatest musicians in jazz’s illustrious history.

“It is often the album that lures musicians and listeners to jazz like a Pied Piper,” says Russ Lombardi, assistant professor of music at the University of Maine at Augusta, where he teaches jazz theory, arranging, composition, and private instruction. “I transcribed all the solos and learned to play them, and I teach my students to do the same.Emulating these wonderful jazz artists is a great way to crack the enigma of jazz styles and improvisation.”

Dave Fleschner likes to have students listen to the opening track, “So What?” “It’s not so fast it’s overwhelming,” says the Portland, Oregon resident, who plays piano and the Hammond B-3 organ and teaches both in his home studio and at the Ethos Music Center and the Multnomah Arts Center.

Starting students with songs that are easy to digest is a lesson that Fleschner learned when he himself was a student listening to Thelonious Monk, because the piano player’s music was spare enough to process. Initially, Fleschner stayed away from the songs of more intimidating pianists like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. “It was too fast,” he recalls. “I couldn’t handle it.”

Fleschner tells students to focus on Davis’ solo on “So What?,” not Coltrane’s. “If you try to do a Coltrane solo, it would be an uphill battle.” He also tells students to listen to Miles’ playing because it offers a framework of how to put a solo together. Much like a classical composition, the solo starts with a motif that is then played with and developed. “He was a master of development,” Fleschner says.

Digging Deeper
Beyond Kind of Blue, educators offer a whole gamut of recordings to suggest to students.

Bill Peters, who teaches classical and jazz guitar and bass, likes to suggest the varied meters of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out as a good way to demonstrate time signatures. He also likes the Coltrane tracks “My Favorite Things” and “Greensleeves” because those are both tunes that students know. “They can see how to take a song that’s known and expand on it,” says Peters, director of the Kardon-Northeast Branch of the Settlement Music School, a community music school with branches throughout the Philadelphia area.

To give students a sense of the history of the music, he likes them to listen to Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands – music that dates back to the 1920s. “At first, it sounds foreign to them,” Peters acknowledges. “It takes them back to a sound they’ve never considered.”Children are typically skeptical of anything too old, and the pops and scratches in the recordings don’t help. “Some don’t get past that,” he says, though eventually, many come to enjoy the records.

In terms of compilations, Ray Eubanks recommends the five-CD The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. While Eubanks quibbles with some of the song choices, which is inevitable with any collection, he feels it gives a good overview, covering ragtime through contemporary times.

The professor of music business and music literature at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, also suggests Sun Ra: “It’s wild and crazy stuff, which a lot of the kids relate to.” Then there’s Count Basie’s The Complete Atomic Basie. “I think it’s one of the great big band recordings,” Eubanks says. The record features a cover shot of an atomic blast, a fitting image given that big band music went off like a bomb in Eubanks’ life when he was younger.“I fell in love with big band jazz when I was a sophomore in high school,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do when I grow up.'”

While students need to listen to jazz music, they also need to see it performed, asserts Bill Ransom, a Cleveland drummer who is percussion director at the Shaker Heights City School District in the Cleveland area and director of two percussion ensembles and a jazz combo at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, a community music school.

“You can get to see the interplay on the stage,” Ransom says. “It shows the energy and expressiveness.” To that end, he suggests Branford Marsalis’ album that takes on Coltrane’s classic, A Love Supreme, because it features both a CD and a DVD of the performance.

Ransom also likes students to explore the Miles Davis’ box set, The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965. The release features two nights of Miles in concert, including different versions of songs, so students can see how jazz performances are fluid, unscripted and constantly changing.

Appeal to Disparate Tastes
All in all, finding jazz that will inspire students can be a process of trial and error. Young musicians can have far-flung tastes, and finding material among jazz’s long and winding history that will click with them can be tricky. Some students may like Dixieland, or on the other side of the spectrum, some may prefer the avant-garde.

Even individual artists can have distinct stages of their career that appeal to students differently. Consider Miles: The student who digs Kind of Blue might not get into Davis’ fusion efforts, and vice versa. “It’s hard to tell what will strike (students),” Jenkins says. “It’s like, if somebody says, ‘Name a good cook.’ Do you want Thai food? French?”

When students ask him what they should listen to, Jenkins keeps a long list of possible suggestions broken down by instruments and styles. He also keeps a list of what he considers the best of the best, which includes such classics as Fletcher Henderson’s Tidal Wave, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, and Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um.

Before suggesting albums, Fleschner first quizzes students about what they’re listening to, and if jazz isn’t in their iPods, he’ll find music that will serve as a bridge to ease them into it. For instance, if students are into jam bands such as the Grateful Dead or Phish, he’ll play them Head Hunters, Herbie Hancock’s funky 1973 album. “To me, that’s a link,” he notes. “You get them hooked.”

In the end, by hook or by crook, the important thing is to get students listening to jazz. Once their ears are perked, however, educators need younger players to be active, not passive listeners.

For starters, when listening to a record, students shouldn’t just pay attention to the player on their own instrument. To do so would be akin to studying only U.S. history in school, Eubanks says. Sure, it’s interesting, but by neglecting the rest of the world’s past, you’re missing the big picture.

“You have to listen to the ensemble,” agrees Ransom. “You are a musician first and an instrumentalist second.” Students also shouldn’t simply imitate what they hear. They need to go one step further than that. They need to make the music their own.

“I really try to get the kids to dig deep,” Ransom says. “Listen to it. Absorb it. Put your signature on it.”

John Crawford is a freelance writer living in the Boston area. He also plays the piano and recalls fondly the jazz educators who schooled him as an undergraduate.

JAZZed Editors’ Picks – Essential Listening

Christian Wissmuller:
Bitches Brew – Miles Davis
Jaco Pastorius – Jaco Pastorius
Good People in Times of Evil – Jonas Hellborg/Shawn Lane/V. Selvaganesh
Time Out – The Dave Brubeck Quartet
The Genius of the Electric Guitar – Charlie Christian

Eliahu Sussman:
Kind of Blue – Miles Davis
Buttercorn Lady – Art Blakey the Jazz Messengers
Time Out – The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Count Basie at Newport [Live] – Count Basie
The Very Best of Duke Ellington – Duke Ellington

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