Bob Sinicrope: Sharing the Gift of Music

January 9, 2008

Bob Sinicrope

Bob Sinicrope has been at the helm of Milton Academy’s (Milton, Massachusetts) acclaimed jazz program since its inception in 1974. His students have won numerous national and regional awards as best high school jazz combo and twice performed for former President Bill Clinton at the White House. Milton’s jazz alumni feature such respected professional musicians as Aaron Goldberg and Steve Lehman.

In addition to his accomplishments as a teacher at Milton, Sinicrope has been a faculty member of Jamey Aebersold’s Jazz Workshops for over 25 years and is an in-demand bass player who fronts his own well regarded ensemble, The World Leaders. In 2007 Bob became the inaugural recipient of Berklee College and IAJE’s John LaPorta Jazz Educator of the Year award.

Recently, JAZZed sat down with Bob Sinicrope to talk about his impressive achievements at Milton Academy, the jazz program’s remarkable South Africa jaunts, and his thoughts on crafting and maintaining a forceful and successful music curriculum.

JAZZed: First off, thanks very much for taking the time to speak with me, Bob.
Bob Sinicrope: Of course!

JAZZed: Let’s dive right in. You’ve been at Milton Academy for a while, yes?
BS: You could say so. This is my 35th year at Milton.

JAZZed: Definitely not on the rookie team, then. Am I also correct in my understanding that you launched Milton’s jazz program?
BS: I did start the jazz program, but my for first year here, I was the full-time math teacher and for a little over 20 years I taught both math and jazz.

JAZZed: How did you transition from math to jazz?
BS: Luck? [laughs]

JAZZed: Math teachers everywhere are getting very upset.
BS: No, no I loved teaching math.

JAZZed: What’s your educational background, then music, math, both?
BS: I have a master’s degree in Math Education and a bachelor’s in Math from Worcester Tech. I don’t have any music degrees. I have officially one semester of music school under my belt, but I’ve always played music and always been involved in it.

JAZZed: So how did all of this at Milton Academy come about?
BS: Well, the girls’ school had a graduation requirement where the girls had to take a course in arts, but the boys’ school didn’t. There was a move to make the schools co-ed over a period of years and so one of the things they needed to do was start having arts courses for the boys and they simply didn’t have enough courses. I stepped forward and said, “Gee, I’d love to teach a course about jazz.”

JAZZed: And with no background, that still flew?
BS: I think if they weren’t so desperate they might’ve asked for credentials [laughs] and we never would’ve gotten anywhere! But just because I didn’t go to school for music, that doesn’t mean I had no background I had been playing professionally since I was 13.

JAZZed: Ah a lifer. And your primary instrument (I already know, but let’s just pretend for the sake of the readers)?
BS: I’m primarily a string bass player. I was a Guitar major during my one semester at Berklee.

JAZZed: Tell me about that semester at Berklee.
BS: I went into the Peace Corps in Jamaica after college and was asked to write some music for Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company. That was successful and I got excited about it. I finished the year and went to Berklee as a Composition/Guitar major and thought I had a good gig playing six nights a week, but it ultimately didn’t work out, I stumbled, didn’t have enough money to go back to school, yadda yadda yadda#149;

JAZZed: The struggling musician: a familiar tale.
BS: So I applied for jobs teaching at prep schools because I didn’t have an education

JAZZed: So this long career in music education was mostly unplanned?
BS: Not entirely. I remember when I was confused and searching around I went to my alma matter for career counseling and said, “Look, I want to teach jazz and math in a college setting, but I don’t want to go to school for another ten years in order to do it.” They suggested looking at prep schools.

JAZZed: This was Worcester Tech?
BS: Yes. My career counselor’s advice was: “I just wrote a letter of recommendation for someone applying to a teaching job at Milton Academy. That’s a perfect place for you.”

JAZZed: Let it never be said that school counselor’s don’t know what they’re talking about.
BS: When he said, “prep school” I said, “What’s a prep school?” I had no idea what I was getting into, but obviously it’s been a great fit.

JAZZed: You mentioned that, though without a formal music degree, you were nonetheless an active musician. Can you tell me about that?
BS: I was very active. I worked my way through college playing in a polka band. I also played jazz, played in a brass choir I played trombone, too. I’ve always been musical. I think sometimes you’re better off learning things outside of the classroom.

JAZZed: No question. Though, as you know better than most, education has its benefits as well. Who were some of you own music teachers?
BS: I took lessons from Charlie Banacos, I took some trombone lessons with John Coffee, and I got hooked up with Jamey Aebersold and have been teaching with him since the early #149;80s. Teaching on the staff next to Rufus Reid, Dan Haerle, and Jerry Coker has taught me so much.

JAZZed: Talk briefly about the evolution of Milton’s jazz program?
BS: One of the students in the first year was Bill Zildjian. He is of the Zildjian family, but his father broke away from the family, the company and founded Sabian. Sabian stands for “Sally, Billy, and Andy” S.A.B.I.A.N. Harry Truman’s grandson was also in the very first jazz course. Just little curiosities that are cool.

The course has been successful over the years. I got a call from Israel recently from a kid who had been in the third year of the program, just to tell me how much he got out of it and that he’s still playing music.

JAZZed: That’s got to feel good.
BS: Certainly. When you go to a school like Milton, you give kids opportunities. They’re talented, they’re smart and you just offer them the possibilities. That’s the thing that I do best: create opportunities for kids.

Gradually the demand for more advanced jazz classes grew and as time progressed, my math responsibilities diminished while the music classes increased. We have nine combos in the school now, having started from one. The program has expanded and, I think, been quite a success.

JAZZed: Recently you were selected as the first recipient of Berklee’s John LaPorta Award.
BS: I had John as a teacher, so that was really very meaningful to me.

JAZZed: Milton has also been chosen as Down Beat’s Best High School Combo.
BS: Yes in ’92 and again later in the decade.

JAZZed: How many jazz ensembles do you currently teach?
BS: There’s the middle school group 6th, 7th, and 8th. Then there are three 9th grade groups. They all meet once a week, during the school day. I have two first-year full credit courses which meet five periods a week three days: two doubles and a single. Those are full credit courses only open to 10th, 11th, or 12th graders. Then we have three Advanced groups.

JAZZed: What distinguishes the Advanced groups?
BS: The first-year course is more about foundation and we learn foundation by playing tunes, but the purpose of that course is not to go out and play concerts. The Advanced courses focus on performing. This past October we did an Art Blakey tribute. A couple years ago we did a set of Thelonious Monk at the IAJE concert and T.S. Monk came and played with us. That kind of connection really strengthens the program.

JAZZed: What do you think has made the program such a success?
BS: It’s the opportunities. Aaron Goldberg is a graduate of the program and he’s been very generous and kind about acknowledging the influence the program had on him.

We have other students who have gone on to be quite successful: we’ve got a guy who’s playing with Anthony Braxton, another guy who’s making his living playing Hammond B-3 in Manhattan, a couple of guys working on Broadway, and two of our students are in this band called Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

JAZZed: Matriculating working, career musicians that’s a sure sign of a successful school music program.
BS: Yes, but again I would give credit to the school and the opportunities for these kids to play and realize that they love playing music. It’s a school that really empowers kids.

I remember when I went to public high school in Connecticut and it was a pretty good school and we’d ask people, “Can we put on a talent show?” and they’d say, “No, you can’t do that.” Whereas a school like Milton Academy says, “Sure!” and the kids have the confidence and the poise to go out and pursue things. God bless #149;em.

JAZZed: It sounds like a special place. Another special thing about your program has been the South Africa trips.
BS: We completed our sixth tour of South Africa last year. It was my eighth.

JAZZed: How did you get connected with Abdullah Ibrahim?
BS: I heard Abdullah’s music on Eric Jackson’s radio show and got really inspired and bought some recordings. When I found out he was playing at Sweet Basil’s in 1990, I made a pilgrimage down there. I met him and tried to get him to come to school and play for the kids. It didn’t work out, but this is another reason why our school is so successful: our school is so connected. One of our parents grew up with Abdullah he’s now the head of the architecture department of MIT. He once snuck Abdullah into his basement and recorded them when they both lived in Cape Town.

JAZZed: Wow!
BS: A connection, like I say. So I contacted him by phone and said, “Look, can you approach him?” Abdullah was coming to the DeCordova Museum [Lincoln, Mass.] in August of ’91 and it turned out we had a program back then where we were one of about 25 or 30 prep schools who took about 14 students who’d graduated from high school in South Africa and said, “If you want to come here, we’ll give you a free year.” There were also about 40 or 50 universities that said, “We’ll give you a free four years after that.”

So I took a chance and bought all these kids tickets to see Abdullah before I even met them because they arrived the day before his concert. After the show I went backstage with these 14 black South African students to meet Abdullah and of course he was blown away. He came out and couldn’t have been more inviting and warm. On the way back to the airport this parent said, “Would you consider coming to Milton Academy?” and Abdullah agreed.

JAZZed: Pretty amazing. What was that first visit from Abdullah like?
BS: The second week of school, Abdullah arrived in the morning, in the middle of a concert that we were playing. We had a brand new headmaster, Ed Freedy, who is African American, so that impressed Abdullah. We had the same group which, later that year, was to win the Down Beat award and we were playing Abdullah’s music and I was told later that he was in tears. As soon as the concert was over, he ran up to the stage and said, “You have to come to South Africa with me.” Knowing Abdullah as I now do, that’s so out of character for him. He announced it from the stage later that night.

JAZZed: This is quite a story.
BS: It’s been amazing. Abdullah called a week later and said, “How #149;bout it?” So we went, but the idea to tour with him and open for him completely fell apart.

JAZZed: That’s a shame. Why?
BS: His agent really didn’t want Abdullah playing with a bunch of kids. Abdullah felt so badly about it#149; we went anyway.

JAZZed: When, exactly, was this first South Africa trip?
BS: February of #149;92.

JAZZed: Tell me about the details of that first journey?
BS: We took 10 performers and one of our colleagues, Janet Levine, who was a Johannesburg City councilman for 10 years. She and her son and my daughter also went. Aaron Goldberg was also part of that group. He had graduated by that point, but he heard about it and said “Can I come?” and I said, “Sure.”

JAZZed: If not with Abdullah, where did you end up playing?
BS: Our very first concert was a command performance for the mayor of Johannesburg. It turns out that it’s a position that’s ceremoniously rotated amongst the different parties. Janet Levine had had seniority in that party and, if she’d stayed in Johannesburg, she would’ve been the mayor.

JAZZed: Lots of random connections, repeatedly. Small world.
BS: It sure is. We played at a boys’ school, we toured a game reserve, and we played for Darius Brubeck’s school. We’ve played there all six tours and we’ve hosted his group at Milton Academy. We played at a technical college in Port Elizabeth, University of Cape Town, and the Market Theatre in Johannesburg a bunch of places.

JAZZed: Has that been the pattern on each subsequent trip?
BS: Well, we went that first time and that was great and all#149; but we didn’t really think about it that much, you know? Abdullah continued to come back to Boston and Milton Academy. In ’94 he played at Milton Academy again and actually asked me to help him start a school, asked me to help him publish his music, and asked me to apply for a $90,000 composer in residence grant program, which would’ve had him spend about 10 days a month in Boston over a three-year period.

JAZZed: And did you?
BS: We did apply and we made it from 67 down to 20 we made the first cut. I felt a little uncomfortable about him writing for students because they graduate every year and you’ve got to start all over, so I thought we needed a professional band and I brought the Either/Orchestra in. But Abdullah said, “I can’t work with other musicians. Would Duke Ellington share secrets with Count Basie?” and so forth. He got a little protective and I said, “I just don’t feel right about going forward.” They awarded six of these grants and I know we would’ve gotten one.

JAZZed: What do you feel makes these trips such a positive experience?
BS: I want to sort of make clear: if it doesn’t continue it’s outrageously expensive it’s not a part of the program, really. It’s something we offer the kids. Over the years we’ve developed these amazing relationships with township groups.

JAZZed: Oh?
BS: There’s a group called the Amy Biehl Foundation [www.amybiehl.org]. Amy Biehl was a Fulbright scholar who, after graduating Stanford, because of her love of Nelson Mandela, went to Cape Town for nine months studying gender issues, to contribute to what everybody knew would be a new constitution, but everybody else was focusing on race. Two days before she was supposed to return home, she was murdered in a very unfortunate racially motivated attack.

JAZZed: Awful.
BS: Her parents responded by testifying at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings for amnesty for the four young men who were serving 18-year jail sentences for her daughter’s death. In fact there’s an Academy Award-nominated documentary, Long Night’s Journey Into Day, which documents this.

We donated our funds in 2001 to the Amy Biehl Foundation because the parents contacted me. They had me come over to consult with their program in 2002 and then in ’03, ’05, and ’07 they created a jazz festival in our honor. Two of their most valued employees are two of the young men who had served jail time for their daughter’s death. The mom has been here a couple of times, they’ve sent their music teacher here for a week or two for training, and we’ve had some students who’ve gone over on their own and volunteered, so we have this just mind-bogglingly wonderful relationship with this township group.

JAZZed: So this South Africa trips go well beyond the scope of jazz.
BS: Oh, so far beyond. We have another township school in Johannesburg who we’ve hosted here and we’ve been there five times. By any measure, our students have amazing opportunities and are privileged. Not all the students come from wealthy families, though. [Massachusetts governor] Deval Patrick, who was a student of mine, did not come from privilege, for example. But having the chance to learn at a place like Milton Academy is really a blessing and a privilege. Then they go and see these kids from the township who have nothing, who’ve been oppressed legally and they’re so happy. Once they start playing music together, everything melts. It’s so glorious. That’s the reason we keep going back to South Africa because of the social interaction experiences.

JAZZed: How do you cover the cost for going to South Africa?
BS: There are a lot of parents who can pay for the trip and that’s mostly how we fund it. We are committed to, in a discreet manner, supporting anybody who’s on scholarship by letting the family know that we will raise the money. If somebody’s on a 70 percent scholarship, we will commit to raising 70 percent of the cost of the trip for them.

JAZZed: How do you go about that?
BS: It changes every year. One year, we played $8,000 worth of gigs.

JAZZed: That would do it.
BS: There’s also donations. Sometimes parents will voluntarily pay for an extra trip. There’s not a formula, we just find a way to make it work.

JAZZed: What do you find to be the most rewarding aspects of your job? The most frustrating?
BS: We’re really proud of the Aaron Goldbergs and the Steve Lehmans and the people who are going out and making a very satisfying career out of playing creative music, but that’s not why the program exists. It’s really satisfying for me to see a middle schooler who says, “Wow, this Horace Silver guy is really something how do I find out more about him?” I feel so fortunate to be a witness and maybe a small part of creating that introduction.

We’re now connected with the Boston Higashi School [www.bostonhigashi.org]in Randolph a school for autistic kids and one of their students has been a part of our jazz program for three years. We recently brought 9th and 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to play there. To see our kids and their kids enjoy each other, despite the obvious differences#149; using the music as a way to connect is a blessing. I just feel so fortunate to be able to create opportunities for our students to share the gift of their music.

That’s the good part of the job. The bad part is, you know, having to hear the kids tune up [laughs]. And everybody runs to the drum set except the drummer. It’s very stressful when you teach five periods a day, sometimes. To have to deal with the chaos that is just part of a music group and all the schlepping of equipment and the logistics that’s challenging. But those are small, minor issues compared to the joy of sharing music. I mean, how cool is it to have a classroom where kids want to be there? They have to go out of their way to sign up to be in the class, so they walk in the door and they want to do what I’m offering and what I can help them with.

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