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Contemporary Improvisation at 40 Years

Jazzed Magazine • January 2013 • December 17, 2012

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Dominique Eade performs at NEC’s Jordan Hall.

Mandolin player Sarah Jarosz spends a good deal of her year on the road, performing at folk and bluegrass festivals and headlining tours of her own that meet a growing love for heartfelt American roots music.  The Austin native is currently in the middle of recording her third album for Sugar Hill Records. Her debut (Song Up In Her Head) was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance in 2010.

But at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she’s currently a senior, she’s likely to be studying jazz melodies from Abbey Lincoln, learning classical theory, and practicing free jazz ensembles in the style of Ornette Coleman.  It’s all part of the school’s Contemporary Improvisation program, and while it may seem like a culture clash – and in many ways, it is – Jarosz says it’s eye-opening and unforgettably constructive.

“It’s all about the freedom to explore,” she says.

The NEC Contemporary Improvisation program is in the midst of its 40th anniversary this year.  Begun under the fiercely adventurous Gunther Schuller as an extension of his “Third Stream” ethos – essentially an initiative to blend jazz and classical music – the program has evolved into one of the most versatile in all of music education. In its existence, it’s gone from musical curiosity to an honored incubator for musicians looking to follow in the footsteps of musicians like John Medeski, Anthony Coleman, and Don Byron. As current chair Hankus Netsky explains it, the program draws on as many disparate sources as possible to lead students toward a full career (not to mention a more assured sense of their own musical identity).

“What we do is train young musicians to be able to navigate a musical world where anything might happen,” says Netsky. “The music world is diverse, rich, and multi-cultural. If you’re going to engage in it, you might do it better if you have some sort of manual for it.”

The Newest Sound Around

The Contemporary Improvisation (or “CI”) department began in 1972 as the Third Stream Department. NEC president Gunther Schuller had gradually amassed a wide variety of musical and academic contacts who shared a similar belief in combining seemingly disparate styles of music. Schuller coined the term at a lecture at Brandeis University in 1957 and went on to explain that he looked forward to “a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music.”  Schuller himself was already known as a pioneering performer and composer. He performed with orchestras across the country, played French horn on Miles Davis’s The Birth of Cool, and taught at the Manhattan School of Music and Yale. In New York, he was an avid follower of all forms of music – he had work performed for the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and composed for Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy.

Soon after he came to NEC, Schuller established the first-ever degree-granting conservatory jazz program in 1969.  Three years later, he named the iconic pianist Ran Blake as chair of the new Third Stream department. Blake had turned heads with an incomparable playing style that seemed to deconstruct Thelonius Monk’s idiosyncrasies with an ear toward the thorny dissonances of European Modernist composers. As a student at Bard College, he developed a groundbreaking set of duets with vocalist Jeanne Lee that materialized in 1961 as The Newest Sound Around, which still stands as one of the most unique jazz recordings ever. Blake composed and performed on the basis of an expansive background, a dependance on ear training, repertoire, and musical narrative. Under his immediate direction, the new program at NEC was able to take that approach and create a pedagogy out of it.

Blake still teaches in the department and remains a key figure in its development, which long ago grew out of its “jazz meets classical” roots.  “The whole program brought together so many things,” Blake says. “It was my interest in the ear plus the diversity of Gunther, who loved everything from Webern to Scott Joplin, and perhaps the vitality of the late ‘60s in general.  It was so lively.”

Blake remembers a variety of phases that the school went through – times that focused on John Cage’s music, rock music, jazz, and American folk music.  “These are all memories, though,” he says.  “What I say about the program now will not be true in two years.”

Hankus Netsky performs with Marty Ehrich.

Beyond Third Stream

As the students and faculty grew under Blake’s collaborative spirit, the musical and academic direction continued to shift and play off of other departments in the school.  Netsky first arrived at NEC as a student in 1973, along with a steady stream of musicians from all sorts of backgrounds. One of Schuller’s original concepts was to develop improvising string quartets which could also perform contemporary classical pieces better than any other group.  As time went on, the original concept of Third Stream became almost quaint – by the ‘80s, the jazz meets classical combination was simply one of hundreds of combinations that new musicians were exploring.

Blake says this was the vision from the beginning. “Gunther’s definition was ‘classical jazz,’ but he’d be the first to admit that it wasn’t going to stay like that,” he says. Pianist and early Third Stream student Anthony Coleman had graduated from NEC with a composition degree and moved to New York City by the early ‘80s. He found himself entrenched with a gang of downtown musicians led by John Zorn in a movement that would bring together far-flung practices of new music, “game piece” improv guidelines, jazz, world music, and a love of cinematic forms that rivaled Ran Blake’s careful attention to Hitchcock-ian noir.  By the early ‘90s, NEC alums Medeski and Chris Wood had teamed with Billy Martin to use jazz chops and contemporary sensibilities to forge a groundbreaking career at home in rock clubs and jam band festivals. Luciana Souza was building an identity with Brazilian jazz with new classical music. Times were changing.

Meanwhile, the school was trying to be sure to get across the notion that it wasn’t trying to mold every student into wildly esoteric artists obsessed with difficult realms of blended styles and irreverent genre-hopping.  To the contrary, it was aiming to create what Netsky calls “a complete musician.”

“We’re not trying to produce ‘Third Stream’ musicians,” says Netsky. He points to the popular folk work of Jarosz, who is able to create music without blatant elements of contemporary new music or improv traditions. “She’s approaching this work as a composer and arranger. It’s not like I’ll suddenly demand, ‘Where’s the Indian music in this!’ [laughs]. That’s not what we do.”

The department officially changed its name to “Contemporary Improvisation” in 1992 and gradually saw its enrollment and influence within the school grow.  As early students became settled in as long-standing faculty members – singer Dominique Eade, Coleman, and Netsky himself among them – an academic identity started to become a real-world attitude.

“One thing that’s made a very big difference since the earlier days is that the musical scene has come to resemble our department more and more,” Netsky says.  “When we started, we were thought of as really odd for teaching the way we did and making the statements we made about musical categories.  The scene has evolved since then and I think our faculty and our alumni have had a lot to do with that.”

Ran Blake Seminar.

The CI Approach

Nowadays, the program has caught on.  Though relatively small (this past fall, there were 36 students enrolled in the department out of NEC’s overall enrollment of around 800), the number of applicants has increased dramatically. Blake’s pedagogy has hit its stride and CI enjoys a new position at NEC as one of the school’s signature programs. The goal is simple – to create adept composer/performer/improvisers who are comfortable in as many situations as possible.  There are several factors that play into the unique methodology of the CI program today, including intensive ear training, an open-minded student admissions program, immersive studies in complementary styles, and a rigorous approach to fundamentals.

“Our bottom line is that we insist on skills,” says Netsky.  “That’s the legacy of Ran Blake – he would never just give a student a piece of music. He’ll assign students Shostakovich and they’ll ask where the sheet music is. He would just say, ‘Here’s the recording.’ He’d do the same for Mompou or Bach or James Brown. How would you write down James Brown, anyway?”

“The concept is that improvisation is based on the idea of music as an oral tradition. And I would say that’s true all through Bach and Beethoven and Chopin and Paganini – if you got any of those guys together at a party, they’d probably make up some pretty good stuff!”

Netsky says the key to establishing that kind of sensibility in students requires very careful ear training, something many technically advanced students starting out at the school can lack. He points out young prodigies who can fly through “Giant Steps” at breakneck tempos yet stumble at simple exercises like singing specific notes and then playing them on their instrument. CI students therefore undergo strenuous ear training programs (in addition to core NEC courses in solfege and theory). Course offerings include “Development of Personal Style,” “The Development of Long-Term Harmonic Memory,” “The Properties of Free Music,” and “Issues and Trends in American Music.” An intense focus is given to students’ individual backgrounds and an ever-diverse influx of diverse musicians keeps that interesting. Blake’s 2010 book, Primacy of the Ear, carefully lays out the methodology that includes deep listening and a development of musical memory.

“A lot of our growth is propelled by Hankus’s probing thought and how he recruits people from around the globe,” says Blake. “We’ve become very international with incredible students from India, Israel, Chile, and Bogotá.”

To that end, the types of music coming out of the school tend to reflect the backgrounds of the musicians calling it home at the time, such as the Appalachian and bluegrass music championed by Jarosz and violinist Eden Macadam-Somer, who also performs a deep repertoire of jazz and Eastern European and “gypsy” tunes. Netsky himself has helped usher in a new era of improvisational Jewish folk music as a founding member and director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band. This type of focus and flexibility allows the program to constantly shift to fertile musical ground as well as encouraging students to engage in music through channels outside of simply studying sheet music. Younger generations of musicians like Aaron Hartley, a trombonist and CI faculty member who co-produces an annual Film Noir concert with Blake in Boston, have continued the practice.

“Ran always says that if he wanted to see Picasso, he’d go to the Louvre,” says Hartley.  “If I want to hear great music, I’m going to listen to it.  If I want to taste great food, I’m going to eat it – I’m not going to look at a menu with pictures on it.”

Eden MacAdam-Somer performs

The Continued Importance of Jazz in Improvisation

Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary came out in 2000, encapsulating a “classicist” attitude toward jazz headed by figures like Wynton Marsalis.  While Blake acknowledges that Marsalis is doing a great job preserving the ideals of masters like Duke Ellington (one of Blake’s idols), he also welcomes the freedom to explore beyond the limits of easily defined categories. Blake himself never made an effort to identify as a strictly jazz pianist. “Years ago, jazz people cut me down because I’m not the greatest swinger,” he says.

Netsky puts it starkly: “I think that when jazz had its retro moment with all of the discussions about where the boundaries were, it helped us a lot.  It freed up [some of our musicians] to say, ‘Okay, I guess I’m not a jazz musician. Yay!”

When Coleman returned to NEC in 2006 as a faculty member, he noticed a distinct change in new students’ backgrounds. “I noticed that for a lot of people there, jazz was not a really big part of their makeup,” he says. “I had to take the lay of the land. It took a minute. For me, it was always about the jazz binaries – whatever things I put into my music, jazz was always a really serious basis for it. But lot of them were coming from noise improvisation or different World traditions or even the outer fringers of singer-songwriter music.”

And yet, as a program based on improvisation, the school will always use jazz as a cornerstone to understanding any musical language.  “You can’t skip the major improvisational language of the 20th Century,” says Netsky. “It just has to include jazz.”

Hartley also sees the genre’s inclusion as necessary. “The thing is that jazz is in everything and everything is in jazz,” he says. “The chords that Schoenberg uses that are in a lot of other classical music are the same ones in jazz – sharp nines, flat nines, flat 13s. I think it may be even better prescribed to learn those things in a jazz piece because they’re broken down in such fundamental ways.”  But he goes further – why not use music from any genre as a learning tool?  “Why not look at a Beatles tune or a Queen tune or a Dillinger Escape Plan tune to teach something?  Let’s learn something from Deerhoof. That’s the difference with this program.”

Indeed, much of the categorization of many of the jazz greats is rarely self-declared.  Charles Mingus was known to refer to his own style as “Mingus Music” and Duke Ellington never called his music “jazz.” He was known to prefer the term “American Music.”  Both studied contemporary classical composers and were known to be avid fans of music of all stripes.  Charlie Parker was known to have been keenly interested in new European classical music and is said to have contracted the German composer Stefan Wolpe as a teacher shortly before his death (Eric Dolphy went on to study with him).

But it might be the genre’s history of informal training, one-on-one interactions, and searching for independent voices that the CI program most hopes to emulate.  “No one ever handed Charlie Parker no Charlie Parker Omnibook,” says Netsky.  “Nor was he ever given a Lester Young Omnibook. He had to sit there and figure it out and sing it and play every note that Lester Young ever played before he dared to go back to that club.”

Netsky says that for all the explorations in every style imaginable, the students in his program graduate with the chops to improvise over swing and bebop changes. What they do with those skills, in the end, is up to them.

“I’m looking for two things,” he says. “I’m looking for someone who can play their own instrument and I’m looking to see if they have a creative spark.  I think that’s the essence of jazz.”

Hearing From CI Lifers

Anthony Coleman in class.

Anthony Coleman

Around the midpoint of my time in school, I was torn between people like Ellington and Monk on the one hand and Webern and Bartók on the other. I couldn’t quite figure out how it all made sense together. I was really looking out for a music that wouldn’t wear its genre references so clearly. I was also very interested in post-Cagean music, and I also worked with a lot of rock people when I went to New York, people like Glenn Branca. But I already knew that this was my task when I was in school – a lot of people realized that in CI. There was a task to take all of this stuff and create your own voice.

How does all this disparate material come together to make a body of work and an individual voice?  Every person on the faculty has diverse backgrounds, so there needs to be something we can look at that’s not genre-based but based on musicianship. What’s musicianship?  There are some kind of chops that transcend genre that have to do with listening, interacting, and understanding aspects of time, transitions, and proportions.

A class we teach is “Development of Personal Style” that everyone has to take. Hopefully by the end of the program, they can achieve that. What does this mean for them?  And maybe it won’t really become manifest for them until ten years down the road, but at least they have that kernel. That’s always the clear goal.

Sarah Jarosz

Growing up in a bluegrass background, the improvisation I had done had all gone through that filter. I would improvise over those songs and melodies from bluegrass. It was good to start improvising over different things – a  free improv ensemble with Joe Morris doing Ornette Coleman, for instance. That’s not something I’d necessarily include in my own set, but learning about that language pushes you further. I think that has made its way into the songs I’m writing now compared to what I wrote when I first got here.

Eden MacAdam-Somer

As with a lot of musicians who grew up playing music, I spent a lot of my life separating myself into different categories and genres.  I could be a jazz violinist, a classical violinist, an Appalachian folk fiddler, or an Eastern European fiddler. It’s difficult to balance those identities. Coming to the CI program provided a great basis to create one identity for myself that drew on all of those different elements. I feel like that’s been the best part of my experience – becoming the composer/improviser/performer that I am as one person.

We’re often taught to play, but not reminded enough to listen.  For a long time, it didn’t occur to me to think, “How does this sound?  How do I want it to sound?” [CI] is about becoming aware of things I’ve always known, but never taken the time to do. We all know we should exercise more or spend time outside, but that can get pushed back. The great thing about this program is that those things come first – listening comes first and creativity comes first. Technique and theory are so important, but only in the sense that they serve the music.

Dominique Eade

Even though I was pretty much always a jazz singer, I had plenty of other influences on my music from being a singer-songwriter studying different musics all over the world and classical music. The Third Stream department gave me a home from which I could investigate all those of things without feeling like I had to sit squarely in one camp or another.

I picked the program initially because I heard Ran Blake play. To me, that was the logical extension of Thelonious Monk. It really was a jazz reason. Little did I know that the terrain of jazz would change and become, in some ways, more conservative. I teach in both the Jazz and CI departments and that’s reflective of how I feel. In one way, there’s something about the jazz tradition that I love. If you want to even attempt to become conversant in it, you have to pay some dues through that music and its tradition. You can’t just pay lip service to it.

The biggest issue with the CI department, for me, is to make sure that the students do find some way to really engage. That’s difficult, honestly. A shared repertoire creates a meeting place. So if you don’t have that shared repertoire, how do you build that meeting place to come together and engage and create together? It’s intimate and it can be embarrassing if people feel, “Oh, I didn’t know you meant for me to not play that drone that long.” People can feel very self-conscious. At the graduate level, we make sure they have these seminar classes where they really get to know each other and each other’s backgrounds, so that they can find common ground.

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