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New Paths to Young Milestones

By Matt Parish

Growing up in Central California in the ‘60s meant you were a stone’s throw from the legendary early years of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Longtime jazz educator Mark Kasparian’s father made sure he made it out there as a budding music fan, soaking up music during one of its most vital periods of innovation. Kasparian and college friend Jim Page, both members of the Fresno State marching band, maintained a love of jazz throughout their careers. Kasparian developed one of the top middle school jazz programs in the state at Tenaya Middle School, a school of nearly 1,000 students in the sprawling Fresno Unified School District. His groups have won top honors at both the Reno and Fullerton Jazz Festival.

But there’s a familiar second act to this story. In the face of declining budgets and increased pressure to meet standardized test scores, less attention is afforded to arts and music programs. As a result, and combined with what Kasparian says is a declined attention given to jazz in general, jazz programs have been difficult to maintain.

But Page hopes to solve that by creating a jazz education program for elementary beginners to advanced high school students that works outside of schools. His new Milestones Jazz program will serve as a supplement to school music programs. Enlisting the expertise of Kasparian (who has recently shifted his focus to elementary students at his day job) along with instructors Edward Hull, Larry Honda, and Brian Hamada, Page has worked with the flourishing JazzFresno organization to lay the groundwork for the program’s inaugural season this year. These types of independent jazz schools are starting to flourish – Caleb Chapman Music in Salt Lake City and Seattle JazzED, for starters – and this one hopes to continue with that success, following in those giant steps to create a thriving, sustainable home for young jazz hopefuls.

 Dawning of a New Era in Fresno

JAZZed: First off, congratulations to both of you on this inaugural school year of Milestones! Can you talk about the impetus for building this sort of program in Fresno?

Jim Page: It sort of just dawned on me one night when I was at a jam session that I just wasn’t seeing any kids from the Fresno Unified School District. There was my son, but no one else was participating. The opportunity for this kind of music was really only there for a really small percentage of kids in the district. Jazz has meant so much to me. I played in high school and it created so many opportunities that I thought it just wasn’t fair that these programs are only accessible for kids who just happened to attend the right schools.

Mark Kasparian: There’s an incredible level of high school musicians, middle school musicians, and elementary level kids, some of whom are full-fledged beginners. And it’s all kids that really want to be there. We’ve had people come in from 30 miles away. My piano player now is at a private school that doesn’t have ensemble groups. She’s incredible, but has never played with other people. Practicing to your metronome isn’t the whole story – you need to interact with people to make this music and I can tell she’s digging it.

JAZZed: How would you describe the relationship of this program to the music and band programs already established at the schools?

MK: We’re being careful to design it as a supplement to other music programs – not an alternative.

JP: I recognized that we’re not going to be able to do that if we’re pulling kids out of your program. I’m proud to say that all of our students are active participants in their school music programs if there is one at their school. Once the school band directors realized that was our goal, it was easier to get them to pass out the postcards and let the kids know what was going on. I think it’s better to work with people to help make them stronger at no cost to them than to try to fight against them.

JAZZed: It seems like the way kids are exposed to jazz is different than the way it used to be, both institutionally and in day-to-day life. How do you two remember coming to the music when you were younger?

MK: My dad was a disc jockey and he used to go the Monterey jazz festival when I was a little kid. I was listening to big band and all kind of stuff as a kid. I’m a trumpet player myself and I was always an ear player. Al Hirt and Doc Severinson were my idols as a kid, so I’d try and listen to them and figure things out by ear to mimic them. That was me learning to improvise.

JP: I come from a musical family – my dad was a band director and my sister is a recently retired middle school educator. With my dad, we had all kinds of swing records and Dixieland stuff, so I grew up listening to Bennie Goodman and Gene Krupa and Count Basie and Glenn Miller. All the great big bands. I acquired the taste for all of that early on. For me, it all started at home with what my parents had on the record player.

MK: I was also a pro trumpet player for quite awhile. I played at things like the Ice Capades and the circus – all that stuff. I tell people that I was fortunate to be good enough that in a small town, you’d have those opportunities. Nowadays, those kinds of opportunities are few and far between. In those days there were live acts everywhere.

Technique in the Classroom

JAZZed: Mark, you’ve gained some renown over the last 20 years or so as an extremely successful middle school jazz teacher at Tenaya Middle School, winning the Reno and Fullerton Jazz Festivals multiple times. Can you give us some background on that district and the challenges facing it?

MK: The Fresno Unified district is a rather large one and it’s fraught with all the problems that typically go with that. I ran the program for 23 years and we had some really good bands. Back in the early ‘90s, I had overseen three different middle school programs in three years. Those middle school kids put me through so much early on that I almost thought I’d go back and make pizzas for a living.

But in that first group there was a drummer who was just a natural. I’d never seen anything like it. When he first came in, I’d ask him to play a few different patterns and he’d always say, “How about this?” And he’d play these Latin beats. I said, “You’re hired.” He couldn’t read music, but I said we could fix that. He went on to be the drummer for the All-California Jazz Band. So he was sort of the nucleus of that whole program. The year after that, we won Reno. I never had a ton of numbers – I only had one trombone in that first group, and I think I had twelve saxes, ten trumpets, a baritone and a trombone. Two keyboards and a couple drummers. It was really out of proportion, but I let them all play.

JAZZed: You must have been excited to develop that middle school program. 

MK: I really like those younger kids. I love starting from a clean slate and showing them how to sit and put their instrument together and produce sounds. With kids starting in 5th grade and moving on to 8th grade – I just really enjoy the growth that you see in that segment of their education as opposed to any other part of their lives.

JAZZed: What was your method when you were deeply involved in that program?

MK: It wasn’t until you got kids into the middle school or junior high level that you could really experiment. To start with, I don’t really audition kids at the beginning of the year. I just get as many kids involved in the jazz band as we can – whoever is interested. So I just wanted to make sure that, for the young ones who we didn’t really know well were coming in that jazz is not a foreign language. It’s just like real music. We would play for a couple weeks – easy blues types of tunes, even “Louie Louie.” Things that were easy and fun that could get the hook in them. Then, towards then end of those weeks, I’d audition. Eventually, the kids without the skills would drop. But the kids that could hang with it would go as a big band and start on basic form blues scales or minor pentatonic.

I really play for the kids a lot. I do a lot of call-and-response to try to get them improvising. As they get a little mature, then I try to explain how the ii-V-I’s are working and that kind of thing.

I’d have them pick out one note lines and I’d always try to get their ears trained. It could be something simple, like maybe three notes of the minor pentatonic. They usually have no problem with that – I’ve done that with fourth graders as well. It’s astounding how good people’s ears are and how we never use that much in education.

I try to teach the whole class how to go up and down the major scale and how you can build 7th chords on every one. For some kids at that age, they don’t want to do that. They just play. But some do and for them I’ll help them with that – practice these scales and get them in your brain.

JAZZed: Do you see major confidence boosts when students realize they have the skills to just improvise and performance?

JP: Definitely. Jazz is a totally different art form in that regard. I read something about trying imagine if you went to a poetry reading and the poet was required to make something up on the spot. Or a painter who had to do the same thing – “I’m going to paint live and in four minutes, it’s going to be a masterpiece.” Jazz is really unique  in what is expected of kids who can improvise. It’s sort of a sink or swim thing.

JAZZed: Had you found any advantages to using new technologies with any of this?

MK: You can show a kid something and tell them to download it and put it on their iPod or just stream it for free. For these last few years, that’s been great, just to let them listen. I’ll give  the kids a real easy arrangement of a song we’re doing, and a student might come back to me the next day with, like, 14 different versions he’d downloaded from different groups – Chick Corea doing it, a big band version – I thought that’s amazing. I’m still catching up and these kids can just go out and do it like it’s no big deal. I can also go in GarageBand and set up jazz arrangements where you can just record out the backing combo for students to practice solos to – tell them to bring in their flash drive and take it home.

Moving Miles Ahead

JAZZed: Jim, how did you go about setting up the Milestones program with people like Mark once you had the green light from JazzFresno?

JP: There were three aspects to it – getting the directors, getting the facilities, and getting the participants. I went after the directors first because that’s the best marketing tool, right? I can say, “These are the guys we have, they’re among the best in the area and this is what we’re going.” So then I had to tackle the questions of facilities and I went to Fresno Unified for that and they were awesome.

I said that this is a program I want to put together because the school doesn’t offer it comprehensively across the district. They could have taken the attitude of, “We don’t want you showing us up by offering something we don’t.” But they thought it was a great thing. I let all of them know that we have a participation agreement. Our goal is that we wanted to make programs stronger by building better musicians. They said their goal was that there would be a jazz band in every middle school and every high school in the district. So this is hopefully a step toward that, event though it’s something that is run independently. I really do consider them a partner.

The third aspect was just getting to the band directors to get the word out to the kids. So really, I spend a lot of time doing that – just trying to get appointments with folks and telling them what it is. We said that we wanted any kid who’s able to play, even if they can’t afford to do it. We have more than enough in scholarships. We ask how much you can afford and if the answer is nothing, you can still play.

Shifting Attitudes

JAZZed: What do you think is the source for declining support of arts education?

JP: I think it’s like everywhere else in life – there are some people who recognize the value of arts education and there are some who, despite the overwhelming numbers, fail to recognize it. When you combine that with the fact that these folks are under so much pressure to raise test scores, sometimes it’s hard to insist that we should have a jazz band and they need to meet every day after school or in fourth period or whatever it is. I appreciate that problem.

JAZZed: What do you think is the greatest benefit to kids who are able to participate in jazz programs growing up?

JP: Number one is that I think you could ask any school jazz band director, “Does this music breed confidence?” For a kid who can learn to stand up in front of an audience and play without the benefit of having music in front of them where they’re reading the notes, just using the knowledge they’ve gained, that breeds a tremendous amount of confidence and it carries on to the rest of their lives.

I think any jazz band director will tell you the same thing. Kids just blossom overnight because of the confidence they gain. There’s a lot of evidence that this stimulates parts of their brain that help facilitate higher test scores, too. But really, I think the main thing is the confidence kids get from it.

MK: To me, I look at kids like a plant. If you plant a seed and give it the proper fertilizer and hover over it and nurture it, it’s going to have potential. If you don’t, it will atrophy. And I think the younger kids can learn really fast. It all depends on what you expose them to. If your objective is to have them learn “Hot Cross Buns” for two years, then that’s all you’ll get out of them.

JAZZed: It never hurts to have high expectations of your students’ abilities.

MK: It’s a mindset. You’re playing music that’s in tune and sounds good? Of course kids are capable. They’re capable as elementary students, but no one expects that. And yet everyone has high expectations for these kids when it comes to subjects like Algebra – “The Koreans are ahead of us!” and things like that. Why would you act differently about the best subject in school? We’re driven by that federal mindset, unfortunately. Meanwhile people enjoy jazz and higher art forms as if they’re guarded secrets.

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