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A New Breed …of Jazz Director

Jazzed Magazine • March 2009Spotlight • March 18, 2009

Kevin Cole

Young, Aggressive, and Emphasizing Performing in the Community A Tenacious Kevin Cole Sees the Big Picture

Webster Groves High School boasts one of the finest jazz education and performance programs in the Midwest and Kevin Cole, a young director who got the gig right out of college, is in his tenth year running it. Cole represents a new breed of jazz directors, one that comes with a background different from the previous generation. Like the kids these young educators are reaching out to, the musical tastes of their youth tend to be more based in rock than jazz. They tend to escape the school politics that can mire others, and there’s an emphasis on building stronger, more individual relationships with the students.

“He really encourages us to play outside of school in groups and combos, and gets us chances to do that,” says sophomore Brogan Drissell, an all-state performer who is often spotted playing electric bass in combos around town. “He’s my favorite teacher… he’s actually more a student than a teacher.”

Cole is driven and aggressive. He’s got more groups than the modest sized-school might warrant. More kids are performing at more public events, and their repertoire is significantly larger than typically found. Members have performed in New York, Chicago, London, and Prague, and in March they are attending the San Francisco Jazz Collective.

His students participate in clinics with artists such as Cyrus Chestnut, Delfeayo Marsalis, Bob Mintzer, Wycliffe Gordon, Tom #149;Bones’ Malone, The Yellowjackets, Chip McNeill, Jeff Hamilton, Dana Hall, Tom Garling, Michael Philip Mossman, Dave Scott, Tim Warfield, Esperanza Spalding, and Jim Widner, to name just a few.

Cole, 32, was born in Pekin, Ill., a suburb of Peoria. He started playing piano when he was five, and took up trombone in high school. He studied music at the Illinois State University in Bloomington, Ill., where his jazz teacher, Jim Boitos, influenced him. “In addition to being one of the finest saxophonists I’ve ever heard, he was a great teacher who was as much into jazz history and culture as he was in putting tunes in front of students and getting them to play them perfectly,” Cole says. It was Boitos who also taught him “more was more” when it comes to the amount of literature one learns.

After graduating with a music education degree, emphasis on trombone, he says he “lucked in” when in 1999 Webster Groves High School, located in a St. Louis suburb, needed a new jazz band director. “I thought this was a place where music can happen, a community and the school really care about the arts.”

And why did the relatively plump position go to someone so wet behind the ears? Cole shrugs. “I think the administrator hiring thought that while there was value in experience, there’s just as much value in an energetic young person.”

JAZZed sat down with Cole at a nearby coffee house between classes to discuss what he’s learned, how he approaches teaching, and how he inspires the kids to perform so well and so often.

What It’s About

JAZZed: Let’s talk about when you first took over the program 10 years ago.
Kevin Cole: There was obvious talent and support for the program from the community and school. The program did seem to be 99 percent geared toward learning a set of tunes to play for a specific performance. My thought was that we wanted to learn 20 sets [worth of music] that we could perform at any time. That’s not a criticism of anybody it’s just my belief.

JAZZed: Has the program progressed?
KC: We certainly increased the number of kids getting seated in All-State and All-Suburban [events], and more going onto music schools with scholarships. For me, though, it’s all about what a kid’s going to be able to do after school.

JAZZed: What are your influences, musically?
KC: My dad had the Beatles on all of the time, almost everyday. It was the soundtrack to my youth. When I first arrived at college, I couldn’t tell Louis Armstrong from Lance Armstrong. Really.

Kevin ColeSo at first it was the horns in rock bands like Chicago and Blood Sweat Tears. Then it was Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, and the RB-influenced jazz from the 1970s. From there, I got into the hard bop of Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, and Cannonball Adderley. I love the guys who play melodically, things that the kids can comprehend. They are not going to get Don Cherry or Ornette Coleman right away. It’s like speech. When you’re four, you don’t enjoy Shakespeare, you enjoy Barney.

JAZZed: So Barney is an influence?
KC: [smiles] My young son, Miles, is in a way. We learn speech only from imitating sounds. Then you know a few words. Then you can say sentences, then paragraphs… that’s how I approach teaching music.

JAZZed: How about your teaching influences?
KC: We work with a ton of pros. Tom Garling, Bob Mintzer, Michael Philip Mossman … I hope I’ve taken a little from each of them and it comes out in my lessons to the kids. [pause] I’ve probably learned more from my failures then from anything.

JAZZed: These failures… they’d be… ?
KC: At first I was too rigid, too strict with kids. It was “my way or the highway,” and I was much less understanding of them. I didn’t know when to push and when to pull back. I think I’ve learned. Fatherhood hasn’t hurt figuring that out, either!

JAZZed: Let’s talk about your programs.
KC: We have three big bands. Jazz I meets Tuesday and Thursday nights, 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Then we have two Jazz II groups. One isn’t different or better than the other, there’s just two different times to sign up for it. One focuses on Basie style, and the other on the Ellington style, then we’ll switch. Those are mostly younger players, or kids playing second instruments.

JAZZed: Word in the halls is that you’re well liked, with more than one kid saying you’re his or her favorite teacher… is it more important to be liked or respected?
KC: Respected. But the kids do have to dig you a little bit … if they don’t like you at least a little, they have no reason to come back. When you’re a music director, you’re a teacher, a cheerleader, a fundraiser, a janitor… [laughs] … just don’t be a jerk with all that other stuff. There was some of that when I first started. But that’s not what music is about.

Getting Out

JAZZed: There are a lot of combos made up of your kids out playing in the community.
KC: Eight years ago, we didn’t have any combos. We had players able, but I didn’t feel I could ask them to put even more time into music. But then the momentum shifted. Now we have seven or eight, and they work entirely on their own time. Now we have parents calling and wanting a small group to play some event, and we send one out and they sound pretty professional. Then others want to hire them. Some of these kids are out playing three times in a month in addition to things I have them doing.

JAZZed: The big band plays some very high-profile places jazz festivals, upscale clubs.
KC: We set up a few performances a year at Jazz at the Bistro, which is on Wynton Marsalis’ list of top ten clubs in the country for jazz players to play. We’ll play restaurants, clubs. We can get a good audience. Most importantly the kids are getting experience playing on stage.

JAZZed: All the groups I’ve seen are remarkably mature and sophisticated in their performance style how do you cultivate that?
KC: There are two things we talk about besides literature, and one is stage presence. Nothing is more irritating to watch than a band that talks between tunes, are sloppy, etc.

Another is about creating arrangements. None of this just head, solo, solo, solo, head again. I have them take the time to practice and find a way to twist or counter the melody, create a musical background, go for some harmonies that are a bit off the page …

JAZZed: What’s happening in your classroom?
KC: We put a heavy emphasis on learning tunes, reading, and playing by ear. This is above the whole “clean” big band chart. Really, above anything, it’s about knowledge of tunes. When my kids go audition, or play in a combo, they have a wealth of literature knowledge.

JAZZed: What is your approach to building the repertoire?
KC: We do everything from Dixieland to contemporary original compositions. Recently we commissioned a piece by Michael Philip Mossman. So we do a little of everything, and always include the cultural and historical part of it. Every time on every chart, we talk about who played on the original recording, who and where it was written, etc. The kids are as into it as I am. They are all over Wikipedia, and if I make a mistake, they correct me.

JAZZed: You’re taking up valuable practice time doing that…
KC: It’s an important part of the story. Jazz has culturally and racially always been way ahead of its time, and we’re doing the music a disservice if we just “play” it. You have to discuss the piece in context. Otherwise, it would be like an actor acting in a foreign language and just speaking the sounds, not knowing what he or she is actually saying.

Improvisation Not so Improv

JAZZed: So the community is supportive?
KC: The parents are so supportive. It reminds me of the little towns in Illinois where I grew up where when it’s basketball night, the whole town is there. Here, we have an army of 100 parents who show up to all these performances, even if their kids are not in the program. It becomes a matter of pride.

The administration is pro-kids. If they are in music, drama, sports, they are there for them. They allow the kids and me to travel more than they should! [laughs]

JAZZed: How do you get so many artists to come to your school?
KC: A local group, Jazz St. Louis, brings artist in town almost every week at the Bistro, and they will often call us and ask us if we want to work with their performers. There’s no way I’m saying No, and sometimes these things materialize with just 12 hours notice so we have to scramble. It’s an incredible luxury to have a first rate venture like that.

JAZZed: Explain how it works.
KC: The first thing I do is peruse the Bistro schedule, and we try to go piggy back with them. On a school budget it’s hard to bring in an act from New York for three days, but if they are already in town for a performance, and it’s just a matter of getting them another night at the hotel, that’s doable.

Kevin ColeOtherwise, we’re pretty tenacious about going after people. If we ask someone to do a clinic and they say No, we just move onto the next person.

JAZZed: Your kids are great improvisers how do you get them at such a level?
KC: [pause] I wish it wasn’t called “improvisation” because it’s really not. “Improv” is when you come home really late, and you’re sneaking in your parent’s house, and they catch you, and you suddenly have to “improv” a whole answer.

For me it’s like the improv comedy show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? There’s a framework. You’re this character in this place doing “x.” It’s the same thing with jazz. Here’s the framework, here are the notes we have, and this is the style. So you know a lot of things going in. You’re just being asks to make a new melody.

It’s like speech: you know the alphabet, you know the words, so it’s not like you’re making up a new language every time.

JAZZed: Still, new players need some direction.
KC: We play some games. I get them to solo walking base lines to give them an idea of the harmonic structure. We’ll find notes to eliminate for example if we’re playing an F Blues and he or she keeps hitting the B-flat, we’ll take that away and say you don’t get to play that note anymore.

JAZZed: What’s the most frustrating part of the job?
KC: For me, it’s never being able to turn it off. My wife things I’m nuts always listening to music, or playing, or talking to kids in the band on the phone, or talking to an artist who is coming to town and talking him or her into doing a workshop … there are days I’m in the school 13, 14 hours.

JAZZed: What’s the most rewarding aspect of it?
KC: Just seeing the kids achieve. Seeing them make music together … and I remember every break through for every kid the time, place, taste when that kid played that note. It’s really nice.

JAZZed: Your kids really love jazz.
KC: If jazz was ever dead, it certainly is not now. It’s alive and making a comeback.

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