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Spotlight: Dr. David Fodor

Jazzed Magazine • July 2013Spotlight • October 9, 2013

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In June of this year, Dr. David Fodor stepped down from his longtime position as director of bands for Evanston (Illinois) Township High School (ETHS).

While Dr. Fodor’s duties had him overseeing all ensembles at the school, the jazz program, in particular, achieved great success and Fodor himself considerable acclaim as one of the nation’s premier jazz instructors at the high school level. Expanding from a sole jazz band in 1990 when he first arrived to the current count of three jazz bands and nine combos, ETHS’s jazz ensembles have performed internationally under Fodor’s direction and his students have been treated to numerous guest lectures and teaching sessions from some of the genre’s contemporary greats. 

As he closes this significant chapter of his professional career, JAZZed checked in to learn more about Dr. Fodor’s own evolution as a jazz scholar, performer, composer, and educator.

JAZZed: Can you discuss your own early experiences as a music student? What got you interested, who were some influences?

Dr. David Fodor: In eighth grade, I had a friend who invited me over to his house one day to hear a recording that he insisted I would love. He placed the needle on the last 10 minutes of this one track, and I experienced hearing Buddy Rich for the first time, playing his drum solo on West Side Story. We listened to the solo over and over in amazement. I went right out and purchased my first album – the 1967 West Side Story recording by the Buddy Rich Band. My parents took my friend and me to hear Buddy’s band that year, and I’ll never forget the power and energy from standing in front of that band and listening to them play live. Now I was really hooked.

During my junior year of high school, my parents took me to see Duke Ellington and his band in concert. I remember seeing Rufus “Speedy” Jones behind a drum set with double bass drums and what seemed like a million cymbals. During the intermission, I followed the band out into the hallway hoping to snag an autograph, but they all disappeared into the elevator. So, I waited patiently there until they returned, and I thrust my poster at Mr. Ellington asking for his autograph. He obliged, and I returned to my seat contently for the second half of the concert.

At the end of the show, I headed up to the stage to gather some other signatures. Rufus signed my poster, and as I stood in a cluster of fans surrounding tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, he asked for something to draw on because he wanted to sketch a beautiful lady standing with us in the small crowd. I handed him my poster, and as he drew his sketch on the back of it, I realized he might give it away to the lady he was so enamored with. Once he finished and shared his work with the crowd, I snatched the poster and hightailed it out of the room before the lady could grab it. My father framed the poster so you can see both sides – one side signed by the Duke, and one side with a Paul Gonsalves “original” drawing!

JAZZed: What a story! How about post-high school?

DF: During my two years at Joliet Junior College, Jerry Lewis was growing the jazz and band program. My combo experience was expanding to include an organ trio and other small groups who were learning all the newest music of the time, especially the music of Chick Corea.

At JJC, Mr. Lewis was hosting shows by the Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson big bands, and one of the most memorable events was a residency by trumpeter and bandleader Don Ellis. We were able to spend several days working on tunes with him that culminated in a final concert. Ellis’s charts were a new experience for me, because they were so freely interpreted and open and it was so much fun. Ellis also played drum set, so on the concert, he and I traded drum solos on one tune – a musical moment I’ll never forget.

JAZZed: After that you were off to the University of Illinois, yes?

DF: I headed to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana for my final two years of undergraduate work and became immersed in the jazz world of professor John Garvey. The tradition of excellence he developed in Champaign was already legendary by the time we arrived, and it was a privilege to become a part of that history. It was here that I really learned to swing through the music of Count Basie and other great swing composers by playing in the jazz band. There should be a book written to capture all the “Garvey-isms” we learned – I hope someone does that someday. I still use his “Who parked the car?” onomatopoeia when teaching the eighth-quarter-eighth-quarter swing rhythm!

JAZZed: How did you first arrive at ETHS and what positions – and where – had you held previously?

DF: My first teaching job as a band director (grades 5-12) was for the Herscher School District from 1976-’82, I was lucky enough to work with two wonderful educators, Dale Hopper and Joe Roman. Dale helped me to publish my first drum music for marching band with C.L. Barnhouse, and started me on clinic and judging circuits. By the time I left Herscher in 1982, the music program was running a successful marching band competition, we had won the Illinois Sweepstakes first place overall award three times, the jazz band had won the Oak Lawn Jazz Festival, and the marching band had won both the Illinois State Marching Band Competition and the MBA Summer National Competition. Dale left to become director of bands at Western Illinois University (where our paths would cross again) in 1978, and Joe left to complete his masters degree at Colorado State University in 1980. Two years later, I left to complete my master’s degree in percussion performance at WIU from 1982 to 1984.

JAZZed: After which you remained as a teacher.

DF: From 1984-’88 I was assistant director of bands at Western Illinois University.

At WIU, I also learned about hiring music professionals, managing a large marching band competition and popular jazz festival, managing a summer music camp, and planning trips for the marching, jazz, and concert bands. Dale was a master recruiter and caring teacher who made sure that every one of these events went smoothly and had memorable moments. Through my years at WIU, I increased by network of fellow ducators and musicians in every area, and I became involved in my professional music organizations at the state level.

JAZZed: Following WIU, you went to Northwestern for your Doctorate?

DF: Yes. And while I was a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University [1988-1990], my official title was graduate assistant in Music Education. My dissertation was a qualitative study of the learning process in a jazz combo setting. For five weeks, I analyzed the verbal and musical interactions of four high school age combos both in coached and non-coached settings. Findings revealed the effects of creative coaching techniques, and the presented the effects of allowing students to be more self-directed as they interact over time.

JAZZed: Can you talk about you your first experiences taking a high school group “on the road,” as well as any significant experiences or lessons garnered through those journeys?

DF: My previous experience at WIU managing a European jazz band trip gave me some insight into the needs of a traveling ensemble – transportation, housing, venues, backline, meals, deadlines, et cetera. However, our first ETHS trip abroad came through invitation from our sister school in Urasa, Japan. Our Japanese language instructor approached me after a music assembly for the school, and asked if I would be interested in putting together an arts event we could present in Japan at the 1995 All-Japan Cultural Arts Festival. We would be one of only three international groups honored to perform. She also invited five dancers, so the combo musicians composed a 10-minute work, recorded it, and gave it to the dancers to choreograph so we could perform it together. The experience of having students compose a multi-movement work was daunting, especially given the need for the dancers to have time to choreograph it, and for us all to have time to rehearse it.

We were fortunate regarding logistics. This trip was sponsored completely by the Japanese government, so all arrangements for the trip were taken care of. We were treated like rock stars the entire trip – I will never forget the reaction of the ETHS kids when we pulled up to rehearse for the opening ceremony: the Japanese students stormed the bus and formed a tunnel of screaming, cheering fans as we entered the hall.

The trip to Switzerland and Italy in 2000 was a joint effort that I undertook with Mary Jo Papich, who at that time was the director of the Peoria Jazz All Star Big Band. We were familiar with each other’s work through the Illinois Music Educators Association and we were both looking to take our groups to Europe the following summer. When we arrived in Montreux, I mentioned to the coordinator that if there were any additional opportunities for the ETHS combo to perform, we’d be happy to do so. About three hours later, a phone call came requesting us to travel up the mountainside to perform at a small village festival, so we took everyone up the hill and had the time of our lives, performing in a small town square, and sharing the stage with both Peoria and Evanston musicians. It never hurts to ask!

Since 9/11, our out-of-country trips have been curtailed. However, we have performed throughout the United States. Each of these events brings memorable moments for the students, and raises the bar for a higher level of performance through interacting with guest artists, or being pumped up by playing in front of enthusiastic and focused audiences.

JAZZed: Talk a little bit about organizing jazz events festivals.

DF: My hope of bringing professional talent directly to the students was first realized though an invitation by Ron Modell, the legendary director of the Northern Illinois University Jazz Band. He asked to bring his great college band to perform at the school with trumpeter Red Rodney. After the kids and community got a taste of this kind of experience, it was easy to repeat. By my third year at ETHS, I was looking to develop a “trademark” event for the jazz program, so I started a Jazz Cabaret night, where all the jazz groups performed in a nightclub setting, with hors d’oeuvres and beverages (non-alcoholic, of course).

Twenty years later, our Cabaret Concerts have transformed into multiple night events, held in local performance venues with special guest artists. Finding the right guest artist was always a matter of finding a great musician/clinician, and selecting an instrumentalist who might create interest in a needed area for that year.

Ten years ago, I decided to try running a non-competitive jazz festival for school bands and combos, with a culminating evening concert. Running a festival required building a parent/student/community committee, reserving facilities, hiring clinicians and adjudicators, hiring professional talent, and much more. We invited a successful jazz festival chair to come and speak to a group of our own interested parents about their experiences, and we moved forward excitedly from there.

Since then, we’ve grown the festival to five performing venues for 45 school bands and combos, with adjudicator/clinicians for every group. We’ve expanded our clinic offerings to include individual improvisation lessons, hands-on technique workshops, technology sessions, jazz history and business lectures, and much more.

The event has allowed us to involve all of our jazz groups as performers, and also as festival workers, where kids get the chance to interact with other school groups, adjudicators, clinicians, and guest artists.

JAZZed: How do you arrange visits from great artists? What are the biggest upsides to having “pros” come and teach younger students?

DF: Arranging visiting artists may seem daunting, but if you use your network of friends and colleagues, it becomes easier to do. The community of professional musicians is actually quite small, and getting to know people is fun and easy to do. For me, I began this process by watching and helping my mentor and colleague hire people for events at WIU. Through my active involvement in IAJE, and now JEN, I have met and talked and worked with many fine educators and musicians. As a performer myself, I’ve been able to call on my community of local musicians for assistance, as well. Ultimately, you need to pick up the phone and call someone and ask for their interest in working with your students.

Often, the opportunities will come to you. I have been asked by noted jazz artists and teachers if they can come and give a workshop or clinic. Be sure to take advantage of these opportunities as they come along as well.

Of course, there needs to be a financial system in place to support clinicians and musicians who come to your school. As mentioned earlier, our jazz festival helps to create revenue to support this kind of activity.

I found the most inspiring moments to be the times I witnessed musical greatness in a live setting. When students are able to witness live performers, and have the opportunity to talk to the musicians about what they’ve heard or get advice on how to play or practice or listen, then I’m passing on what hooked me into loving this unique music, and much more.

JAZZed: You teach all the bands at Evanston Township – what’s uniquely challenging about teaching jazz to high school students?

DF: High school kids generally are ready to make the connection between technique and personal expression. Dizzy described how jazz musicians move from imitation to assimilation to innovation. I observed this progression in my dissertation research, and this awareness has served me well in helping my students progress in their study of jazz performance.

At ETHS, we’ve made a point of offering a variety of jazz experiences for our students. Big bands serve as an entry point for many players, who learn about jazz style performance and ensemble techniques as they move from lab band to jazz band, and eventually to jazz ensemble. Combos have grown to between nine and eleven groups each year, and focus more on improvisation skills, learning tunes, and creating arrangements.

Within this extracurricular program, we try different methods of teaching in non-performing settings. Since our jazz program starts up in mid-October, some years we have offered weekly after school jazz clinics in September or early October on improvisation, listening, technology, and history. More recently we have tried to integrate some of these topics into the combo program by doing mini-sessions during the rehearsal time.

Early in the season, we teach and monitor each combo more closely, helping guide rehearsal techniques, song selection/creation, and improvisation techniques. As the season progresses, we try to allow the combo members to take more charge of their group until they become self-sufficient. Our combos are built based on performance abilities, so the less experienced groups require more attention at the beginning, and the more experienced groups require a different level of interaction from the coaches.

JAZZed: What’s the audition process like?

DF: The audition for placement into our jazz groups is quite simple, given that we need to evaluate over one hundred students. When school begins in late August, we post audition dates for mid-September. Students sign up for a five-minute audition slot, and pick up an audition info sheet which describes what they need to bring. Students are asked to bring a short piece to perform (from any style), be prepared to improvise over the BH or F blues (if they know how), and to think about whether they want to play in a big band, a combo, or both.

JAZZed: You’ve retired from your position. Can you discuss what led you to that decision, what you’ll miss most (and what you won’t miss), and what your future plans are?

DF: What I’ll miss the most are the people. I’ll miss my wonderful colleagues who share a vision of music education that is inclusive and always striving for excellence – while having a fun time doing it! I’ll miss my students who keep me young-at-heart and who remind me to give my very best effort every moment. Music is both a personal and a collective experience, and it is impossible to describe the bond that is created in making musical moments together. I will miss sharing those moments on a daily basis very much, and I look forward to finding new people to share with in new and exciting ways.

As for the future, I have a few specific plans to start with. Personally, I look forward to spending more time with my wife and two boys. Teaching band took me away from my family a lot, so I look forward to being able to see them more. Professionally, I hope to become more of a player again, through playing in local big bands, small groups, and community concert bands.

I have the opportunity to conduct a community band soon that may become a more full time commitment in the future, as well. I have plans to write a pedagogical book on teaching jazz combos, because I think there are many music educators out there who would like the help in building a small group program, but lack the experience of working in that area.

Finally, I hope to increase my volunteer work with JEN, through building the Young Composers Showcase program, and I will be looking for clinic and workshop opportunities, as well.

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