Two high-caliber musicians lead in university classrooms

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Kenny Garrett Photo courtesy of Flickr
Kenny Garrett
Photo courtesy of Flickr

Are you experiencing the end of the summer blues? Ahhh, yes I can already smell fall in the air, which for me signals change. And if to journey is to embrace change, then we have but one choice and that is to do just that — embrace change.

In the world of jazz, two high-level musicians are changing and adding new titles to their professional profiles. I’m talking about trumpeter Sean Jones, and saxophonist Kenny Garrett.

Jones, whose new Mack Avenue album is imp.ro.vise=never before scene, was recently named Chair of the Berklee College of Music’s Brass Department. Some may recall his position as Cleveland Jazz Orchestra artistic director and his long-time role as lead trumpeter of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He joins vocalist Dianne Reeves on her excellent new Concord Records album, Beautiful Life, and makes many stellar contributions.

“I envision propelling [the department] into the future,” said Jones, speaking of his new position in an article for the weekly newsletter Classicalite. “I don’t feel that my job is to rewrite what has been done, but to add a few new ideas that will stay true to the traditions of the brass department while making it the preeminent program for brass studies in the world.

As for Garrett, whom I first encountered live while on assignment in Barbados, he was recently asked to be director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University. According to a press release, he would become the fifth musician to lead the program. The program was founded in 1973, and has previously been directed by composer/arranger Thad Jones, Rufus Reid, James Williams and, more recently, Mulgrew Miller, who passed in May 2013.

The William Paterson University Jazz Studies Program, also noted in the release states, “is unique among higher education programs. Among the most respected programs in the country, it is one of the few with an emphasis on small-group playing, improvisation and a genuine commitment to the jazz tradition. It is also one of the five oldest jazz studies degree programs in the U.S., having celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013.”

I’m familiar with the argument surrounding having more and more high-caliber musicians in classrooms, instead of spending more time leading their own bands on the bandstand. So, the question comes to mind, is less time on the

Sean Jones Photo courtesy of Mack Avenue Records, by Jimmy Katz
Sean Jones
Photo courtesy of Mack Avenue Records, by Jimmy Katz

bandstand a good thing? Back in the day, young musicians learned best by playing with veteran players and earned their stripes while getting whipped into shape on bandstands across the country. Is this kind of educational change healthy for the growth of so called jazz? Just saying it’s the nature of business doesn’t cut it.

I don’t have a definite answer to these questions, but I do know that the tradition of the way the passing of the torch is done has changed and something is wrong with that. Some will simply direct you to the latest jazz poll to find out who is the “rising star” in various categories.

Regardless of that process, we know that along with that comes “street cred,” and that sort of thing just may trump everything. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if musicians working within the world of jazz created their own polling process, those named “rising stars” in popular jazz industry magazines might not hold such top spots.

Then again, I’ve noticed that during interviews with living legends and up-and-coming musicians, they seem to be on point with the polls when asked who they see as successors.

I’m not questioning the value of industry polling processes. After all, I’ve voted in critics polls for several years now. I’m just wondering exactly how we’ve come to this point during jazz’s journey where polls seem to matter so much.

At the end of the day, no matter what, the bandstand is sacred ground. No amount of classroom instruction or degrees from a college can save you if you don’t know how to deliver the goods on the bandstand. By that I mean you’ve got to know how to move people. Staying active on the bandstand, playing side-by-side with veteran players, and having meaningful experiences with audiences is essential.

What is also essential is how veterans of jazz think. And who they say is the next great musician on whatever instrument still matters, even if the two, young and more mature don’t have as many opportunities to play together as they used to. That is an area that could use more change. So far, there are signs that we’re heading down that road, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

If you’re one that can balance both classroom and bandstand lessons, more power to you. Everyone should have the opportunity to get good at what they do and what they love to do. But like the great Duke Ellington once said, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

 

Robin James welcomes reader responses to jamesonjazz@spokesman-recorder.com.