Like many jazz musicians, I spend a considerable amount of time teaching young people about the music. In the jazz community there is a strong “pay-it-forward” ethic, and most of my peers feel an obligation to pass on what we’ve learned to the next generation. This is just one of the many things I love about jazz musicians.
Even so, sometimes I wonder if the lessons of the jazz giants who came before me will be lost as we move 40, 50, even 60 years past the days when these giants moved among us. Every year we get further removed from Duke, Miles, Trane, Sonny, Diz, Monk, Blakey, Ella and Evans, and those that played with them or knew them personally. There will soon come a day when all the stories of and lessons from these jazz greats will be at least third-hand.
Now, some may argue that this is not a problem, and that the music will move forward of its own volition, regardless of the direct links to the past. Some might even say that this will be good for the innovation in jazz, the next step.
I’m not sure I agree with that sentiment, but I’m not going to tackle that here. I’m here today to tell you that I’ve seen the future of jazz up close and personal, and it’s in good hands.
This past week I took the University Prep Jazz Band to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho. I’ve been the jazz instructor at U Prep in Seattle for the last two and a half years, and this is my second trip to this festival. What I saw there gave me great hope.
I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of middle and high school students deeply immersed in jazz. Through workshops, clinics, lectures and concerts, the students were engaged in dialogs with professional jazz musicians, jazz educators and each other.
There was talk of swing and straight eighths, section playing and soloing, tritone substitutions and modes of the major scale. Don’t worry if these terms mean nothing to you. Just know that these are some of the basic building blocks of jazz music, and not your typical fodder for conversation between teenagers.
These students, however, showed a remarkable interest and depth of inquiry when it came to some very heady concepts. They were interested in learning everything they could from the masters assembled to teach them, who included many musicians you may know, and some you may not: John Clayton, Terell Stafford, Grace Kelly, Corey Christiansen, Benny Golson, Rene Marie and more. It was clear to me that the students realized what an amazing opportunity they had to learn first-hand from these greats and they were seizing that opportunity at every turn.
In recent years jazz education has become seemingly fractured. If you’ll pardon a gross oversimplification in the interest of keeping this article from becoming a dissertation, there’s a traditionalist camp and a modernist camp. At the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, both camps were represented.
But even more than that, it seemed like the organizers went to great pains to show the absurdity of this seeming divide. They just invited the best musicians they knew and set them loose to teach their idea of jazz to the students. The divide just didn’t exist, as far as the students could tell. It was all presented as jazz.
Over the course of the weekend I heard students play at workshops and concerts, and every one of them had a different sound, a different approach. Just like the pros that were there to help them, they have already started to develop their own relationship with the music, and play from their experience. To me, this is what makes jazz, well, jazz — individual expression. And these young musicians get it. It warmed my heart to see and hear them, and I come back renewed and energized by the experience.
As for my U Prep band, they played great! Speaking to the breadth of jazz, we played Herbie Hancock’s classic “Watermelon Man”, Roy Hargrove’s newer but soon to be classic “Strasbourg-St. Denis”, and a medley of tunes from the movie “The Incredibles”. Under the pressure of adjudication, the students played one of their best shows to date.
But the best moments for me came when they got up in workshops, overcame their fears, and played in front of their peers, backed by the pros. Or when I heard them talking about the music without prompting from me. Or when the seniors in the band “called a meeting” the night before our performance to rally the troops, go over the music in great detail and encourage the younger students to rise to the occasion.
It’s moments like these that make all the hard work worthwhile. It shows me that the history and lineage of this music is still finding its way into the hearts and minds of the younger generations. Whatever direction they chose to take the music, I know that it’s in good hands.