I have long promoted the idea that, like classical music, jazz should be taught by learning the repertoire of the past up to the present. Every culture and art form on earth has developed over a period of time by honoring the past and building on it. Severing our art and culture from the past is as detrimental as it would be to live with amnesia or to disavow who you are and where you came from.
I remember once reading an article saying that if you want to learn to play like Charlie Parker, don’t just study Bird, study the players that came before Bird and influenced him. I was young when I read this, and didn’t really understand all the ramifications. In high school and college, I listened to the new records that were coming out at that time: Miles, Horace, Freddie, Herbie, Thad, et al. Around the same time, both Thad and Paul Kondziella told me that if I wanted to become a better composer and arranger, I needed to listen to Ellington. This was 1968, and Ellington had just released And His Mother Called Him Bill, so I bought it and learned every note. I can be a bit obsessive.
My love of that record got me to dig out Festival Session, an Ellington record from 1959 that I had bought in 1961. Again, there were treasures to behold. I began to understand the value of older players and Ellington’s style of writing, which previously had sounded old fashioned to my teenage ears.
After graduating from college I returned to New York and met up with New York musicians, young and old. Art Baron turned me onto Such Sweet Thunder, which quickly became my favorite record. Then Kenny Berger hipped me to Blue Goose, an Ellington side from the great Blanton-Webster band of the early ’40s. I bought up all the Ellington records I could find from 1940 onward. I think you see where I’m going with this.
A year later I bought a Columbia 3-record set of Ellington from the ’30s. Jimmy Maxwell had the companion 3-record set, which he let me tape. After that, it wasn’t too long before I backed up into the 1920s. My love of Ellington led me to listen to the other musicians and bands from the same period. I had always loved Basie, but due to records being out of print, I had never even heard Jimmie Lunceford, and many of the other great Black bands.
If you are thinking that my love for this older music distracted me from my contemporaries and their innovations, you would be wrong. Many of the great players of my generation played in my band in the ’70s and ’80s (Mike and Randy Brecker, Sal Nistico, John Abercrombie, Lew Soloff, Tom Harrell, et al). I have always sought to surround myself with the best musicians and incorporate their music into mine.
When I began to teach in the New York area colleges and conservatories, I found that, like myself at that age, my students were ignorant of jazz before Coltrane. I was happy to help correct this myopia.
When I taught at William Paterson College (now University), I had a Repertoire Ensemble. Each semester, we would play the repertoire of one group. The first was Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five. Next were the Ray Charles Atlantic records from the ’50s. From there we did Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Old Testament Count Basie, 1930s Ellington, Benny Goodman small groups, Horace Silver, and I can’t remember what else.
When we first started, I wasn’t sure if the students would like this music from my childhood. For them it was from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. But like it they did. They transcribed some of the records that I hadn’t done and learned to play and sing the music. I saw a spirit and camaraderie that I had never seen jazz students have.
I still remember our first public performance. It was at the weekly Midday series, where student small groups played for the other students. All the other groups played jazz tunes from the Real Book in a post-bop fashion and drew polite applause from the audience made up of their peers. When my guys swung into their first Louis Jordan shuffle blues, the room came alive. Smiles lit up faces, which then led to laughter and enthusiastic applause—especially when our guitarist Matt Trimboli sang Beware!
There was a David and Goliath aspect to all this as well. My Repertoire Ensemble was basically a freshman band. With the exception of an upperclassman or two who specifically requested to be in the band, I had the youngest and least experienced players in the program. I never had the Joe Farnsworths, Peter Bernsteins, and Eric Alexanders—the stars of the program. They all took my arranging class and played in Rufus Reid’s big band. The Repertoire Band was set up as a training ground. It was there to give the students an historical background and prepare them for “more complex music and modern” music.
What we all learned from this experience year after year was:
- The great old music was still great.
- It was fun to play.
- It was relevant to new generations.
- It wasn’t easy to play and sing well.
- It reached audiences.
- It made us all better musicians.
- It gave us a greater understanding of the music that followed.
Another very important aspect of this experience was that each semester we rehearsed a dozen arrangements from one band exclusively. The idea was to make it like we were playing in that band (minus riding the bus). We weren’t distracted by the aesthetics of other music. Although the students could play this music pretty well after a couple of months, we kept with the same pieces for the rest of the semester. The growth from then on wasn’t as rapid as it had been at the beginning of the semester when the music was new, but we were able to get to subtleties that rarely get addressed in school bands or even in most professional groups outside of road bands.
And so, at the beginning of this new school year, I suggest to all jazz ensemble teachers: try programming an entire concert of great classic jazz from one band or one arranger, and give your students the closest thing they will ever get to the way that that great music was originally created. Or if you have 2 bands, split the concert, and have each band play the music of one classic group. Not only will this be educational for players and audience, but also to everyone’s surprise, it will be thoroughly entertaining and fun.
This is very important to me, so if you would like advice or suggestions, feel free to ask me through the site: