Monday, August 31, 2009


A recent NEA survey ( has caused a lot of discussion in the press with articles in the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc. The main point is something I have discussed here before –the “graying” of the audience. Like the classical scene we play for a few people and they are not getting younger. As you would expect, the retort was that there’s a lot going on in Brooklyn, etc., (off the beaten path so to say) and that the Web (twitter, facebook, etc) will eventually come to the rescue replacing the old model of record company/artist promotion and so on-you get the point. Yes, there is activity on the web with the young cats doing their thing and of course jazz education at $40-50,000 a year tuition (at least in the States) seems to keep going somehow. The young musicians of course use all sorts of contemporary devices and sounds to get their point across musically which is de rigor for any younger generation. But as Justin DiCiocchio, who heads the department at the Manhattan School of Music pointed out after he attended a series of classical concerts at Tanglewood (famous summer series), the musicians (composers in this case)are basically playing for a public made up of peers/other musicians, something I can definitely relate to in jazz. I am not talking about student type clubs or summer festivals which are obviously slanted to a particular audience. As well, much of the music has moved past the audience’s ability to comprehend it, not just as a blip on the screen like with late Trane and the avant garde of the ‘60s (which arguably lead us to the land of fusion and its offshoots as a way to get the folks back in the seats-world music taking that role now it appears.) We have to remember that the advent of be-bop was also met with derision for its “difficulties” in winning the audience which was at the time used to the big band and Dixieland era. In the case of bebop there were social reasons why it eventually prevailed (beatniks, counter culture eventually leading to the 60s, etc.), something that is not happening now in any shape or form. If anything recent history demonstrates complacency at its zenith.
Yes, we have a problem, compounded by the turning out of thousands of over qualified students year in and year out, though my contention is that they are receiving the best overall MUSICAL education they could in this day and age when they study jazz. (Read the article below by Ronan Guilfoyle on jazz education concerning this and other relevant points.) I have no solution or answers. History has a way of changing things faster than humans can keep up with. Examples abound in art-Mozart’s music got a little out of fashion and so on. Of course, I as a performer am grateful when the audience attends and enjoys the music for which I and the band get paid. But to be honest, I really am not thinking about their reaction. I am more involved with how good I can be on the saxophone amidst the musical discussion taking place in the moment with my musical compatriots. Was I or this music supposed to ever really reach a lot of people? Sure, I need to make a living but maybe the only way is to keep the music separate from that ever present reality----I don’t know? I am lucky so far and feel blessed, but for the future it just may be true that we have seen the light and it is dimming. As noted, history has its own inevitable flow and things change to say the least. Interesting to see in ten years what will happen.


PREZ AT 100: Some great stuff is on the web about Lester Young celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth, especially comments by Ethan Iverson ( centering on Prez’ personality, which in the end is the bottom line concerning the communicative power of a performing artist. If there is any music more personally revealing to the core than jazz, I would like to know. Of course, there is plenty of music in the world which brings out the personality of the performer but for us in the West besides the blues, jazz is as close to the real deal as it gets. When you get past the music, the technical, etc., you are left with the artist’s vibe and take on life. As Iverson points out so well, Prez had a discernible vulnerability and a feeling of tenderness in his playing with a generosity towards the other musicians that can be felt and heard. We are after all who we are and for those fortunate and skilled enough to transcend their instrument allowing them to approach the true core of their being, it can’t help but be apparent to the sensitive listener. In the final result, what we really hear is that person talking to us. It’s all soooo personal.

WWW.JUSTICEFOR JAZZ ARTISTS.ORG: An organization in New York set up through the musician’s union trying to get the clubs in New York to be equitable and righteous towards working jazz players. This is a great site with a lot of info about jazz in general, but most important it represents a way of trying to rectify some of the problems that working jazz musicians encounter in the Apple.

WEST SIDE STORY: I took my family to see the revival on Broadway which brought back all kinds of memories. First of all, I remember the original show on Broadway in the ‘50s and then the movie. Being a New Yorker and a teenager at the time, the whole gang thing was significant to me. (Of course, any problems then pale to what we have in our time.) In the early ‘90s I spent a few months with Bernstein’s score and came out with a recording on the now defunct Owl label from France, arranging the music for multi keyboardist Gil Goldstein and myself in a duo setting. I relistened to my CD and must say I enjoyed it immensely. In fact I spent a few days updating the reharmonization I originally wrote on the beautiful and prayer-like “One Hand, One Heart.” Great music all the way and with Steven Sondheim barely out of his teens at that time. Lately I have been checking out Sondheim’s music which is really sophisticated in the manner that the melody, harmony and rhythm all intersect along with some pretty high level lyrics. His music is generally not going to be sung in the shower, but as art, it is right up there.

I have said on many occasions that Jamey should be the recipient of the Medal of Freedom for contribution to American culture. Everyone jokes about the playalong records and hearing Jamey’s count off, etc., but through this music played by some of the best rhythm section guys in the business and his keen sense of organizing much of the jazz educational material written in the past decades, he has definitely contributed to keeping the music alive (apropos the entry above on the subject). I would venture to say that for the most part, anywhere on the planet where there is at least some interest in improvising jazz, you will find an Aebersold playalong. As well his summer clinics which have been operating for nearly forty years are legendary-people of all ages and levels doing jazz all day for a week. I know he was an important model for me when I began teaching and I have the greatest respect for what he has accomplished. By the way, he is believe it or not, a very funny guy. Happy 70th Jamey.

LIVE FROM THE PAD: This teleconferencing thing is obviously happening in many walks of life and of course in the teaching arena. But to be able to go downstairs into my studio and critique students from across the planet from Adelaide, Australia for an hour and a half is definitely nice. Bassist/ educator Todd Coolman arranged the class with a colleague and sure enough there we were at 9PM on a weekday night checking out a really nice group of musicians from their class in Australia. Soon-we won’t even have to get out of bed!!

I was not familiar with this artist prior. However this talk on Chopin is fantastic and not just from the musical standpoint, but for the deep wisdom and passion displayed about life in general. One statement, though on the surface may appear a bit dramatic, makes the point that when you leave a person(s) or situation, the last thing you say to them could be the last thing they remember about you-something to ponder.

RASHIED ALI: This is a bad one. I don’t know the exact details but it seems like something went wrong in the hospital that shouldn’t have. In any case, Shied was one of the most important drummers to come out of the ‘60s and though he isn’t lauded in the same way that Elvin or Tony are, he was a groundbreaker and essential to what Trane did in his last years. Rashied’s playing with John was texturally quite light, though it may have appeared on the surface to be bombastic as a result of the group’s incredible energy level. Above all it was insistent and seamless with no “ones,” no bar divisions, just a beautiful carpet for Trane, Pharoah and Alice to work their magic over. The release of the live Newport Festival concert from 1966 (which I attended) is incredible and should be required listening. As I have said so often, the late period of Trane has been widely ignored and misunderstood. Suffice to say, it wouldn’t have gone down the way it did without Rashied. I played with him on more than a few occasions over the decades and though he was tagged as a “free” drummer (implying no steady pulse), he loved to play time and in fact was reluctant to do otherwise. As I wrote in a newsletter a few years ago, I saw him and Sonny Fortune in duo playing “Impressions” for an hour and a half in a Paris club. It was astounding. From a personal standpoint, Shied was a sweetheart of a man, hip as they come and always ready to play. We’ve lost a great one.

Somehow these three events all have something in common from my standpoint. On the surface, Kennedy, the great liberal Democrat who forwarded the type of agenda I grew up with in a liberal home in the ‘50s (continuing the FDR agenda) doesn’t have much in common with Jackson or Woodstock. But as I see it, it is my generation in its last third of life with the tide of history moving inexorably onward. Jackson was very talented and hit the universal pulse but was arguably doomed from the start like Elvis and Hendrix and in a way Coltrane, all for different reasons yet with things in common. Woodstock was the end of a feel good time when at least a part of my generation (a small percentage in the end) were able to slip under the radar just enough to feel empowered before Nixon and the rest of his ilk took over for a few decades. We did leave an effect: women’s rights, sexual freedom (for a minute at least, before AIDS); civil rights and more. Senator Kennedy took care of business which he did as well as could be expected in our political system. But in the end, universal health care, one of the four responsibilities of a righteous government (defense, education and culture being the others) looks unlikely as the concept grates against the profit motive, unheard of in European countries in the health arena. Underneath all the prosaic descriptions we have been fed about capitalism, the sad truth is that basically there is a class system at work, which though it may appear to be surreptitious is in the end the bottom line. In any case we did the best we could and we aren’t finished yet, though the light is getting dimmer.

GEORGE RUSSELL: Talk about ahead of his time, I have a recording from the mid ‘50s with a small group playing George’s music which was clearly way ahead of its era harmonically speaking. Russell was an innovator, a real artist and craftsman who went to places that few others did and took the time to write an important thesis (Lydian Concept) which was required reading for a generation. As well, he spent years teaching at the New England Conservatory and was a mentor to several generations of arrangers and composers. (The George Russell Smalltet -The Jazz Workshop Bluebird/ BMG 6467-2-RB)

I think it’s fair to say that in the jazz media, jazz education (or at least formalised jazz education in institutions) gets a bad press which is ironic, since many from outside jazz find the idea of it both intriguing and admirable. I once had the good fortune to spend some time with the great American classical composer John Adams, and when he found out I was a jazz musician he went into a eulogy about jazz musicians and their abilities, comparing them to classical musicians and expressing the opinion that fully trained jazz musicians were generally superior to classical musicians these days due to the incredible range of their abilities. His son is a jazz bassist and Adams told me about watching him playing in an ensemble in his school, playing Wayne Shorter tunes. Adams expressed amazement at the harmonic sophistication of those young musicians and their ability to undertake something as challenging as that.

Yet playing through the repertoire of Wayne Shorter’s music is precisely the kind of activity that draws the ire of jazz education’s critics - ‘everyone learns the same stuff’ is the mantra – or one of the mantras – used to reinforce the argument that jazz education has a negative impact on jazz and its practitioners.

Before going further, I should explain that I myself am not a product of the jazz education system. I learned how to play this music in a way that would have been familiar to earlier practitioners – mostly from playing gigs. The jazz scene in Ireland in the late 70s was a throwback to an earlier era in that it was essentially a bebop environment – Broadway and jazz standards, little or no originals, and everyone was supposed to know every tune from memory – no Real Books (I think I saw my first one in 1981 – it was like seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls!). I read music books, picked up whatever info I could from other musicians and figured stuff out for myself – there were no jazz schools here then.

Now, thirty years later I am the head of a jazz programme here in Dublin – a typical jazz performance degree programme with eighty students, with content typical of this kind of education.

So I see both sides of the argument – I see the benefits I gained by being self-educated: self-reliance, development of instincts, ability to think on one’s feet and take decisions without always being told what to do. And I also see the disadvantages to that mode of learning – lack of access to useful (and sometimes vital) information, and making the kind of mistakes for years that could have been set right by a good teacher in 10 minutes. For example: although I knew most of the major and minor modes (found them in a Rick Laird bass book!), and could play them, I was playing them for years before I found out that they were related!

Having been involved in starting a school from scratch here in Dublin, and having seen the positive effect of that in the local jazz community, and having been able to give young musicians access to the kind of information and resources I didn’t have at their age, I’ve always been somewhat exasperated by what I see as the knee-jerk attacks on jazz education. Usually these take three forms:
1) Jazz education turns all who partake of it into clones.

2) The proof of jazz education’s failure is the fact that though there are more practitioners than ever before the percentage of great players hasn’t got any higher.

3) What is the point of turning out jazz graduates when there are no gigs?
To take each one of these in turn:
1. Jazz education turns all who partake of it into clones.
The first thing to remember when dealing with this argument is that academic music education, of any sort, is not ideal anyway. In music schools we tell students that you must learn X amount of information in X amount of weeks, but of course students are always of differing abilities and may have different life circumstances, and while one student may absorb the information fully, another may struggle. In non-academic ways of learning music (such as the one I undertook) you spend as long a time with a piece of information as you need or want and then move on. And in traditional cultures (and in rock music for example) this is primarily the way to learn music. But in western society we have developed a system of education which is geared to educate the many rather than the individual. While this is ideal for certain subjects (science and math for example) it is less than ideal for music. But for better or for worse, this is the structure we have and the one we have to deal with.

If you want to train young musicians in the techniques of music, and give many of them access to that, rather than a few hand-picked individuals, then you don’t really have a choice other than the academic model – for economic reasons if for no other. It would be clearly impossible to take students in and keep them in school until such time as they felt ready to move on, treating each one individually, so that student X spends three years on harmony while Y spends 6 months on the same subject. It’s just unworkable – an open ended school is just not a practical possibility – for the school or the students. If you discard the academic model you must also discard many of the students - there is no other way to educate larger groups of people efficiently.

Having accepted the jazz school as the most practical model in which to operate, you then have to make a decision as to what to teach. The argument that the schools all teach the same stuff, therefore making all students into homogenised clones, is an argument based on the idea that the older practitioners were helped by the fact that they didn’t go to school and their originality was predicated on their differing knowledge. But their originality was the result of their originality – it had nothing to do with their empirical knowledge or lack of it. What a lot of critics forget about is that most high level jazz school courses are staffed and run by professional jazz musicians. These are musicians who deal with the realities of playing the music, and who are aware of the skills necessary to survive in the professional milieu. And it is largely these same musicians who decide the curricula for the schools – not some faceless bureaucrat. So the information that is provided is largely that body of information which professional musicians agree are basic prerequisites for a life as a professional jazz musician. This basic information – harmonic, technical and rhythmic as well as repertoire – is generally agreed by most professionals to be part of the essential toolkit of the contemporary jazz musician.

Yet the writer James Lincoln Collier says: “With students all over the United States being taught more or less the same harmonic principles, it is hardly surprising that their solos tend to sound much the same. It is important for us to understand that many of the most influential players developed their own personal harmonic schemes, very frequently because they had little training in theory and were forced to find it their own way.”
So – there we have it, the noble savage syndrome – for the sake of your creativity and originality it’s better to have no training. It’s hard to know where to start with the refutation of an argument this stupid. It’s like suggesting that if you want to become a writer it would be better to to be illiterate and figure out the rules of English yourself, rather than go to school and be taught how to read, how spelling, grammar and syntax works, and being directed towards great writing of the past. Yet this is the bizarre subtext of much of the criticism of jazz education – in order to be creative and original it’s better to be uneducated. But though these writers idealise the self-taught musicians of the past, how many of these same jazz greats would have taken advantage of educational institutions had they been available to them? Most I’d say. And if they had, would it have stifled their creativity? Would Coltrane have sounded like a thousand other saxophonists of he’d gone to a jazz school? To suggest that he would have is to deny his innate genius and originality.

And the English writer Stuart Nicholson makes similar claims to Collier: “Today, hundreds of thousands of students and thousands of teachers study a narrow repository of stylistic inspiration, which for many students has resulted in both a similarity of concept and execution.”
Ignoring the hyperbole of the ‘hundreds of thousands’ claim (I doubt if there’s that many jazz musicians of any stripe in the whole world!), Nicholson uses this argument to attack the US jazz scene, claiming that it is the jazz education system that has largely contributed to American jazz stagnating while European jazz forges ahead. This argument conveniently ignores the fact that most European jazz schools teach (with variations) the same basic core curriculum as their American counterparts. European jazz schools take the American system as their basic model, so all of these young European musicians that Nicholson lauds so highly come from a very similar educational background to their US counterparts.

And as to the charge that jazz education produces only clones, consider the following musicians:
Brad Mehldau, Jim Black, Branford Marsalis, John Scofield, Tom Rainey, John Abercrombie, Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jeff Watts, Pat Metheny, Scott Colley, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade. All of these have spent time in jazz educational institutions – are they all clones?

2. The proof of jazz education’s failure is the fact that though there are more practitioners than ever before the percentage of great players hasn’t got any higher.
Schools do not teach creativity nor originality nor do they stifle it – creativity and originality have always been in short supply. We are educating the many, but in the end, only a few will ‘get it’ so to speak. The number of musicians of real creativity, the ones who are head and shoulders above everyone else, have always been in the minority. And contrary to the mythology, the pre-jazz education scene was not always peopled by complete originals – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Lester Young, and Bud Powell (to take just a few examples) all had droves of disciples who tried to emulate their heroes. Jazz has always been peopled by a few innovators and many imitators. The imitators either find a personal wrinkle for themselves within the canon created by the innovators, or they just vapidly regurgitate the surface gestures of the great ones. It was the same in 1930 as it is now.

What a good school will do is provide the environment that will give anyone who studies there access to information which will help them towards their goals. A student’s originality will not be created by a school, nor will it be destroyed by it – original people will always be original people. No matter how many people go through the jazz education system the percentage of true originals will not rise. However everyone coming through the doors of a good jazz school will be given access to tools which will help them create a musical career for themselves should they wish to pursue it. Jazz schools cannot manufacture creativity, but they can facilitate in speeding the journey of the truly creative while giving a good music education to those who may not be among the elite in terms of originality, but who nevertheless are talented and wish to partake in the great musical tradition of jazz.

3. What is the point of turning out jazz graduates when there are no gigs?
This is a genuine concern among jazz educators and musicians, and recently Ethan Iverson wrote the following in his blog: “There’s positive aspects to jazz education, but I do worry about how corporate and money-driven it can seem, especially now that the bubble has burst. As we all know, not only do young players fresh out of jazz college have trouble finding gigs, but for musicians of all ages the current market is completely over-saturated, making it extraordinarily difficult for anything to have any economic value whatsoever”
While it may be true that gigs are getting harder and harder to come by, the question has to be asked, is this the only value that jazz education has – economic value? The bassist and educator Todd Coolman puts it very well: “We have to quit thinking of college as a vocational school. College, to me, is a place where you go to learn something, to develop intellectual and social skills so that you can become a contributing member of society. No one needs to go to college to learn to play jazz, anyway. In the same respect, college doesn’t create a brilliant economist.”
This point is well made – the idea that teaching the techniques of an art form becomes devalued if there is not immediate or automatic economic benefit to the student is simply wrong. Surely the main point of getting an education is to become educated? The benefits to young people of being involved in jazz are manifold. For example, one of the things that I find most attractive about jazz is the democratic and social nature of the music. The music is brought about by the efforts of a group of people working together, and communicating with each other. Yet within the tradition of this sociable music, the idea of individualism is not only encouraged, but highly prized. So here we have a music which is completely dependent on co-operation between the participants, yet which at the same time encourages each to make as personal and individual a statement as possible. What a wonderful ethos for young people to be involved with!

Another benefit of being in a jazz school and one that’s never even noticed by the critics of jazz education is that schools provide a space in which communities of jazz musicians can exist. In previous times these communities were centered around gigs and clubs and jam sessions, but this environment has almost entirely disappeared. The jazz community has become dispersed, and one of the few places where it still exists is in jazz schools. With the possible exception of New York and a few other larger cities where some gig-centred socialising by musicians still exists, the only place where large groups of jazz practitioners foregather is in jazz schools. Schools not only create a teaching environment, they also provide a place where information can be exchanged, gossip caught up on, new recordings discussed, gig information exchanged, tips for work opportunities given and camaraderie shared.

Like anything, jazz schools are not perfect – in the wrong hands they can churn out graduates without any consideration for the individual. But in my experience that’s the exception rather than the rule - most schools have dedicated teachers with a real love of the music and its traditions and a genuine concern that their students have access to it. In the schools students learn the basic techniques of the music and hopefully are also exposed to the creative ethos of jazz. They provide community environments for musicians whose love of a minority music sets them apart from the mainstream.

I’ve just returned from the International Association of Schools of Jazz annual meeting in Lucerne, where 50 high level jazz students from schools all over the world – from Japan to the US, from Finland to Israel, from Russia to Brazil - got together for a week and played music together and got to know each other through the medium of jazz. I watched them perform six concerts of very high level creative music put together after only three days rehearsal, and watched their mutual delight in sharing this experience with each other. Try telling THEM that the jazz education system was a negative influence on their lives and creativity!

From one of the greatest writers (“Early Jazz” and more) and musicians on the planet some very interesting comments concerning the proper perspective on commercial music:
I would too (to reach 200 million people!) but that will never happen. And that's why we have something we call popular music. That is for a mass public, and that is fine. But in human beings there is this capacity for a higher level of art, whatever the art form is, that will always have less recognition, and less support than what is more broadly accessible. If you make the music very easy and simple, you'll get a bigger audience; there's no question about it. There's even a big difference between homophony and polyphony. If you write a nice little melody with a nice little accompaniment, boy, you're in. But if you now make a polyphonic, contrapuntal thing, you lose half your audience right away. I've analyzed this all my life. And I'm smiling as I say all of this. I'm not complaining about anything. It's just that when people try to pin me down about whether I happen not to like this or prefer that, it isn't that simple. For every intended work of art—be it a rock piece or whatever it is—I look at its quality as it was created. I have a pretty analytical mind and I see the good things, and I also see the things that are very commonplace. There's nothing wrong with commonplace, except don't try to elevate it to the level of the highest art. I think we have to keep these things straight to some extent because you get very confused, especially in a world where everything is publicity and selling and labeling and promoting. Man, you can sell the most unbelievable crap and make a million dollars with it. We live in a dangerous world where anything can be made to sound better than it really is and sold. And I think some of us just need to be on guard about all that. But, you know, we all live together.

The 19th ANNUAL JAZZ MEETING took place in Lucerne, Switzerland with over 20 countries and nearly 40 schools represented. With fifty students and another sixty administrators and teachers, beautiful weather and great venues, the meeting was another great success as they all are. After so many years of these meetings it is easy to become complacent about what we do, but when I am finished and hear the final concerts by the just formed international ensembles, I am really proud of the contribution we have made with the IASJ on a very personal, one to one level. Next year for our 20th anniversary we will be where we started and maintain our official office, the Royal Conservatory in Den Haag, Netherlands.

Alpen horn demonstration at IASJ Meeting-Switzerland

Ensemble performance at IASJ Meeting

The 22nd CHROMATIC MASTER CLASS had eleven participants from all over the world. With a uniformly high level and several repeat saxophonists (youngbloods), I really enjoy condensing a four semester course into five days. The point is to get the folks exposed and interested in going further into this particular harmonic realm. Phil Markowitz gave a great class analyzing the second, slow movement of Bartok’s Fifth String Quartet. I maintain that if you listen to the six quartets, you basically have the last 100 years of music. Next August I will return the SAXOPHONE MASTER CLASS format. Interested students should get in touch with me after Jan 1 2010 and send an example of their playing. (Details on my web site.)

Rehearsal with master class students for performance at the Deer Head Inn, Delaware Water Gap, PA

WE THREE TOUR with Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum included a few nice festival gigs around Europe. Steve and I go back to my first heavy gig, exactly forty years ago with Pete LaRoca, playing the Village Vanguard with Chick Core and other places in the Apple. He plays elegantly while his compositions are among the most logical ever written, always with a little twist and sense of humor including above all perfect harmonic voice leading, something so clearly enunciated in this chordless trio. And Adam could swing harder than anyone these days. I love working with these guys.

NEW RELEASES ON JAZZHEAD LABEL-PORGY AND BESS, MILE AHEAD, SKETCHES OF SPAIN with myself as soloist and the Manhattan School of Music Orchestra conducted by Justin DiCiocchio

with the Dave Allen Group at 55 Bar, NYC; COTA Festival in Delaware Water Gap, PA with Evan Gregor Group and Dave Liebman Group; Dave Liebman Group at the Deer Head Inn, Delaware Water Gap, PA; 55 Bar, New York City; The Falcon in Marlboro, NY; master classes at Manhattan School of Music and Lehigh University.

October: Dave Liebman Group at Chris Jazz CafĂ©, Philadelphia, PA; Polish duo tour with pianist Matuesz Kolakowski; Seoul, Korea Jazz Festival with Hey Rim Jeon Group featuring Terry Lynne Carrington and John Lockwood; European tour with “Different But the Same” featuring Ellery Eskelin, Jim Black and Tony Marino.