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 Saturday, 23 August 2014
Inside the Jazz Vortex: IAJE’s 2007 Conference PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Friday, 19 January 2007

“…the International Association for Jazz Education Conference might be understood not as a collision of worlds but as a gathering of the tribes. And the most important thing that happens there isn’t a clinic or show or ceremony, or a negotiation on the expo floor. It’s what happens after, when the various jazz constituencies pack up their stuff and head home.” –Nate Chinen, New York Times

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NEA Masters Phil Woods and Ramsey Lewis © Andrea Canter

Just a few days before the start of the 2007 annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education, Nate Chinen explored an interesting phenomenon in the pages of the New York Times—the apparent paradox of the rise of jazz education at a time when sales of recordings have flagged to new lows and many venues and radio stations struggle to survive. If jazz education is enjoying a renaissance, where is the audience? Perhaps the modern cliché, “if you build it, they will come,” was an appropriate prediction as the 34th annual IAJE Conference got underway in the eye of the jazz hurricane, Manhattan, specifically at the Hilton New York/Sheraton New York in Midtown. Within a block, one could find the Museum of Modern Art and the famed Carnegie Deli; within a half mile, Central Park and Times Square. But within the convention hotels, it was thousands of square feet of jazz.

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Joe Lovano with Michael Cuscana © Andrea Canter

With approximately 8,000 students, school music teachers, university professors, industry moguls, media and marketing professionals and, of course, a laundry list of who’s who among jazz musicians worldwide, this conference has come to reflect all that is jazz—collaborations across national, cultural and linguistic boundaries; spontaneous communication and networking; “passing it on” from elders to youth—and vice versa; myriad styles, sounds, and points of view; and multiple formats, from hands-on clinics and demonstrations to panel discussions, public interviews, and performances nearly around the clock. At IAJE you could spend the day mesmerized by the giants of jazz imparting words as well as notes of wisdom, including the observations of this year’s selections as NEA Jazz Masters and the on-the-spot reactions of a living legend (Ron Carter) to a Down Beat “Blindfold Test.” You could follow a strand of clinics targeting working musicians on such topics as improvisation or “singing from your soul,” or introducing middle school teachers to a multitude of technological wonders and new curricula. You could hear panelists debate the virtues and pitfalls of online resources, jazz and internet radio, or amplification. You could learn from researchers who have explored historical influences, career choices and composition. And If you wondered what’s new in the world of jazz recordings, production, technology or instruments, the two-level exhibit hall was open throughout the conference.

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LaGuardia High School for the Arts Sextet with Bobby Watson © Andrea Canter

And of course, from morning til…well, til it was morning again, you could move from one stage to another, hearing exemplary high school and college jazz ensembles, rising stars, and the most accomplished artists on the planet. This of course is only an overview of the opportunities within the bounds of the conference—clubs throughout Manhattan regard IAJE week as the ideal time to book the hottest musicians imaginable, with thousands of “extra” jazz fans in town. Evenings brought a dizzying, even annoying array of choices from tiny, no cover bars to the high profile clubs, concert halls, and hotel ballrooms. You might hear Fred Hersch sitting in with Geoffrey Keezer and Nancy King at Jazz Standard one night and putting in a guest appearance with a college band from Western Michigan University the next morning. You might catch rising star pianist Rick Germanson at his regular piano bar gig down the street at Ruth’s Chriss Steakhouse and still make the opening set at the Kitano Hotel (Tom Harrell) or Birdland (Jason Moran). You could listen to stories and a few nonstandards from Sheila Jordan in a hotel conference room and then move to the adjacent Ballroom for an all-star Big Band. Back from the late set at the Blue Note or Vanguard? You could catch the early morning set on the Sheraton stage with Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts or Avishai Cohen’s Continuo ensemble. It’s the conference that never stops in the city that never sleeps.

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Fred Hersch with the WMU Jazz Band © Andrea Canter

This was my second IAJE, and I had learned plenty – often the hard way—when I attended the conference in the same location a year ago. No matter how large the meeting spaces or how efficient the hotel and conference staff, it is impossible to fit 8,000 people into everyone’s preferred space at all times. Sometimes you pick an interesting clinic (“Getting Friendly With Your Drums”) over the public interview with a legend like Ornette Coleman to avoid a 30-minute line—you can buy the interview on CD, and when will you get a chance to hear Kenny Werner critique two award-winning student pianists or Matt Wilson don a Darth Vader mask to make a point about flexibility at the drumset? And unless you have the energy of a jazz student, maybe you skip the 12:30 am concert and rest up for a night of club hopping. Or sleep in til the 10 or 11 am clinic and buy the CD of that 9 am presentation on Indian music concepts. And you have to allow yourself time to just wander, because like jazz, IAJE is about connecting –with that bassist you met at a gig last winter or the vocalist you interviewed online but never met in person, or with fellow journalists, photographers, teachers. This year I brought plenty of business cards and hopefully kept track of the ones I received.

Envisioning the Future of Jazz: Pre-Conference Session

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Kenny Werner, Envisioning the Future of Jazz © Andrea Canter
The conference kicked off with a special four-hour session that called on participants to consider the jazz world of the future, and particularly to consider how to ensure a future in the first place. And a glimpse of the potential of that future started the session as the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art Jazz Sextet, featuring soloists as young as 15 with guest Bobby Watson, tore through a few compositions with the aplomb and fire of more advanced musicians. The LaGuardia sextet has been involved with the outreach program of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Education. The stage was thus set for keynote presenter and virtuoso pianist Danilo Perez, who placed jazz in a global context. “The future is right now,” said Perez, noting that technologies such as the internet, I-pods, I-tunes were changing the way we communicate. On his recent tours on behalf of UNICEF, Perez has promoted cultural exchange through jazz performance and education, and regards jazz—which depends on collaboration--as a means of bringing about global peace. The remainder of the afternoon featured three interactive discussion groups focusing on the future of performance, education, and “industry” (technology and business).

Leading the education strand, pianist/teacher Kenny Werner remarked that “jazz brings out an excellent quality in human beings… America needs the values of the average jazz musician.” Werner built on the sentiments of Perez, that jazz requires a gathering of people to inspire each other, a dedication focused on jazz—not just music, and a recognition of the spiritual nature of jazz (“Jazz music is divine energy”). The interactive discussion that followed generated an array of challenges to jazz’s future, as well as a broad list of ideas for expanding jazz education, not only to train young musicians from elementary through college and beyond, but also to inform individuals of all ages to expand the jazz audience.

Reconvening in full session allowed sharing of each group’s ideas. Regardless of the group, common themes emerged—collaboration, communication, multi-culturalism, and using new tools of jazz education to excite not only future performers, but future audiences, to ensure jazz as a multi-generational, life-affirming process, not just a pile of recordings or calendar of performances.

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Sheila Jordan--Not a Chick Singer! © Andrea Canter

Selected Session Highlights

Sheila Jordan—Singing From Your Soul: The Jazz Singer’s Message. At 78, and using a cane due to recent hip surgery, Sheila Jordan is nonetheless an imposing figure, at least to a jazz-savvy audience. To a room filled with vocalists and vocal jazz enthusiasts, the singer who turned improvisation on its ear over five decades talked about her career and her views on jazz and jazz education. She noted the challenges faced by vocalists seeking acceptance as jazz artists rather than “chick singers,” and her own journey learning by ear rather than deciphering chord changes. To aspiring songbirds, she emphasized three physical features that allow “singing from your soul”: ears (“hearing it”), heart (“feeling it”) and foot (“keeping time”). After regaling the audience with a few Charlie Parker stories, she introduced long-time pianist (and Coltrane cohort) Steve Kuhn, and both offered advice for accompanists (“don’t play too much!” and “play like a horn player”). With little resistance, Jordan and Kuhn offered an impromptu performance, Kuhn’s “Zoo” with its menagerie of lyrics, and “Look for the Silver Lining.” Both provided diverse examples of Jordan’s eerily elastic vocalese that somehow divides syllables, time, and even breath.

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Getting Friendly With Your Drums, Matt Wilson (right) as Darth Vader © Andrea Canter

Matt Wilson, Getting Friendly With Your Drums. Arguably the most exciting drummer of his generation, there is no debate that Matt Wilson is one of the most entertaining as well, be it on the performance stage or in the classroom. In this open clinic, Wilson emphasized that the drummer must develop a relationship with the trapset rather than control—and that toward this goal the drummer must master breathing, posture, and sound. Further, one must “hear what you play, feel what you play, and love what you play.” But Wilson is not one to lecture, preferring to teach by demonstration. For each point, he called on a volunteer, surprising his first “student” with a request to don a bright red mask while Wilson transformed himself as Darth Vader, demonstrating the music as theater with an ever changing script. With his next volunteer, Wilson demonstrated an exercise he dubs “Ride Cymbal Meditation,” and thus presented a master class in the subtleties of sound –“spread” from the dancing of the rivets, “space between points” (of contact), how sound changes at different points between the bell and edge. Wilson brings his Arts and Crafts ensemble to my home in Minneapolis in two weeks, and I expect I will hear a lot more than thumps from the drumset.

Joe Lovano and Michael Cuscana, Joyous Encounter. Originally intended as a dialogue and demonstration between the brilliant tenorman Joe Lovano and his recent partner, legendary pianist Hank Jones, the line-up changed when Jones’ tour in Japan precluded an IAJE appearance. Instead, Blue Note producer Michael Cuscana filled in as interviewer after Lovano first mesmerized the audience with three soaring solos. Lovano then addressed practice strategies (“You can practice without touching your horn”), technical skills (“You can’t hide behind technique”), and his own history with the Jones brothers, dating back to his early gigs in the 70s with the Mel Lewis/Thad Jones Orchestra. His admiration for Hank was clearly articulated (“one of the most searching, creative, free players”), noting their recent duo recordings reflect “what jazz is when you can create music together.” One wished that this session had allowed us to see that creativity first hand.

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NEA Jazz Masters Panel © Andrea Canter

NEA Jazz Masters, Panel Discussion. For 25 years, the National Endowment for the Arts has honored a the living legends of jazz as Jazz Masters. New honorees – pianist/bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi, trombonist Curtis Fuller, journalist Dan Morgenstern, pianist/educator Ramsey Lewis, vocalist Jimmy Scott, saxophonists Frank Wess and Phil Woods—were presented and interviewed by A.B. Spellman, retired administrator for the NEA and acclaimed writer and poet. Each Master (all present but Frank Wess) was asked to address a different issue or aspect of his or her career, and often the discussion turned to the serious challenges facing jazz today. Ramsey Lewis noted that modern jazz clubs are pricing their audience out of the market; Phil Woods had a few acerbic comments about amplification (“Sound engineers have perfect ears—without a hole!”). It was a too-rare glimpse of the souls that, in public, typically reveal themselves only through music.

Montreaux Piano Competition Master Class with Kenny Werner. Several sessions throughout the conference provided the opportunity to hear master critiques of recent finalists from the annual Montreux Festival competition. Two piano students, runners up this past year, bravely performed solo in front of an audience and the critical ear of Kenny Werner. Each was assigned the Evans/Davis classic, “Blue and Green,” offering significant contrasts in styles and arrangements. Werner noted he selected this particular tune as it has only ten bars, “so it is very confining… you can change a few chord qualities and open the window.”

Up first, a student from Luxembourg whose elongated arrangement reminded me more of Liszt than Evans. It flowed easily, and he didn’t miss a beat during about 30 seconds of darkness when the lights were accidently turned off. Give him an “A” for adaptability! “You can hear the heart in this piece,” noted Werner, who also warned, “Don’t move to New York—this is where I live!” But there is always room to improve, and Werner demonstrated what he termed “simple ways to do harmony”—changing the bass note of the chord; he also offered some subtle changes in rhythm that gave the tune more swing. “Your melody was obscured by the ostinato,” noted Werner. “Let the melody be the thread.” The second student, from Japan, offered a more tightly constructed, deliberate approach, more swing, more interesting rhythmic choices, but less relaxed. “The passion is not coming through in your playing—you need to bypass the mind,” said Werner, whose popular work, Effortless Mastery, addresses this concept in detail. I haven’t played piano in over forty years, and then quite badly. But it was nevertheless an opportunity to grow as a listener, as a jazz consumer. Mostly the room was filled with student musicians, eagerly absorbing the master’s words… and every note.

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Our friends at Jazz Improv, Exhibit Hall © Andrea Canter
Jazz Journalists Association, Who Asked You Anyway? For the past few years, the Jazz Journalists Association has presented a multi-part seminar aimed at encouraging and critiquing new jazz reviewers—either novice writers or writers new to jazz criticism. The idea is to present some basic strategies and then send the “students” out to review a performance (as if for a newspaper), bringing back a rough draft review the next morning to be critiqued by an experienced member of JJA. The participants take another evening to clean up and finalize their review, turn it in, and receive final feedback. The mentors then hold a session to read the best examples, offer public critique, and select the winner, whose review will be published in the JJA journal. The first review generated compliments from the panel of experts, who also offered critical comments—to beware of technical references that lack elaboration (“You’re telling, not showing”); to avoid vague adjectives like “fantastic;” to be sure to not talk down to the reader or to the music; to ensure that key information is included early in the review. The second, winning review was tighter, more specific. Still, panelists offered suggestions to improve—avoid rah-rah endings, avoid rhetorical questions, watch for clichés such as “true to the music.” Explain comments such as “although not perfect…” There were fewer participants in this year’s seminar, but all completed reviews. So, “who asked you anyway?” One of the panelists, Forest Bryant, got his foot into the jazz review door when he wrote the best review at IAJE a few years ago. Now he writes regularly for Jazz Times.

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Ron Carter and Dan Ouellette, Down Beat Blindfold Test © Andrea Canter
Downbeat’s Live Blindfold Test with Ron Carter. Both Down Beat (Blindfold Test) and Jazz Times (Before and After) publish popular columns ask experts to try to identify musicians and recordings—sometimes classics, sometimes obscure. More interesting than their ability to identify the tunes and artists are the reasoning and opinions expressed by the chosen musician. The Down Beat Blindfold Test is conducted live during IAJE each year, and it was bassist Ron Carter’s turn in the hot seat. With Down Beat writer Dan Ouellette presiding, Carter –along with the audience—listened to six tracks that ran the gamut from Oscar Pettiford to Christian McBride, covering recordings made over five decades. Carter warned us all that he was going to treat this experience as if we were sitting in his living room, and he unapologetically waved off several tracks without concern for the identities of the artists, but with plenty say about his likes and dislikes. Identifying Pettiford’s “acoustic, organic” playing, he noted the legendary bassist is an all-time favorite. “His intonation was right on” and Pettiford was ahead of the curve in using quarter notes. Carter was less enthuses about the other selections, for varying reasons. The arrangement played by Dave Holland (on Critical Mass) “confines the bass player to one line—for me it is no fun to play it.” The “free playing” of Christian McBride (Tonic), observed Carter, suggested a “lack of preparation…trying to swing without a harmonic base.” (Would you like to hear this in your living room, asked Oullette? “Yes, if I moved!”) Acknowledging the skill of Bill Evan’s bassist, Scott LaFaro, Carter discussed the risks of emphasizing vertical form on the bass, but also noted that “I was at the Village Vanguard when this was recorded. This music is all a part of our language.” The looser style of Fred Hopkins (Stringology) brought many questions from Carter—“When is it a bass solo, and when does it stop? What is the arrangement? It lacks focus.” Yet the effort of the musicians to try something different drew “Four Stars” from Carter.

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Stefon Harris Performs with WMU Jazz Band © Andrea Canter

Jazz in America, National Jazz Curriculum. One of the foremost generators of jazz curriculum is the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles, headed by T.S. Monk to ensure the ongoing legacy of the music his father pushed beyond its bebop boundaries. This session presented a brief overview of the many programs developed over the Institute’s twenty-year history: the high school program, Jazz in the Classoom; the two-week seminars, Jazz at Aspen; Bebop to Hiphop program integrating jazz bands and vocalese; and particularly the Jazz in America curriculum for 5th, 8th and 11th graders. Noted Monk Institute Vice President for Education, J.B. Dyas, the goal of Jazz in America is to “weave jazz into the cultural tapestry of America” through the public school system. Echoing the sentiments of the conference’s opening session, Dyas noted that jazz education goes beyond music education as a potential subject of general social studies classes. The 5th grade curriculum is a history course designed to be taught by social studies teachers to reach a broad spectrum of students, not just those pursuing music studies. The curriculum is available online at no charge, and includes lesson plans (www.jazzinamerica.org).

Conference Performance Stages

The clubs of Manhattan offer serious competition to the hotel ballroom and lounge stages of IAJE, but no less serious music—and no cover or bar minimum! And unlike typical jazz clubs, there was music as early as 9 am. A few examples:

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Mina Agossi © Andrea Canter
Mina Agossi Trio. I had recently heard this unusual artist in Minneapolis, where the Dakota club owner had remarked that “you will either love her or hate her.” With a cross cultural background—her parents are French and West African, and she has lived in Europe, African and the US, Mina Agossi has a voice that can pretty much do anything and she gives it free reign to explore, much like a horn with unlimited range. Her gestures and expressions may turn off some, yet enthrall others, and her arrangements and original compositions make for diverse and intriguing sets—an a cappella “After You’ve Gone,” Jimi Hendrix’ “Third Stone From the Sun,” an original “Laundry Man Blues,” and more. She gives her equally multicultural compatriots, French bassist Eric Jacquot and Japanese drummer Ichiro Onoe, plenty of space, aggressively egging them on at times, and they are up to the challenge of supporting such a dramatic talent. Special guest Sylvain Riffelt joined the trio for two tunes, creating melodic, fluttering bird calls on clarinet that blended beautifully with the singer’s vocalelse. Like her or not, Agossi undeniably uses her instrument like no one else.

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Western Michigan U Jazz Band, Horns © Andrea Canter
Western Michigan University Jazz Band. IAJE schedules many high school and college jazz ensembles—after all, this is a conference dedicated to jazz education, and school bands work toward hard for the opportunity to perform in front of an international audience. One of the treats of the conference is the chance to sample many of these bands that surely produce the stars we’ll be paying to hear in a few short years. Another treat is the chance to hear, if only briefly, some of the biggest stars of today who often serve college programs as visiting faculty or artists in residence. The Western Michigan University Jazz Octet, directed by Scott Cowan, is just one of the ensembles of school’s award-winning jazz program. Student arrangements of “Love for Sale” and “If I Should Leave You” opened the program with swing and polish. Duke Ellington’s quirky “Apes and Peacocks” delighted the audience with the grunts and growls of “aping” horns as well as the majestic interplay of the “peacocks.” Two compositions by Stefon Harris were augmented by the guest performance of the elegant vibraphonist, while visiting artists Fred Hersch and Billy Hart sat in on the finale, an original by the pianist. But the set belonged to the eight students, who more than ably demonstrated why Western Michigan University won 2007 IAJE top honors for college ensembles.

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Drew Gress with the Jeff Gardner Trio © Andrea Canter

Jeff Gardner Trio. Throughout the day and evening, the Lounge Stage at the Hilton provided a more intimate setting for a series of small ensembles, although crowds often jammed into the small space, spilling over into the adjacent bar, for a chance to hear a variety of performers from the well known (e.g. Kate McGarry) to lower profile, yet clearly accomplished artists. I had not heard of pianist Jeff Gardner, but his resume is stellar—studies with Jaki Byrad and John Lewis, tours with Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Wheeler and more; thirteen recordings as leader; tours in Europe, Asia and Latin America with his own ensembles. Stopping by the Lounge Stage, I caught the trio (including Drew Gress on bass) on two original compositions, “Rosa” and “Climate Shanty Town”, the first a lyrical ballad, the latter a more rambunctious, Tyneresque romp. I’ll be sure to look up more of Gardner’s music.

Final Thoughts

While the diversity of music and structure is immense, “education” is the common thread of IAJE, and clearly the lifeline that sustains jazz now and will nurture its future. It’s not just about ensuring future generations of musicians with technical prowess and artistic vision, but jazz education is also about public education for all ages—heightening awareness of jazz as art, as entertainment, as a cultural byproduct that can make the world both smaller and more expansive. The music needs an audience, and the audience needs this music. As Kenny Werner noted on the first afternoon, “Music is not the messenger. Music is the message.” IAJE gives the message wings. And we—performers, educators, journalists—need to take that message back home.



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