Jazz: The Next Generation
July 21, 2005
Once upon a time, jazz – its sounds and culture and customs – was passed along in midtown Manhattan nightclubs like the Three Deuces and Birdland, and at the Harlem and Queens apartments where the musicians lived and jammed.The Blue Door nightclub in Snowmass Village, with its views of mountains and ski lifts, is in no way reminiscent of New York’s 52nd Street in the 1940s, especially on a recent Tuesday morning. And Loren Schoenberg, a pasty-white 47-year-old in sneakers, white socks pulled high and a collared shirt, has about as much resemblance to Charlie Parker. At the moment, in fact, Schoenberg isn’t even talking about jazz, but about classical music – Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Still, the Blue Door, and a few even more nondescript rooms and tents scattered around the Snowmass Village mall, make up what might be today’s premier laboratory for jazz music. Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ JAS Academy Summer Sessions, an educational program for jazz players straddling the line between student and professional, is under way. The 29 participants are beginning 10 days of master classes, critiques, gigs, jam sessions, seminars and general hang time with the likes of master jazz players Nnenna Freelon, Ali Jackson and Christian McBride, the program’s artistic director. The atmosphere may be the polar opposite of the frenetic urban setting where jazz became an American institution. But away from the bustle of New York and Boston, removed from gigs and jobs and travel, seems an excellent place to engage in jazz issues.”They’re in a beautiful setting which inspires them,” said Schoenberg, a saxophonist who is program director of the JAS Academy, as well as an instructor at Juilliard and executive director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem. “And it’s a small community, so they can’t go too far. They can’t go too far from a physical standpoint.”The lack of distractions is a key component of the Summer Sessions, the 10th edition of which began last Monday and runs through Wednesday, July 27. Days are devoted to instruction and musical inquiry; nights are generally given to performing, both at private functions and public concerts. (All of the student musicians will play at Ribs & Jazz, set for Monday, July 25 at the Hickory House; the Sofia Koutsovitis Group will open for Los Hombres Calientes at Belly Up Wednesday, July 27.) The icing on the cake is the full scholarships provided to the students.For all the relaxed vibe, this doesn’t feel like a vacation. This is most obvious in the critiquing sessions. When the Koutsovitis Group plays a tune with a groove they weren’t familiar with, the seven instructors pepper them with questions and comments: “Is this comfortable for you? Why not?” asks one. “It felt like you were being careful,” said another. Those notes are mild compared to the response given the Capital Focus Jazz Group, which plays sloppily and unfocused the following day. “Who’s the leader?” asks Nnenna Freelon, a vocalist with five Grammy nominations. “Why are you all looking at each other?”
In its decade-long history, the Summer Sessions has had its success stories. The first year – when it was known as the Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Colony, and was co-presented by the Washington, D.C.-based Monk Institute of Jazz – featured, among the student body, pianist Jason Moran, one of the most acclaimed artists today, and drummer Ali Jackson, a member of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet and an instructor in Snowmass this year.Last year, however, Jazz Aspen shifted the emphasis from individuals to combos. Instead of inviting musicians, the Summer Sessions extended offers to existing groups. The participants receive not only instruction on their particular instruments, but also on group dynamics, and get group critiques from the professionals. That has raised the level of performance, since combos are no longer just tossed together once they get here. And it has made a unique program even more so.”It’s really the opportunity to do a group-based thing,” said Adam Schneit, saxophonist with the Sofia Koutsovitis Group. At 29, and with a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music, Schneit is possibly the oldest student in this year’s program; being a New York resident makes him more typical of the group. “It’s the chance to rehearse extensively with the group, which you don’t get to do much in New York, even. You all have various gigs or jobs, so the opportunity to rehearse isn’t so much.”The interesting part is the group aspect, the idea of making a cohesive presentation instead of just getting individual attention. And to do that in a relaxed environment … There are other jazz camps, but this is unique in the way it’s set up.”The groups represent a variety of jazz flavors. The Koutsovitis Group is an octet led by the Argentine-born vocalist Koutsovitis, and the group emphasizes sounds from South America and the Caribbean. The Romain Collin Group, a quartet led by the French-born keyboardist Collin, plays with a fusion of electric and acoustic instruments. The Johayne Kendrick Trio is a vocal-guitar-bass combo. Capital Focus Jazz Band is a nine-piece big band from Washington, D.C., featuring vocalist Lena Seikaly. Evidence, a quintet of friends from Seattle and New York, was assembled in Snowmass, and wasn’t sure what direction its music would take.
One of the more enlightening aspects of the Summer Sessions are the seminars given most mornings by Schoenberg. The saxophonist’s dorky appearance is outweighed by a fine sense of humor, long on self-deprecation, a spellbinding knowledge of music, and an expansive vision about music and teaching. His talks reference books and movies and TV, obscure recording dates and ancient jazz clubs.When I walked into Tuesday’s session, Schoenberg was talking about crossword puzzles. Crosswords, he said, were a great instructive tool for jazz composers. A minute later, he was onto Bach’s Goldberg Variations, pointing out Bach as an unparalleled master at making a musical statement.”How do I get my point across in a coherent fashion? How do I make a statement that makes sense?” questioned Schoenberg to a unanimously attentive audience. “In music, it’s hard to find someone who makes more sense than Bach.” The next morning, Schoenberg has the students sing the melodies along to select Goldberg Variations, and is talking more Bach: “This is not meant to validate jazz by putting it next to Bach. This is to inspire you to think outside your usual realm, to invent something. I want to take you places you might not go on your own.”
As much emphasis as he puts on Bach, it is Louis Armstrong that Schoenberg holds out as the ideal for a jazz player. “If you want to understand jazz, you have to understand Armstrong,” he told the class. “The clearer you can see your relationship to Armstrong, the better. Every so often in human cultural history, people – Armstrong, John Ford – come across the landscape, great people, and we should take the opportunity to study them.”Schoenberg tells me later why it is important to find a common denominator like Armstrong. “Here, we’re trying to take five disparate groups and help them understand what unites them,” he said. “It’s more obvious what separates them, stylistically. We want them to see the common denominator. To me, the unifying link is Armstrong.”Schoenberg broadens the discussion further: “In our society, too much emphasis is on what separates people. Jazz is about what unites people. That’s easy to say; it’s hard to demonstrate. So I use jazz to hang that goal of looking for the intersections, creating more empathy among these young people.”Schoenberg isn’t the only one looking at music, and the Summer Sessions program, in the big picture. Spending 10 days in new surroundings, associating almost nonstop with people you know and those you don’t, playing new and old music, being challenged on your choices, performing for a variety of audiences – all of that is bound to opens eyes and create bonds.”Being around each other every day for 20 days, the whole cultural aspect of these surroundings takes shape,” said McBride, the artistic director. “You become a family. And that’s the ultimate example of culture – family.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org