The Kids Are Alright: The Jazz Institute @ Proctors

September 10th, 2015, 2:00 pm by Greg

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Interview & story by J Hunter
Photographs by Richard Lovrich

Things change. It’s a fact of life, even for something as established as the Jazz Institute, part of the School for Performing Arts held every summer at Proctors in Schenectady. This year, the program was put in the hands of Artistic Producer Lecco Morris and Creative Director Jeff Nania. Until the Jazz Institute convened earlier this summer, neither Morris (who went to NYU to study Music Theory and Composition, primarily in classical music) nor Nania (a UAlbany grad and Metroland columnist who’s also been bewitching us with his sax skills for years) had ever taught a large group or combo before.

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That said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – or, in this case, the student concert that came at the end of the Institute’s immersive two-week session. It all came down to Friday, August 14 in the GE Theatre at Proctors, and it wasn’t hard to spot the members of this year’s 24-player class: Just look for anyone dressed in black who hadn’t graduated high school. I gave silent props to drummer Liam Fitzgerald for accessorizing his outfit with a white, black-banded Trilby. If you’re going to play the part, look the part!

Having attended student concerts before, I knew there was a distinct possibility that I’d be seeing the evening-long equivalent of a participation medal. My trepidation faded pretty quickly during Morris’ opening comments. Rather than hiding the kids in the relative shelter of one massive big band, Morris and Nania had organized their charges into four distinct combos, including the straight-ahead Exhibit A Train (who got to go on first, breaking the ice for the more nervous students); the Hann Solos, a swirling tentet with two drummers and two guitarists; the hard-bopping So Whats; and Cape God, the Institute’s special “jam band.” In short, Morris and Nania were providing no cover for their students – they would swim, or they would sink. And much to my delight, and the delight of the parents and friends that populated the GE Theatre, we got to see one heck of a swim meet!

While there was no deep exploration or reinvention of the classics these students played, the quality of solos started strong and only got stronger. I loved the attitude Exhibit A Train brought to their finger-snapping take on “Blue Monk.” The Hann Solos’ roaring approach to Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” had me laughing and applauding wildly as they took chances I would never have expected. The So Whats were as clean and sharp as you could want as they worked the music of Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard; and Cape God stunned both myself and the audience with a three-tune set that mixed music by Horace Silver, Jethro Tull and the Seatbelts, a Japanese jazz/blues outfit.

There was a big band at the end where all the students got to play with baritone sax legend Gary Smulyan, who did master classes with the students for the final two days of the session. But Smul wasn’t doing a star turn here: He hung back and gave support as the students – led by Nania, who had never conducted a big band prior to this evening – rolled through sweet versions of Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe”, Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train, and Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” Throughout this set – and through the previous combo sets – I got to see appreciable growth from many players, and more than a few signs that the next generation of Capital Region jazzers have some players that we’re going to have to reckon with in future years. My hope is that whatever personal/creative relationships were created during the Jazz Institute will continue to develop, because as these kids will discover, it takes a village to make good jazz.

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After they decompressed a little bit, Morris and Nania were nice enough to collectively answer some questions about their initial foray into jazz education:

Q: Given that this was the first year of this iteration of the program, what were your expectations – about enrollment, about the community’s reaction to the program, and about how it would all come out in the end?

A: We knew it would be a challenge to rebuild the program. We committed to providing these young musicians with a professional toolkit – everything from recording and auditioning techniques to an understanding of solfége, harmony and ‘playing out’ – so that they had the confidence and capacity to take their musical lives into their own hands. Our hope with the community is that the music speaks for itself, and that the community listens! We hope they did; we were incredibly pleased with all of the students’ final performances.

Q: Did you have a game plan going into the program – and, if so, how much did that game plan change as time went on?

A: Our game plan changed significantly. We were prepared to build the Jazz Institute as a pre-professional camp, but were faced with the reality of needing greater enrollment. We ended up improvising our process – which felt somehow accurate. We placed students in combos, went about building arrangements and teaching fundamentals with a much wider age and experience range than expected, but I think it augmented the experience of the Institute as both improvisational and embracing of all skill levels.

Q: What was the age range you were working with, and what was the students’ knowledge level – about their instruments, and about jazz in general?

A: We ended up with students aged 12-18, with most around 14 or 15. The students’ knowledge of jazz ran the full gamut from none to extensive, and their experience on their instruments went from several months to over a decade. It was quite a roomful!

Q: What was a typical day like for students at the Jazz Institute?

A: Our basic framework for the Institute was to start with group fundamentals in the morning for an hour, and then break out into combos until lunch. During combos the musicians would collectively decide what tunes they’d like to work on, how to build the arrangement, what solo order to perform in – all of the work professional musicians do when building a set. Each week during lunch we visited Jazz on Jay, and many of the musicians jammed out during the entire lunch. From 1-2:30pm each day we had a different guest clinician – teaching core disciplines such as harmony, arranging, bassline creation, improvisation, recording technology, African and Afro-Cuban rhythmic techniques and songwriting. Each day was a new perspective!

Q: How were the student combos created, and was there a point where some of the kids took leadership roles in those combos?

A: Our combos were built to integrate the needs of our young musicians: We had a one-on-one playing and interview process to help determine the best mix in each combo. Our goal was to have each group capable of building a compelling musical set while meeting each member’s needs – be they growing as improvisers, readers, or as communicators. At every single point in the process, our young musicians had to take leadership of their role in the whole. Each combo organically developed a leader that would help cue solos and backgrounds and hold the group together during the tune. In week two, we and Adam Siegel – the Jazz Institute’s other full time teacher – played a less involved role in the combos. In that vacuum of leadership, young musicians stepped up. Such is the work of making music!

Q: In the final days of the Institute, you had Gary Smulyan come in to do master classes with the students, and he played with the big band during their closing set. What was it like having Gary involved, and is there anything you took away from his work as an educator?

A: Gary was such a joy to work with from the moment he rolled into town on Amtrak on Wednesday. He came out to listen to Jeff perform out each night he was here, and shared our philosophy that jazz prescribes an approach to living and communicating that is deeper, even, than music. Gary cut straight to the meat – when he spoke to the Institute’s musicians, he was able to represent clearly the life of a professional musician and the demands and opportunities of a life in music. He brought to the Institute a level of clarity to process that could only be earned through a lifetime of playing music in every capacity. We were all lucky to have him!

Q: What was the students’ reaction when you brought them together for the big band, which is a very different discipline? Was there a feeling of, “Okay, this is something I’m used to” or a feeling of, “Aww, we wanna go back to just playing”?

A: I think that most young players are accustomed to reading from sheet music and found the big band to be the most familiar setting. In a traditional big band chart, the entire tune is charted out with very specific places for improvisation. In each combo, the musical roles of the players were less clean-cut and therefore more complex to figure out. It seemed to me that the students were simultaneously relieved to have a moment where they knew exactly what they had to do, and yet also surprised at how quality their group sound was! We were thrilled with how the big band arrangements came together.

Q: The “jam band” Cape God interested me, in that two of the three pieces they played were non-traditional as far as jazz goes: Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” and the Seatbelts’ “Too Good Too Bad.” Was it a goal to have that group look outside of the jazz genre, and is that something you could see happening with the other combos in future years?

A: Cape God was such a surprise for us all! Run by Cynthia Shaw, a local music teacher whose son was an Institute musician, it was an opportunity for young musicians who desired to spend another couple hours (from 3-5pm every day) on their instruments and pursue their own music. We had quite a cadre of rockers in the group, so I think it naturally took on a harder edge than the combos the full-time teachers nurtured throughout the week. However, rock and jazz share so much in common – the blues, baby – that we loved the tie-ins built by a more rockin’ jam band. For us, the bottom line is making music – period.

Q: If you could be sure the students took one thing with them at the end of the Institute, what would that one thing be?

A: Making music is easy – you have all the tools already within you! Now go make music!

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