“How should we raise the children (musically)?”

Volume 123, No. 3March, 2023

Joseph Rutkowski

For the most part, music educators receive their initial training in the “classical” tradition: note reading, tonal and technical exercises, history and performance of music by the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern periods. I would guess that there would not be that many music educators who learned to improvise jazz before executing exactly what is written on the page. Yet, our mission as music educators is to expose to our students the beauty of Mozart and the uniqueness of Miles, among other things of course.

A few years ago, one of my former most motivated students called me up. “Mr. R, I want you to know that I am getting married in the spring and I want you to meet my future husband. He is a minister!” I was so happy to have dinner with Karen and Andrew. Before the dessert arrived, Andrew looked me in the eye and said, “Mr. Rutkowski, I need to ask you something important. How should we raise the children: on classical or jazz?”

What a great question! Before he added “classical or jazz,” I thought the minister was going to ask me something that I couldn’t answer. The answer is CLASSICAL….but bring on the JAZZ as soon as possible.

Thinking about that topic caused me to develop a lesson for my students, most of whom are not versed in jazz improvisation.

The lesson I gave my students in January of 2022 (see a clip here) was a re-enactment of the lesson Mr. Al Longo taught me on Miles Davis in the fall of 1969. (NOTE: At the time, I obtained permission to post this publicly from all students who appear in the video.)

Let me tell you about Mr. Longo, who just turned 80 years old. Al Longo was a clarinet major at Ithaca College in the early 1960s. He became a member of Local 802 in 1964. He started his teaching career at Mulligan Junior High School in Central Islip in Suffolk County. He later moved up to Central Islip High School the very same year that I graduated from Mulligan and became a 9th grader in the HS Band. Two years later, Mr. Longo left Central Islip to teach band at Newfield HS in the Middle Country School District. That was the same year my family moved from Central Islip to Smithtown. Mr. Longo later became the Director of Music for Middle Country Schools. Upon his retirement, the district named the auditorium after Mr. Longo. Mr. Longo spends his retirement days composing and arranging jazz tunes for big bands and small combos. I am so glad that we have stayed in touch. Mr. Longo was always very interested in hearing what my students were doing and he was very impressed with how we all fared during the two years of the pandemic with remote teaching/learning, hybrid scheduling and social distancing.

By the time I was in 10th grade, I had been playing professional club dates on piano with my father and brother since I was 12 years old. I knew almost 1,000 songs from the Fake Book #1. But on the first day of my sophomore year at Central Islip HS, my band director Al Longo announced that the Jazz Lab graduated its pianist the past June and they needed a new one. I told Mr. Longo that I was ready for the job. He asked me if I knew how to read chord charts. “Sure I can.” But when the first Jazz Lab rehearsal was over, Mr. Longo dismissed the 25 musicians but told me to wait up. When they all left, he asked me if I ever listened to jazz. “I think so,” was my hesitant response. Mr. Longo replied, “No, Joe, I don’t think so.”

The next day in class, he gave me an album called Round About Midnight by Miles Davis and told me to listen to it.

When I got home with it, I noticed that there were only 3 songs on each side. All my other records had at least 5 or 6 on each side. “Why are these songs so long? And I never heard of any of them on this album except for Bye Bye Blackbird. Check it out:

As I was listening to it, I said to myself, “What kind of beat is that? Is that really a trumpet? Doesn’t sound like one. (Miles was using the harmon mute.) What’s that trumpet player doing to the melody? He’s changing all the rhythms and adding all kinds of extra notes. What?! He just cracked a note! AH!—there’s another crack. This guy is so out of practice.” And then after he played “through the head” (I learned that phrase years later), he started making up stuff. “What happened to Bye Bye Blackbird? And then it goes on and on and then a saxophone player starts doing the same thing: making up stuff……and now a piano player…..What happened to the song?”

The next day at school, Mr. Longo asked me what I thought about the record. Although I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, I had to say, “I don’t get it and I really don’t like it.” Longo smiled and said, “Keep listening to it.”

It took at least a dozen hearings for me to figure out how to listen to jazz. I finally noticed in the improvisations that I was hearing the chords (later I learned the term “changes”) to the bridge and realized that jazz improvisation was really like the variations on a theme (the “head”) that the classical composers made so often. Well, I always knew that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were known for their improvisation skills.

Even though I was already 15 years old, I was just getting ready for the sophistication of bebop jazz. Decades later, I would make further progress with the help of my own students, namely saxophonists Sam Dillon and Richard Feder, trumpeter and vocalist Lisa Gary and my own children Ben and Daniel.

The 2021/2022 school year was the last of the 39 years I taught instrumental music on the high school level. For the past 15 years, I started an enrichment class called Chamber Music Society that met at 7:15 every morning for students already enrolled in my band and orchestra classes. I was so proud of the usual 35 or so students who signed up to play chamber music. After 3 months of sight reading, studying, rehearsing and performing great works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Gounod and Stravinsky, I would assign pages from the Real Books and have violinists, violists, cellists and of course bassists and wind players and the timpanist moving to the traps to learn jazz. They didn’t sign up to play jazz, but they did it and they dug it.

The thing about jazz is that it’s more visually exciting than classical music  for the performers. If you ever are in a nightclub watching a jazz group, you will notice that the listeners’ heads are bobbing and their bodies are swaying especially when one of the musicians is improvising.

So how shall we raise the children?  Based on my own development as a musician and my forty years of teaching experience, I would suggest starting with classical.  Teach them the form, the means of tone production, master all the scales, all the arpeggios, all the exercises. Sing the phrase like a great speaker tells a story. Study how prominent musicians perform a great composition. And then introduce them to jazz by listening to recordings by Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins helping them to take notice how one jazz artist plays the same song differently every time.  Be patient with your students as they learn to appreciate this new, unfamiliar art form just as my teacher, Al Longo, was with me so long ago.

Joseph Rutkowski Jr. first joined Local 802 in 1976. (His late father Joseph Sr. was also a longtime member.) Rutkowski won the U.S. Presidential Scholar Teacher Award in 2004 and has also won teaching awards from the Long Island Music Hall of Fame and the Harvard Club of Long Island.  To submit an essay for consideration in Allegro’s “Member to Member” column, send an e-mail to Allegro editor Mikael Elsila. 


“How Should We Raise The Children?” Jazz for Classically Trained Students A Lesson Dedicated to my teacher Alfred Longo:

My own version of Bye Bye Blackbird with two of my current musician partners Ilana Meredith and Patrick Kennedy: 

Miles Davis – So What (Official Audio)

Miles Davis: So What (Miles in Tokyo)

Miles Davis – So What (feat. Sonny Stitt) [Live 1960]