The New School Jazz Program

Musicians At Work

Volume C, No. 6June, 2000

Joy Portugal

“Musicians at Work” usually features photographs of 802 members in performance. But teaching is an important aspect of many musicians’ work lives – and growing numbers of Local 802 members are engaged in a unique academic program that is helping to develop a new generation of jazz artists.

The New School’s Jazz Studies program “is arguably the only place and the first time that a community of jazz artists has taught in a sustained academic curriculum,” says the program’s executive director, Martin Mueller. “It could only happen because of the location of the school in New York City, where we have such a large community, and because of the New School’s concept of the practitioner as educator.”

The program has grown from about 30 students and a handful of faculty, when it was founded in 1986, to some 240 students and a faculty of 67 part-time and three full-time teachers today. Along the way it has merged with the Mannes jazz program and moved from its original location on Fifth Avenue to larger quarters on West 13th. A number of graduates have already made their mark as performers and recording artists, and the program’s reputation continues to grow – nationally and internationally. Today, about one-third of the student body are international students.

Along with the increase in numbers has come a steady growth in the musicianship of students attracted to the program. Jazz pianist and composer Joanne Brackeen, on the faculty since the 1980s, points out that “the overall level of the students’ musicianship gets higher every year. I have a group of students this year who can read anything, play anything, and improvise in any kind of time signature. They’re just beginning – but they sound as though they’ve been out there working for the last ten years.”

The members pictured in the June issue spoke briefly with Allegro about the qualities that make this program unique – and why their work on the faculty has become an important part of their lives as musicians.

“First and foremost is that you’ve got a faculty of working jazz musicians with a wealth of experience, passing that knowledge on to the students,” said saxophonist and composer Bill Kirchner. “It’s all very practical and very hands-on.”

“This program is different because of the personalities that are involved,” said drummer Chico Hamilton. “I pass on my way of thinking in regards to what jazz is all about. Basically, I try to help the young player learn how to think on the bandstand, and to prepare for a gig – mentally, physically, etc.”

Pianist Junior Mance told Allegro that he hesitated, when he was first asked to join the faculty 12 years ago, “because I hadn’t had any teaching experience. They kept telling me, ‘but you’ve had experience playing’ – and I realized that they wanted people who had actually worked professionally in jazz, not just taught it. They asked me to try it for a week or so and see if I liked it, and I’ve been there ever since. And I’m still learning. I’m learning as much as the students are.”

“The program deals with all levels of aspiring musicians and works with them to learn the rudiments and aesthetics of music, without losing their own input,” said bassist Reggie Workman, coordinator of instruction and one of the three full-time faculty members. “It’s a hands-on type of school where the students get the opportunity, once a week, to go into a group experience and explore what they’re learning in the classroom by practical application. We encourage all areas of musical expression, because all students don’t have the same ideals. We encourage each area of development, so students can be the best at what they choose to do.”

“The diversity of the faculty, along with the access that students have to all kinds of music right here in New York, provide them with an opportunity to pursue whatever they are interested in and get feedback from masters of those musical forms,” said David Lopato (piano, composition and MIDI systems).

“Young players today have fewer opportunities for performing Ôinternships’ with established bandleaders than they had in the past, when Ôschool’ basically meant going on the road,” he pointed out. “And while there really isn’t a substitute for that kind of learning experience, the Jazz Program provides a home base of sorts, allowing the students to get playing experience, test the waters, and learn a host of other important skills at the same time.”

Percussionist Kristina Kanders, who graduated from the New School program in the early 1990s, now teaches several courses and also works as a part-time administrator of the program. “I personally love teaching,” Kanders said. “I think it’s one of the most important things one can do: to stay in touch with young people and pass on the tradition and the knowledge and the joy. And I try to be an accessible administrator – someone that students feel comfortable coming to.”

“For me, it’s an opportunity to stay fluid – to be a part of the progressive learning and growth that goes on in the music in general,” said saxophonist Billy Harper. “And it also helps me create. Many times I’ve been inspired to go back and do a new version of something that I had already written in one way, and heard one way. The instrumentation in class may help me get the energy to do this a different way, with an entirely different sound.”

Workman pointed out that “teaching reverses itself. While you are delivering some of your knowledge to the student, the student in turn delivers some of his or her reflection back to you, and you are able to see what new ideas are in the world today, as well as what kinds of energies there are.”

Along with the intrinsic satisfaction of the work, employment on the faculty provides security on various levels that has too often been missing in artists’ lives.

Kanders pointed out that her work at the New School has given her the freedom to “only play the gigs that I want to play. I’m in a position where I can do what I really love to do, whether it is commercially viable or not. It’s the best of both worlds for me.”

Trumpeter Jimmy Owens emphasized the importance of faculty “receiving contributions for health insurance and pension from an educational program. I’ve been having money contributed as a performing artist for more than 35 years,” he said, “but not from my work as an educator. And this program, and our contract, allows that to happen for many jazz artists who function as performers as well as educators.”

Workman noted that becoming part of the faculty removes some of the stresses on family life that jazz artists must grapple with. “In this country there are not many venues in which we perform, so you have to travel a lot to keep a career afloat; if you’re committed to being a family person, you can’t be away from your family and your home base that much.”

Hamilton has been involved in the program since the outset, he said, “because I realized that this would be one way of giving something back to music. Music has been very good to me, and if I can help to make young musicians into better musicians, then I’m rewarded.”

“While teaching, you get the opportunity to give back something to the people from whom you have grown,” Workman said. “I think a lot of the teachers are feeling the joy of giving back, and therefore are inspired about their teaching commitment.”

“Our responsibility here is deeper than just a school for educating students,” Mueller told Allegro. “We have a responsibility to the art form. We have a responsibility to the community and the traditions – and we take that very seriously.”