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Jazz Master Classes

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About 25 YSC students on all instruments ranging from 18 to 25 years of age attended my Jazz master classes [fig 20]. They included around 10 vocalists, 3 pianists, 3 saxophonists, 2 trumpeters, 2 bassists, 2 drummers, one trombonist, one vibraphonist and one flutist. Their technical level ranged from adequate to advanced, and those with previous experience in Jazz improvisation seem poised to move to a higher level. Several non-YSC adults and one boy of 12 occasionally attended, bringing the class size up to 35.

During March, the first month of my residency, I experienced a number of academic challenges.

On a psychological level, the circumstances in which I taught at YSC differed significantly from those at my home institution, the New School University (USA). The Russian conservatory model on which YSC is based discourages risk-taking, while it emphasizes memorization and technical accuracy. Burdened with paralyzing perfectionism and a sense of musical unworthiness, YSC's Jazz students, talented as they are, are not being adequately prepared to take their place in the international Jazz community.

Moreover, the social conditions that nurture American Jazz - individual freedom of expression, political and economic stability, equal rights and access to public information - contrast markedly with those in Armenia, where entrenched authoritarianism, a dysfunctional government and economy, adherence to patriarchal traditions and widespread public corruption prevail.

In the classroom, it took some weeks for the students and me to understand each other's signals. The teaching dynamic I've cultivated over the years favors an informal, playful atmosphere underscored by rigor and focus. I've found this approach suitable for imparting the aural language of Jazz, which is individualistic and free, yet demanding of a great deal of study.

Expecting a more stern manner, however, the students initially interpreted my informality as triviality and my playfulness as frittering by talking in class, failing to turn in homework assignments, faking participation in singing exercises and avoiding taking individual solos in combo rehearsals. Soon I gave them "The Talk No One Wants To Hear" in which I called them on their infantile, unprofessional behavior and kindly but pointedly asked anyone who was not prepared to change their attitude to leave the class. Things got serious after that [fig 21].

Since at first I had no access to my teaching materials, I used handwritten assignment sheets to introduce the history, theoretical concepts and musical experience of Jazz to my students in three 2-hour classes per week [fig 22]. I also incorporated recorded examples, combo charts, live demonstration and, most importantly, ensemble performance [fig 23].

In the combo classes, I introduced arrangements of classic compositions by Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Curtis Fuller, Sonny Stitt, Bobby Timmons, Kenny Wheeler and others (published by Second Floor Music). These selections were easy enough for the YSC students to read, and challenging enough to give everyone something to chew on during their improvisations [fig 24, 25, 26, 27].

In the open jam session, attended by more advanced non-YSC musicians as well as YSC students, the combo charts served as an embarkation point for a more free-wheeling approach to solos, as well as a deeper inquiry into and discussion of elemental aspects of the music.

In the theory classes, I had to bridge the gap between Western conventions for chord symbols and harmonic analysis and the YSC students' Russian-based training. Fortunately, Matsakyan (my translator) understands both Western and Russian theoretical systems and she was able to explain these differences to the students in Armenian and Russian, as most of them do not understand English [fig 28]. Gradually, they caught on.

In ear training, I began by emphasizing Jazz rhythm and chord/scale relationships in order to build the students' set of fundamental vocal, rhythmic and aural skills. I insisted upon accuracy in singing and performing the simplest of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic examples [fig 29]. I made no distinction between vocalists and instrumentalists in the expectations I had for the group: what should be played should also be sung by all, and vice versa. The student feedback I received confirmed that this approach was working.

Later I expanded the ear training curriculum to include bass line and solo line construction, modes, chord alterations and altered scales, chord voicings for pianists and non-pianists, solo transcription, rhythmic motives and their application to soloing, singing and analyzing solos, learning the syntax of improvisation. Note for note, phrase for phrase, I stressed the importance of practice, and learning how to practice. I answered students' questions about arranging, accompanying, and a host of other music-specific and -non specific topics.

In the listening classes, I provided lead-sheets for, played recordings of and discussed excerpts from the Miles Davis Kind of Blue sessions complete with unreleased out-takes; Count Basie's cd Atomic Basie with arrangements by Neal Hefti; Duke Ellington's amazing 1956 Newport Jazz Festival performance Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue at the Newport Jazz Festival with Paul Gonsalves' 19-chorus blues solo; John Coltrane's extended recording of Impressions; Hank Mobley's momentous This I Dig Of You tenor saxophone solo, which the students memorized and sang; as well as a variety of standards and some of my own originals which I performed on piano and discussed with the class [fig 30].

Responding to the students' needs, I also offered weekly 1-hour clinics devoted to instrument-specific topics in which I encouraged an interactive dialogue and amply augmented our discourse with live demonstration at the piano and in performance with the students. The piano, wind instruments, the rhythm section, vocalists, accompanying, guitar and bass were among the areas covered. These clinics exceeded by one hour my 6-hour weekly obligation to YSC as per my Fulbright agreement.

Once the Jazz library was in place in April, I could regularly access my teaching materials and I included in my handouts to the class excerpts from Jamie Aebersold's play-alongs, Jim Snidero's Conception series, various books by Jerry Coker and lead sheets of Jazz tunes and classic standards from several fake books. I am especially gratified at the progress students made using the Aebersold book/cds, which facilitate a quick comprehension of concepts, bypass the question of "What do I practice?" and direct their energy towards developing their fundamental performing, reading and hearing skills. Now, they have enough material to work on for several years, if not a lifetime.

On May 31st, my YSC residency concluded with a spirited student performance featuring Jazz standards and original compositions by Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Elmo Hope and others in which every student improvised, many for the first time in public [fig 31]. During the second half of the concert, I led a quintet comprised of myself and four of Armenia's top Jazz musicians - Armen Husnounts, soprano saxophonist of the group Time Report; Arsen Nersesian, tenor saxophonist and leader of The Wheelers; Kolya Vardanyan, acoustic bassist; and Sash Agamyan, drummer - in a performance including several of my own works [fig 32, 33, 34]. (See below for more about Vardanyan and Agamyan.) The event was attended by 150 people and lasted three hours.

By all accounts, the residency was a resounding success. I was touched by the outpouring of sentiment from the students, faculty, parents and music community, Jazzers and non-Jazzers alike, who expressed appreciation for the meaningful work and music the students and I created together [fig 35].

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